Winnipeg: holding steady

Written by  Posted Date: March 2, 2015
Winnipeg: holding steadyOn a brisk winter morning, with the temperature a mere -20 C and rising, senior litigator Dave Hill had his day and evening mapped out, including a way to beat the elements. After a full day of work, he planned to use the enclosed downtown Skywalk, to walk from his office on Main Street to the nearby MTS Centre to watch the Winnipeg Jets play that night. “I wish we had more tickets,” says Hill, as the arena for the NHL hockey team is routinely sold out.

So too, appear to be the demands on his legal time. “The past two weeks have been the busiest in the past 40 years,” says the co-founder of Hill Sokalski Walsh Olson LLP, one of the oldest litigation boutiques in the country. “I am very bullish,” Hill replies when asked about the state of the legal profession in Winnipeg. “We are looking to expand to other areas.”

At a time when there is increased uncertainty in other parts of the country, especially where fortunes are more dependent on the state of the oil and gas sector, Hill’s enthusiasm and optimistic outlook, is shared by senior lawyers at other firms throughout the city. “The opportunities are pretty good here,” echoes Allan Fineblit, former CEO of the Law Society of Manitoba who recently joined Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP. “It tends to be steady, slow growth.”

If there is a common theme as to how the profession sees the business of law in Winnipeg, it is while there may not be the sudden booms, as in other regions, neither are there the bust periods.
The provincial economy is doing well, with a Conference Board of Canada report released in January predicting the Manitoba economy will have three-per-cent growth this year, leading the country. In contrast, Alberta could face a recession. “When you are not a ‘boom’ province, you don’t get the lows either,” says Benjamin Hecht, managing partner at Pitblado LLP.

In addition to benefiting from a healthy economy, the legal community in Winnipeg is characterized by a number of firms with longstanding ties to the city, an absence of national players, and what its members describe as a collegiality, even among competitors for legal business. “It is a relatively small community,” says James Ferguson, chairman of the executive board at Aikins MacAulay & Thorvaldson LLP. “If you are unreasonable, that reputation gets spread around a lot quicker.”

As well, the problems that law school graduates are facing in finding articles and permanent jobs in Ontario and other provinces, has for the most part, not been an issue in Winnipeg.

The legal community is well represented at city hall, with former Pitblado partner and well-known privacy lawyer Brian Bowman, being elected mayor of Winnipeg last November. Running in his first election campaign, Bowman steadily rose in the polls and on election night, ended up with nearly twice as many votes as the runner-up, long-time NDP politician Judy Wasylycia-Leis. Hecht says Pitblado was sad to lose Bowman as a lawyer, but believes the city as a whole will benefit from his enthusiasm and passion for Winnipeg. “He really believes in access and transparency.”

Just two months into his term, Bowman, who is of Métis heritage, was widely praised for his response to a recent Maclean’s cover story that suggested Winnipeg’s treatment of its aboriginal people was the worst in the country. In an emotional news conference, flanked by a number of community leaders, Bowman promised to “shine a light” on the city’s problems and not shy away from tackling the issue.

Fineblit says the legal profession, including the law society, is attempting to do its part for disadvantaged communities, with ongoing initiatives to improve access to justice. One example is the Family Law Access Centre, which provides assistance to individuals who may not be eligible for legal aid but still have a relatively low income. “This program is so important,” says Fineblit. “It provides access to people who have serious legal issues.”

At the other end of the legal profession, even if business is going well, there are still challenges for the larger firms in Winnipeg. The global economy and competition for a smaller client base than in other parts of the country, means each firm is seeking to distinguish its services. The competition may be more amiable yet carving out a new niche or building on existing strengths is always at the forefront of their operations.

One strategy that nearly every large firm is engaged in is to expand its presence in smaller communities around the province, either through technology or affiliations with local lawyers. Nearly 90 per cent of lawyers licensed to practise in Manitoba and who are residents of the province, are based in Winnipeg. The smaller markets, though, are still important, says Fineblit. “One of the things our firm has done is a series of partnerships with small regional firms. It enables them to have the support and backup of a large firm.”

Norman Snyder, managing partner at Taylor McCaffrey LLP, says his firm has for many years had a “loose affiliation” with lawyers in smaller communities. “This is an emerging trend. I think it is an opportunity, although the jury is still out on how profitable it is,” says Snyder. However, he adds there are “huge opportunities for tax and estate planning” in agricultural-driven industries, much of which is outside Winnipeg.

Dividing up estates has also led to increased litigation opportunities, says Hill. “We do more oppression cases than ever,” often related to the third generation in family run businesses in disputes over the assets.

Areas such as business immigration law are also on the rise as the population of Winnipeg becomes increasingly diverse and there are more investors from outside the country. “Business clients are looking to find workers. There is a need for immigration consultation and other legal work,” says Hecht, of the growth areas at Pitblado.

Immigration law is also a growing field at Fillmore Riley LLP, says Sofia Mirza, a partner at the firm and current president of the Manitoba Bar Association. “This is work that used to be done by a boutique. But it is critical for us as a one-stop shop.” Being able to help outside employees navigate requirements from a number of government departments is not necessarily about lower skilled workers, which has attracted the most attention in the media, says Mirza. “It can be executives and CEOs.”

The concept of a boutique within a larger firm is also cited by Snyder, in reference to the family law practice at Taylor McCaffrey. Nearly one-fifth of the more than 60 lawyers at the firm are part of its family law team. “We manage to make it profitable. Our lawyers have been good at cross-marketing,” says Snyder. “It has been driven by Jim Stoffman. He is very high profile as a matrimonial lawyer,” Snyder says, adding that it is a sign of a certain level of independence afforded to partners at the firm.

Even as the larger firms look for emerging areas in the law and in the Manitoba economy, the traditional corporate and commercial related practices are still what drive the revenues.

At Aikins, Ferguson says the firm has been part of “every major transaction” in the province in recent years. The largest firm in the city, with more than 90 lawyers, it also has the largest securities, M&A, transportation, and tax groups, says Ferguson, “and the experience that goes with it.” Within each area though, the firm still tries to create “specialty teams,” to serve its client base, he adds.

Taylor McCaffrey has “less of a focus on the institutional clients and more on mid-market firms,” says Snyder. “It was a conscious decision.”

Pitblado may offer “everything except criminal,” but “we are still a business law firm,” says Hecht. “I believe in every area, we have spectacularly qualified lawyers giving advice, for reasonable fees.”

Reasonable fees, is another common theme in the Winnipeg legal community. The salaries of lawyers, even senior counsel, may be lower than in other major Canadian cities, but so is the cost of living. Average prices for a home are about half of that in Toronto and a third of what it costs in Vancouver.

Overhead for law firms in Winnipeg is also significantly less and along with the return of the NHL to the city, there are other sources of civic pride, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. A thriving arts scene, numerous festivals, and of course, relatively short commutes to work, are all part of the quality of life benefits. “For those of us, who live in this market, we don’t want to shout too loudly to attract competitors,” jokes Fineblit.

For now, outside competitors, such as the national law firms have left the business of law in Winnipeg to the local community, andd it does not appear this is about to change in the near future. In part, the geographical location, with Winnipeg somewhat isolated, may be a barrier, as is the fact there are long-established, full-service firms in the city. The entry of national firms is “always a possibility,” says Ferguson. However, he suggests many of the clients “want a physical presence” in their legal services and there are deep business relationships that work to the benefit of local firms.

New mobility rules, along with lower legal costs, have sparked a rise in Winnipeg firms seeking to provide services outside Manitoba. “Our extra-provincial business is growing,” says Hecht at Pitblado. The mobility rule changes have also benefited Taylor McCaffrey, says Snyder. “There is now more work in other provinces. We have been successful in bidding on national contracts.
Once we are able to get a foot in the door, we get a good reaction,” says Snyder.

If other firms are not entering Manitoba, for now at least, the local firms are also not looking to expand their physical presence outside the province. Instead, it is about building from within, making efforts to adapt to the changing demographics in Manitoba and keeping legal talent in the province.

Mirza says diversity within the profession is one of the key issues before the bar association. “There is no question there is an increase in diversity. Many of the firms are looking [for lawyers that reflect these changes],” she says. At Fillmore Riley, the firm recognizes not only the social benefits of diversity, but the business ones too. “It helps draw in clients,” says Mirza.

At the University of Manitoba, the dean of the law school, Lorna Turnbull, says improving diversity is also a priority. Half of the faculty at the law school is female and there are a growing number of professors who reflect the demographics of the province, she says.

The ties between the legal community and the law school are strong and collegial, stresses Turnbull. The centralization of so much of the province’s legal community in Winnipeg, including the judiciary, has its benefits, she suggests. “There is an intellectual satisfaction and a real sense of community,” says Turnbull. “It makes Winnipeg a rewarding place to practise your craft.” Mizra agrees, “The legal community is tight knit. There is an excellent relationship between the bar and judiciary,” which includes regular meetings to discuss issues such as diversity and access to justice.

For those seeking to enter the profession, there is a much better chance of landing a job there after graduation than in some other provinces. Turnbull estimates about 90 to 95 per cent of recent graduates who are seeking to practise law, were hired by firms. “We have a vibrant, young bar,” states Fineblit, stressing that quality of life can play a major role in keeping legal talent in the province. In terms of recruiting, Snyder says while it is natural for some graduates to leave the province, the willingness to remain in Manitoba, is essential. “You want good students and you want those who are likely to stay,” he says.

Where there is agreement among the senior members of the profession in the city is that the current generation of lawyers has a different outlook on their careers. Hill says some young associates are reluctant to take a step over to a litigation boutique. “They seem to be content at the big firms,” he says. Ferguson, at Aikins, notes: “This generation, needs a lot more handholding and feedback.” He suggests firms have a role to play in rounding out their new associates. “We have to make sure we are not creating isolated people with laptops at Starbucks,” he says.

Some generational differences aside, which may not be unique to the legal profession, the legal outlook in Winnipeg is a positive one. The civic boost from having an NHL team even extends to the legal community, says Fineblit. It probably does not hurt, that unlike the team that plays its games just a short walk from the Bay Street offices of some of the country’s largest law firms, the Jets are a good bet to make the playoffs. On that winter day that Hill used the Skywalk to walk from work to the game, the Jets beat the Florida Panthers 8-2.

Winnipeg by the numbers

  • 1,706 Number of law society members in Winnipeg with active practising status.
  • 134 Number of law firms in Manitoba (not including sole practitioners).
  • 84 Percentage of firms in the province with 10 or less lawyers.
  • 3.7 Percentage of firms with 50 or more lawyers.
  • 88 Percentage of members in Manitoba who practise within the city of Winnipeg.
  • 36 Percentage of lawyers in active practice in Manitoba who are female.
  • 58 Percentage of female lawyers in private practice.
  • 72 Percentage of male lawyers in private practice.
  • $271,489 Average price of a home in Winnipeg.
  • $193,303 Annual income for the 75th percentile of lawyers in Winnipeg (as of 2010).

Sources: Law Society of Manitoba, 2014 Annual Report (data is as of Dec. 31, 2013); Canadian Real Estate Association report, December 2014; 2011 Judicial Compensation and Benefits Commission, submissions of the federal government.

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Shannon Kari

Shannon Kari is an experienced legal journalist who is currently serving as the staff writer for the Canadian Lawyer/Law Times group.

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