A slew of government pronouncements on everything from strike laws to arbitration rules are helping to keep Canada’s labour and employment boutiques busy. “Every time governments make changes, that creates work for labour and employment lawyers,” says Kuretzky Vassos Henderson LLP senior partner Barry Kuretzky.
Labour-side boutiques see the attention being paid by politicians to their clients as a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, professional associations and trade unions are launching legal challenges against policies seen as threatening their members’ interests. This creates opportunities for labour and employment boutiques, especially those able to take on a slightly broader range of cases, particularly constitutional law issues.
Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre Cornish LLP, for example, has worked on denominational rights issues for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. The firm sees its wider interest in public law — several lawyers have served on major public inquiries — as an essential part of its offering to clients. Edmonton-based Neuman Thompson, which acts for employers, is also noting an uptake in constitutional work often related to public sector restructuring, says lawyer Craig Neuman, whose firm is seeing more collective bargaining work these days.
But there are also concerns political reforms could weaken a client base already hurting under the pressures brought by globalization and increasing privatization. Cavalluzzo senior partner Paul Cavalluzzo highlights “the problems trade unions are having in terms of maintaining the density of their membership” as one of the main challenges facing union-side boutiques.
Kuretzky, whose firm acts for public- and private-sector employers, agrees working in a constantly evolving arena presents challenges for a specialist boutique. “Every boutique has to keep abreast of the law and ahead of the law — we’re interested in not only what’s currently going on but where things are going,” he says.
The changing economic climate is also keeping labour and employment boutiques on their toes. A few years ago, much of the work revolved around lay offs due to the economic downturn. This is markedly different to the type of business now being chased. “Companies acquiring other companies, mergers and acquisitions — these are the issues we’re seeing now,” says Stephen Shamie, Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP’s managing partner, who also points to litigation as an expanding area.
Companies are also becoming increasingly aware of the longer-term financial challenges of growing workforces, and boutiques’ pensions teams are benefiting from the growing fear defined-benefit plans may be unsustainable. “There’s really no downturn for us,” argues Shamie.
However, there is no doubt labour and employment boutiques operate in a competitive field containing many strong and well-established players. Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP’s managing partner Paul Young says the need to stand out in a crowded market is one of the reasons his firm belongs to L&E Global, an international alliance of boutiques. “We’re able to connect clients to firms in other jurisdictions and they’re able to refer work to us,” says Young.
For many intellectual property firms, concerns pharmaceutical litigation would dry up, removing a core source of income for many, appear to be as yet unfounded. However, the type of litigation “seems to be changing in character,” says Bruce Stratton, partner at Dimock Stratton LLP.
Court fights have moved “out of the regulatory space,” towards the realm of patent enforcement, he says. Patents in general are seen as a strong area by IP boutiques. Two major patent cases in the past year, involving National Oilwell Varco Canada and Merck & Co. Inc., have helped to demonstrate “the benefits that can be unlocked by patent litigation,” says Stratton.
Joseph Ulvr, a partner at Moffat & Co./Macera & Jarzyna LLP, agrees patent law is booming, but says trademark law is experiencing “pressures.” “There are a lot more people hanging out their own shingle in the trademark area,” says Ulvr. At the other end of the scale, some larger companies are opting to bring IP in-house, he adds. Stratton echoes Ulvr’s comments about trademarks, saying they seem to be more “sensitive to price pressures.”
Despite these challenges, and against growing competition from Big Law’s IP practice groups, boutiques believe their specialist approach will continue to attract clients. “We have [lawyers] who have very considerable training, with a variety of science disciplines,” says Bereskin & Parr LLP founding partner Dan Bereskin. “A lot of our people have PhDs and science degrees,” he adds. “That’s really essential.” As science evolves and IP litigation grows more complex, having a high level of specialist knowledge will become even more crucial, believes Bereskin.
Canadian IP firms may also be well placed to soak up work from clients south of the border. “Canada and the U.S. share a long border where goods travel relatively freely between the countries,” says Ulvr. “Clients may want to take advantage of Canada’s close geographical proximity to the U.S., in terms of another potential market for their product, or idea.”
The growth of digital media is helping to turn the relatively niche area of copyright into another bright spot, according to Stratton.
In order to grasp these chances, IP boutiques will need to stay on top of a raft of legislation and international agreements set to have a major impact on their clients. These include anti-counterfeiting laws, the European Union trade agreement, and trademark consultations.
Canadian Lawyer selected Canada’s top IP and labour and employment boutiques by asking readers to rank a shortlist of notable firms in each area, and by drawing on the experience of in-house counsel and large-firm lawyers. The following results are an alphabetical list of the 10 boutique firms in each area that are rated most highly by other lawyers.