Legal report: Bigger is better for labour and employment law boutiquesWritten by Judy Van Rhijn Posted Date: August 07, 2007
When you talk to lawyers who work in a boutique, you will always hear them boasting about the advantages of being small. When you talk to lawyers at a labour and employment (L & E) boutique, you’ll hear a great deal of boasting about being big. Almost all the major boutiques are the biggest in their region, with active plans to grow and grow.
Everyone knows the benefits of being a smaller-size firm: lower overheads, less hierarchy, the ease of consensus, and the lack of conflict. Boutiques add the competitive advantages of specialization. However, with labour and employment law, if they are specialized enough, it doesn’t seem to matter how big the firms get, they retain all those advantages.
The biggest L & E boutique in Canada is Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP of Ontario. It started with seven lawyers, but now has 95 lawyers in five locations across the province. While some lawyers question whether Hicks Morley can still call itself a boutique, managing partner Stephen Shamie has no doubts. “We are certainly not a full-service firm. We are specialized in anything relating to labour and employment.”
Eric Harris, of Harris & Company in Vancouver, believes it is the nature of the work that distinguishes L & E boutiques from other legal boutiques. “Occasionally, a very, very serious case comes up that requires as many as 10 lawyers to be involved in the required court applications,” he explains. “The pride in size that you see reflects an underlying pride in their ability to respond on short notice to something large and complex.”
Most of the boutiques started with modest numbers of lawyers and gradually grew to have bench strength around the 20s and 30s. Pink Breen Larkin in Halifax and Fredericton, which assists trade unions in representing their members, started with four lawyers in 1989 and has gradually grown to 16 lawyers. Emond Harnden LLP in Ottawa is up to 19 and Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP is celebrating its 25th anniversary with over 30 lawyers in their Toronto and London, Ont., offices.
Roper Greyell LLP of Vancouver deliberately built up its size through a July 2006 merger with the B.C. labour practice from Ogilvy Renault. “There were a thousand reasons why we did it,” says Duncan MacPhail, the managing partner of the new group. “The resulting group [of 20 lawyers] is attractive to clients with large and sophisticated files. It gives us an enhanced competitive position because we have a broader pool of legal talent and more depth.”
Murray McGown of McGown Johnson in Calgary suspects most firms that represent the management community are breakaways from big firms, while firms that represent employees and trade unions develop more organically. Strangely, in contrast to this observation, McGown Johnson is an employee-side firm that formed when a larger firm disintegrated in 1982.
McGown and his partner have deliberately chosen to remain near their initial roster of two or three lawyers. “We have hired a very professional office manager, the sort you would find in a big firm, who gives us cost and organizational advantages. We want to be a small but highly mobile niche player. It works for us.”