Making connectionsWritten by Judy Van Rhijn Posted Date: February 3, 2009
Whether riding out the depression of the 1930s or the current economic downturn, many of the cities of southwestern Ontario hold their own because they are not dependent on one industry, a fact not lost on local law firms. A rash of mergers and moves in the last decade has now settled down and firms are well-positioned to service the remarkable growth which is still continuing.
The bottom corner of Ontario may be lake-locked in geography but it is stereotype-free in its culture and economy. While the physical landscape is dominated by the Niagara Escarpment, stretching like a long backbone from Tobermory in the northwest to Niagara Falls in the southeast, the legal landscape is dominated by local offices of national law firms that have recently moved in.
Generally, they have merged with an established local firm to obtain a base, and then fostered further expansion by acquiring practice groups from other firms, moving lawyers down from Toronto and harvesting graduates from law schools in London and Windsor.
Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, Miller Thomson LLP, and Borden Ladner Gervais LLP are national firms with local offices. Lerners, Siskinds, Ross & McBride, Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP, Hicks Morley, and Bereskin & Parr have Toronto offices and a southwestern Ontario presence.
They compete, and sometimes partner with a swathe of local mid-sized firms, usually in the 10- to 30-lawyer range, although Harrison Pensa in London has amassed a professional staff of over 50 lawyers. In addition there are boutiques and small and sole practitioners in abundance in every major centre.
The first large centre you encounter as you move west from Toronto is Guelph, an attractive tree-lined city dominated by a large cathedral and one of the best universities in Canada. Smith Valeriote Law Firm LLP, the largest locally owned firm in Guelph, was formed in 1999 through a merger of two local firms. Partners Diana Piccoli and Mark Rodenburg point out that Guelph has such a diverse cultural and economic base that it has often been used as a test city for government initiatives.
“As well as its strength in [the] agricultural industry, Guelph has a lot of builder/developer work,” says Piccoli. “There is a huge manufacturing base as well as agricultural industry [off-shoots].” If that range of work is not enough, Guelph is also close enough, and has low enough fees, to capture work from the Toronto area. “They get the same service in Guelph but there is a big difference in the hourly rate,” says Rodenburg.
Things get more industrial as you move southwest to Kitchener/Waterloo. Bruce Lee, a partner at Giffen Lee LLP, one of the largest locally owned multi-service firms, describes it as an industrial community with many private business corporations and family-owned businesses. “There is a typical commercial base and then there is the high-tech industry. It centres around the University of Waterloo, where many students have become graduates and stayed.”
It was the high-tech industry that attracted Gowlings to set up an office in Kitchener/Waterloo. In 1986, it merged with a local firm of 44 lawyers — Simmons Siber Jenkins. “The attraction was the growing technology market,” says John Doherty, managing partner of the Waterloo regional office where intellectual property is a key aspect of the practice.
“The merger helped us get a foothold in that market. Our range of services runs the gamut of the needs of a company from start up.” Doherty comments on the diverse and entrepreneurial spirit of the Waterloo business community. “It’s part of the DNA of Waterloo region’s culture. From the Schneiders to the RIMs and the Sandvines, there’s a growing and thriving cluster.”
Richard Trafford, managing partner of Miller Thomson for southwestern Ontario, is a veteran of what was the oldest local firm in Kitchener/Waterloo. “Sims Clement Eastman had a direct lineage back to 1858,” he says. “At the time when we were approached by Miller Thomson in 2002, a great many of our clients were slowly but surely moving to the national stage, and we felt we had to do the same thing to maintain and grow our client base.”
Trafford says he feels this reality was very much a product of the area, which has been growing rapidly. “My office has doubled in size since then. In 2003, we merged with Kearns McKinnon, a firm with about 105 years of history in Guelph, and that office has also grown substantially. In 2006, a London office was added when the partners and associates of McCarthy [Tétrault LLP] came over.”
Trafford feels that other business decisions have impacted positively on the growth of the firm in the region. “Sims operated in the heart of Kitchener but we have moved to the Accelerator Centre in the University of Waterloo Research Park. The first floor is tenanted by businesses in their infancy — start-ups that are being incubated. The second floor has the master’s and bachelor degrees of business entrepreneurialism, and we occupy the third floor. There has been a tremendous amount of high-tech activity north of Research Park and the move has been very positive for us.”