Embracing regionalism

  • Subtitle: Canadian Lawyer's top 10 firms from B.C., Alberta, and the territories are in a sweet spot right now.
Written by  Posted Date: October 1, 2012
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
In years gone by, some regional law firms were busy preening themselves in the hope of a date with an attractive large national partner. These days in western and northern Canada, they’re single and proud. There’s never been a better time to embrace regionalism, says Field Law managing partner James Casey — in-house counsel are more willing than ever to take a chance on a smaller firm, as long as it can do the job, and cut a deal price-wise. “Regional firms have a lot of momentum in the marketplace right now. They’re being recognized and embraced by clients,” he says.

The key, says Casey, is picking and choosing your areas of expertise. “You can’t compete with national and international firms in every area. We have identified certain areas where we are focusing our efforts, and where we can provide services that are as good, or better, than at larger firms, but offer them at a better price point. That’s the sweet spot regional firms seek.”

And one look at the client lists of our top 10 lends weight to the claim that western and northern regional firms are holding their own against larger rivals.

At Alexander Holburn Beaudin + Lang LLP, managing partner David Garner says the growth of referral networks across Canada and the world has helped regional players compete beyond their own borders. AHBL has embraced the concept, joining three official referral groups: The Law Firm Alliance, ARC Group Canada, and the Participating Group. “A number of our clients’ matters are international in scope, but we’ve kept those matters and those relationships because we have connections in those countries and those cities,” says Garner. “The connections are very strong, sometimes even stronger than national players, because we have more contact with firms in our networks than they have internally between regional offices.”

Farris Vaughan Wills & Murphy LLP managing partner Alan Hamilton says the firm switched its focus from national to regional about five or six years ago. Although he doesn’t rule out going national in the future, he says none of the opportunities that have presented themselves so far have been attractive enough. Instead, the firm looked inside British Columbia for growth by merger. “We thought we should get out of Vancouver if we could, and we found the ideal firm to merge with in Kelowna,” Hamilton says of its 2008 absorption of Kelowna-based Petraroia Langford LLP.

Farris has also picked up partners in Victoria as it seeks to expand its presence in the province’s capital city. “A significant number of people, including the business community in Kelowna, like to use lawyers that live, work and pay taxes in the province, so it makes sense for us to embrace this concept of regionalism,” says Hamilton.

How we did it

Canadian Lawyer asked lawyers and in-house counsel from across Canada to vote on western and northern Canada’s top full-service, regional firms. They were asked to rank their top 10 firms from a preliminary list, with a chance to nominate a firm that was not included on the list. Respondents’ rankings were based on firms’ regional service coverage, client base, notable mandates, service excellence, and legal expertise. To be considered in the vote, firms were required to have offices primarily in the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and the territories, and offer a wide range of legal services. The final rankings were determined through a points system, in which firms were rewarded on a sliding scale for the number of first to 10th place votes received. Firms’ 2010 rankings are noted in brackets.

1) LAWSON LUNDELL LLP (1) lawsonlundell.com

Total Lawyers: 104

Lawyers by office: Vancouver, 95; Calgary, 6; Yellowknife, 3

Core practice areas: Business law (including mergers and acquisitions and finance); banking; litigation and dispute resolution; natural resources and energy; commercial real estate and development

Key clients: BC Hydro; British Columbia Investment Management Corp.; Canfor Corp.; HSBC Group; Rio Tinto Group; Chevron Canada Ltd.

Notable mandates: Acting for Fulcrum Capital Partners in its acquisition of HSBC Capital (Canada) Inc.’s mid-market mezzanine lending and private equity investment operations; corporate counsel to Western Coal Corp. in its $3.3-billion acquisition by Walter Energy Inc.; advising Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. on environmental assessment and regulatory approvals for its Mary River Project in Nunavut; represents B2Gold in multiple projects in Namibia, Nicaragua, and Columbia

Star alumni: B.C. Supreme Court justices Gordon Weatherill and Gregory Bowden; B.C. Provincial Court Judge Thomas Woods; the late chief judge of the B.C. Provincial Court Hugh Stansfield; the late B.C. Court of Appeal justices Hugh Legg and Reginald Gibbs

Affiliations: World Services Group

The firm: In 1910, firm founder Jimmy Lawson was intimately involved in the industrial development of B.C. and became a specialist in company law. Oscar Lundell joined the firm in 1935, and in the 1940s and 1950s Lawson and Lundell were considered the leading lawyers to the B.C. forest industry and other resource developments. David Lawson and Buchan (Buck) McIntosh joined the firm in 1947. The firm opened an office in Yellowknife in 1994, and in 2002 merged with Yellowknife firm Gullberg Wiest MacPherson & Kay. The Calgary office opened in 1997, making it the only regional firm on the list with a presence in both Alberta and B.C.

Client service and quality personnel featured strongly in voters comments on our No. 1 firm. “Deepest regional firm from a legal talent and client roster perspective,” said one. “Stands shoulder to shoulder with national firms.”

Lawson Lundell built its reputation on a strong presence in the resource industries, according to managing partner Brian Fulton, who says the firm has been enjoying the fruits of Canada’s commodities boom over the last couple of years. “Our resource industry clients remain very active and we continue to assist them on a variety of large project development issues,” he says.

2) BULL HOUSSER & TUPPER LLP (4) bht.com

Total lawyers: 97

Lawyers by office: Vancouver, 97

Core practice areas: Aboriginal law, infrastructure and public-private partnerships; maritime and shipbuilding; natural resources; wealth preservation

Key clients: London Drugs Ltd.; Seaspan Marine Corp.; Royal Bank of Canada; Rio Tinto Alcan; BC Pavilion Corp.; TELUS

Notable mandates: Acted for Seaspan in its successful bid for $8-billion worth of contracts under the federal government’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy; counsel to the B.C. government in a mass-scale lawsuit against three tobacco manufacturers to recover health-care costs associated with smoking; owners’ counsel for the $2-billion P3 Canada Line Rapid Transit Project; represented BC Pavilion Corp. in its $800-million expansion of the Vancouver Convention Centre in time for the 2010 Olympic Games

Star alumni: Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin; B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman; B.C. Supreme Court justices Victoria Gray, Elliott Myers, Mary-Ellen Boyd, and Jeanne Watchuk; the late Victoria Cross recipient Lt.-Col. Cecil Merritt

Affiliations: State Capital Group

The firm: Founded in 1890, the firm takes pride in its work for individuals and organizations that have helped shape modern B.C. It was also the first Canadian law firm to set up shop in China.

One voter singled out the firm for its long history, and a “number of major mandates plus an outstanding group of lawyers under 40 years of age, which will ensure the continuation of the firm’s reputation.”

“There’s a mini gold rush going on in B.C.,” according to managing partner Simon Margolis, who says his firm is ready to cash in. “We’ve realized the key to success is excellence, particularly in areas that are important in this province. I think that sets us apart. . . . We’ve been around long enough to know the history, the background and the players.”

3) BURNET DUCKWORTH & PALMER LLP (2) bdplaw.com

Total lawyers: 146

Lawyers by office: Calgary, 146

Core practice areas: Energy law; securities and M&A; banking and finance; commercial transactions; employment; regulatory; intellectual property; litigation and arbitration

Key clients: A number of Canada’s largest organizations in the areas of energy, oil and gas, chemical processing, and aviation

Notable mandates: Counsel to Progress Energy Resources in its $5.8-billion acquisition by Petronas; legal adviser to the Nexen Inc. board for its proposed takeover by CNOOC Ltd.; counsel to Encana Corp. in its sale of natural gas assets to Mitsubishi for $2.9 billion; acted for Pengrowth Energy Corp. in its $1.9-billion acquisition of NAL Energy Corp.

Star alumni: Ken Stickland, chief legal officer of TransAlta Corp.; Kerry Dyte, executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary of Cenovus Energy Inc.; Associate Chief Justice of Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench John Rooke; Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Rosemary Nation; Ken Mullen, president and CEO of Savanna Energy Services Corp.

Affiliations: None

The firm: Burnet Duckworth & Palmer traces its roots to 1913, when Frank Burnet established his legal practice in a two-man firm in High River, Alta. There he developed a practice concentrated in agriculture, real estate, and oil and gas. Burnet and his partners formed an office in Calgary to better serve clients in the area, and eventually dropped the High River office. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the firm grew rapidly to 50 lawyers from five, settling on its current moniker in the early 1970s.

One lawyer who frequently ends up on the opposite side of litigation files to BDP gave the firm top marks: “Their lawyers, personnel, and organization is superior to substantially any regional and national firm operating in Alberta. Enviable but difficult to keep up with,” they wrote.

Managing partner Gary Bugeaud says the firm’s thriving securities practice is “really an extraordinary confirmation of the vibrancy of the Calgary market.”
 
He also pays tribute to senior partner James Palmer, whose philanthropic efforts across the country have earned him membership in the Order of Canada among many other honours. “Philanthropy is a part of the firm culture, and I think it’s one reason why we regularly get noticed,”
says Bugeaud.

4) FARRIS VAUGHAN WILLS & MURPHY LLP (3) farris.com

Total lawyers: 84

Lawyers by office: Vancouver, 70; Kelowna, B.C., 11; Victoria, 3

Core practice areas: Corporate-commercial law; litigation; labour and employment; tax and wealth management; family law

Key clients: MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates Ltd.; TELUS; FortisBC; TD Bank; BC Lumber Trade Council

Notable mandates: Acted for MDA in its $875-million purchase of the satellite manufacturing business of Loral Space & Communications Inc.; senior partner George Macintosh was appointed as amicus curiae to argue in the polygamy constitutional reference; represented the Vancouver Police Department and the Vancouver Police Board in the Missing Women’s Inquiry; advisers to the competitive selection process for the Port Mann/Hwy. 1 Gateway Project

Star alumni: Former chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court Donald Brenner

Affiliations: Lex Mundi

The firm: Established in 1903 by John Wallace de Beque Farris, Vancouver’s first city prosecutor who went on to act as B.C.’s attorney general and as a senator. Farris made a name for himself as one of the few western Canadians to act for clients at the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the Supreme Court of Canada. His son, John, replaced him during the 1950s and ’60s as the province’s top barrister. At the same time, partner Ernest Bull formed a potent corporate and commercial law practice.

“Local connections” and a “top-notch client base” were enough to get the firm top marks from one voter, who also went on to praise the firm for its “high performance lawyers.”

Managing partner Alan Hamilton says the firm is never content to stand still, and always looking for growth opportunities. At the moment, tax law is a big focus for recruitment. “The point is to provide support for other areas we’re involved in,” he says. “It was becoming a bit too prevalent in various sectors, like P3 and trusts and estates, so we decided to develop a tax and wealth management group, which is now very active and thriving.”

5) MCLENNAN ROSS LLP (7) mross.com

Total lawyers: 77

Lawyers by office: Edmonton, 51; Calgary, 22; Yellowknife, 4

Core practice areas: Labour and employment (including immigration); corporate commercial securities; commercial litigation (including restructuring and insolvency); insurance and risk management; energy, environmental, and regulatory

Key clients: The Dominion of Canada General Insurance Co.; Canadian Western Bank Group; Transalta Co.; Canada Safeway; Canadian Natural Resources Group; Ledcor Group of Companies

Notable mandates: Co-counsel to plaintiffs in the HMS Financial class action against lawyers and financial institutions, involving a worldwide alleged Ponzi scheme; Nunavut counsel on the $55-million purchase of mining assets by Xstrata Zinc Corp. from Sabina Gold & Silver Corp.; counsel to the Government of Alberta in joint review panel proceedings considering Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline Project; represents a major sports league in its Alberta labour relations matters

Star alumni: Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Brian O’Ferrall; Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench justices Brian Burrows, Donna Shelley, and Michelle Crighton; Alberta Provincial Court justices Michael Stevens-Guille and Frederick Day; Ledcor in-house counsel Rodney Neys; Cove Properties in-house counsel Clay Hamdon

Affiliations: Meritas Law Firms Worldwide; Canadian Association of Counsel to Employers; ARC Group Canada; Employment Law Alliance
The firm: Its origins lie in the early 20th century, when Edmonton lawyer G.E. Wallbridge began practising in 1903. Stan Ross, the first of three generations from the family, came on board before the Second World War, and by 1982, the firm settled on the name McLennan Ross after a number of amendments.

“Great lawyers, great staff, great results, modest fees,” said one succinct voter. Another said the firm has built on its core practice areas of employment law and litigation, to create “pockets of expertise in other areas of law. They have a growing list of strong clients and have positioned themselves to play a major part in Alberta’s next boom.”

“I think that we are pretty well aligned with the economy of Alberta,” says managing partner Stephen Livingstone. “We go back to when the oil sands development first started 40 years ago or so. We know the industry so well, we’re the go-to people.”

6) CLARK WILSON LLP (9) cwilson.com

Total lawyers: 78

Office: Vancouver, 78

Core practice areas: Commercial real estate; corporate finance and securities; corporate and commercial; business litigation; technology and intellectual property

Key clients: Freyssinet Canada Ltd.; Vancouver Airport Authority; University of British Columbia; HSBC Bank Canada; Cressey Development Group; Beedie Group; Google Inc.

Notable mandates: Counsel to B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in connection with the Evergreen Line, currently under construction; lead real estate and securities counsel for Pure Industrial Real Estate Trust in its public offering of over $235 million in trust units, and the $450-million acquisition of 55 industrial properties; represented Target Canada in its takeover of Zellers leases in B.C.; acted for Pure Multi-Family REIT in its $50-million IPO

Star alumni: Withheld

Affiliations: Withheld

The firm: Clark Wilson traces its origins to 1911, when John Clark and Alexander Wilson both began practising law in Vancouver. While serving together in the First World War, the pair led their regiment through a number of engagements, including the Battle of Vimy Ridge. But it wasn’t until after the Second World War, in 1952, that they amalgamated their law practices, which by then included Clark’s son and a number of other partners.

“A firm which truly walks the talk when it comes to client service, and they have some very impressive experts in their respective fields,” said one voter, while another praised their “innovative” approach to alternative fee arrangements and project management.

7) FIELD LLP (5) fieldlaw.com

Total lawyers: 115

Lawyers by office: Edmonton, 65; Calgary, 46; Yellowknife, 4

Core practice areas: Health; insurance; labour and employment; business law; real estate development; commercial litigation

Key clients: University of Alberta; Brookfield Residential (Alberta) LP.; Alberta Teachers’ Association; Alberta Health Services.; major insurance companies; major financial institutions

Notable mandates: Defence of class actions in the health-care sector; acted for the government of the Northwest Territories in its successful defence at the Supreme Court of Canada of a fatality claim arising from the death of nine miners; represented a large number of former residential schools victims in their claims; acted for the vendor in a transaction involving the sale of 120 rehabilitation and physiotherapy clinics across Canada

Star alumni: About 20 justices and judges of the courts of Alberta

Affiliations: State Capital Group

The firm: Field Law’s roots trace back to 1915, when Sem Wissler opened up shop in Edmonton. But the firm’s modern era began in 1996 with the merger of Field & Field Perraton and Atkinson Milvain to form Field Atkinson Perraton, which had a presence in Calgary and Edmonton. In 2001, the firm joined with Williams & Co. in Yellowknife, and in 2003 changed its name to Field LLP, supported by the brand name Field Law.

The firm won praise from voters for its business savvy: “It runs itself like a business and has structured management and a strategic plan,” said one voter. Another said Field Law has a “well deserved reputation of providing quality services to their clients, on a time- and cost-efficient basis.”

Managing partner James Casey says the firm sees itself as a centre of excellence in certain areas of expertise. Most recently, the focus has been on intellectual property and technology law: “We’ve had rapid growth in those areas, and acquired number of lawyers from other firms,” says Casey.

8) ALEXANDER HOLBURN BEAUDIN + LANG LLP (8) ahbl.ca

Total lawyers: 78

Office: Vancouver, 78

Core practice areas: Insurance law; commercial litigation; corporate and commercial law; banking and financial services; construction and engineering; insolvency and restructuring; intellectual property; transportation

Key clients: Regional, national and international companies in the aviation, banking and insurance industries, among others; governments and municipalities, and individuals with business interests and legal needs in B.C.

Notable mandates: Acts as counsel for the general contractor in a $300-million hotel and residence project in Vancouver; defended North Saanich councillor Peter Chandler in a defamation suit, one of the first to raise the responsible communications defence; counsel to the Toronto Airport Authority in class action litigation arising from a 2005 Air France runway overrun crash; Canadian counsel in a bi-national mass tort litigation regarding radiant heating, including involvement in negotiation of US$320-million settlement

Star alumni: Withheld

Affiliations: The Law Firm Alliance; The Participating Group; ARC Group Canada

The firm: AHBL emerged in 1973 with the merger of Robson Alexander & Guest and McLachlan Holburn & Beaudin. But the roots of predecessor firm Robson & McDonald take it back even further to 1948. Since the merger, the firm has gone through a pair of name changes, from Alexander Guest Wolfe Holburn & Beaudin LLP to Alexander Holburn Beaudin + Lang LLP.

The firm won praise from voters for its innovative lawyers and impressive litigation group. “Reasonable cost for excellent results,” commented one voter who placed it top of their list.

Managing partner David Garner says the firm has been concentrating on strategic alliances and referral networks to keep the work flowing in. He also says the firm’s commercial litigation practice is well placed to capitalize on an expected spike in activity as the economic recovery gathers pace. “People are fighting about the things they need to right now, and waiting to see which way the winds blow with the economy for a lot of other things. Once it picks up, there’s going to be a bit of a backlog to clear,” he says.

9) PARLEE MCLAWS LLP (6) parlee.com

Total lawyers: 85

Offices: Edmonton, 51; Calgary, 34

Core practice areas: Business law; commercial real estate; financial services; litigation (commercial and insurance defence) and arbitration; patent and trademark

Key clients: One of Canada’s largest oil and gas companies; international construction company; electric generation regulator; large property and casualty insurers; major property developers; one of the major grocery retailers in North America

Notable mandates: Acted for a U.S. retailer as it made the move into Canada; represented an electric generation regulator during arbitration in a $500-million dispute over contract termination and force majeure claims

Star alumni: Prime Minister R.B. Bennett; Senator James Lougheed; Alberta Attorney General John Boyle; Alberta Chief Justice Bruce Smith; former Alberta Court of Appeal justice Howard Irving

Affiliations: World Services Group

The firm: Sir James Lougheed established the Calgary office in 1883. In 1907, William McLaws joined Lougheed as partner and went on to lead the firm. S.S. Taylor established the Edmonton office in 1886, with H.H. Parlee joining the firm, then called Taylor & Boyle, in 1904. Parlee took charge of the firm when the province of Alberta was formed. The two firms merged in 1986 to form Parlee McLaws.

“High quality of work in diverse areas at a very reasonable cost,” put the firm at the top of the list of one voter, who was also struck by its “highly qualified lawyers.”

Managing partner Jerri Cairns credits strong local knowledge and deep regional roots for the firm’s success with Alberta businesses: “We’re best suited for them because we live here in the community. We know what’s going on in terms of the business environment and business atmosphere.”

10) HARPER GREY LLP (-) harpergrey.com

Total lawyers: 58

Lawyers by office: Vancouver, 58

Core practice areas: Administrative and regulatory law; insurance defence; commercial litigation, including defamation and shareholder disputes; environmental law; civil litigation, including medical defence work

Key clients: Canadian Medical Protective Association; major insurance companies and self-insured organizations; major financial institutions; securities brokerages and professionals; multinational corporations with B.C.-based litigation

Notable mandates: Represent the plaintiffs in a proposed class action against provincial law enforcement agencies regarding allegedly negligent use of breathalyzer machines; acts for hundreds of pre-sale contract holders with various condominium developments who are disputing their requirement to close under consumer protection laws; defended a law firm in a four-week hearing over enforcement of a significant contingency fee agreement; acted for a number of clients in online defamation cases

Star alumni: B.C. Court of Appeal Justice Christopher Hinkson and former Appeal Court justice Allan Thackray; B.C. Supreme Court justices Kathryn Neilson, Laura Gerow, Bruce Butler, and Peter Willcock

Affiliations: TAGLaw International

The firm: Harper Grey’s founding fathers Joseph Martin, Charles Craig, and Harry Bourne teamed up in 1907. While Martin went on to become premier of the province, the firm evolved through more than 20 rounds of mergers and expansions to become the litigation-focused force it is today.

The firm’s litigators won particular plaudits from voters, including one who said Harper Grey lawyers are “dedicated to their clients and focussed on finding and implementing practical solutions for them. The lawyers are prompt, intelligent and insightful, and provide a high level of customer service.”

Partner Richard Bereti, who sits on the firm’s executive committee, says clients are comforted by the firm’s long history in British Columbia. “We’re steeped in the region. Our connection is such that we have knowledge of not only the issue itself, but the history of the issue in the province,” he says.

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