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B.C. booms

B.C. Regional Report
|Written By Jean Sorensen
B.C. booms

Opportunities for lawyers abound in British Columbia as smaller centres attract legal talent and Vancouver continues to grow.

B.C. lawyers are looking for more than a paycheque and there’s a growing trend to look outside Vancouver for that work-life balance in places where a home mortgage doesn’t look like funding for a federal program.

“We have an overabundance of applications,” says Darren Lindsay, managing partner for Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George, the city’s largest law firm with 18 lawyers (with three articling students hired in the last two years). “It is amazing the quality and quantity of the applicants.” With a good house bought for $300,000, four different nearby ski and snowboard hills, airport, live theatre and the University of Northern B.C., the northern point is an attractive buy-in.

Retiring Prince George lawyers are also creating opportunities. The city once had 100 lawyers — including Crown counsel — but that’s down to 70 to 80 with retirements, says Lindsay, meaning there’s room to absorb that business in the city of 74,000.

“I don’t think we will grow too much larger — maybe 25,” he says, with corporate law one growth area in the northern forestry hub. First Nations work is another. HSJ handled Indian residential school settlement work and, while much of First Nations work goes through Vancouver law firms, he sees the potential for HSJ to build expertise and provide First Nations support closer to home.

In nearby Smithers, Coady MacEachern, partner in Giddings MacEachern, calls the town a “gem.” He passed through on a road trip years ago, was smitten and returned with partners to set up shop in the town where the average resident age is 39. Today, the firm has six lawyers in a staff of 15, and he’s not sure how much more he wants to grow the busy solicitor and barrister firm.

Smithers offers a ski hill, regional airport, picturesque downtown, outdoor lifestyle and good housing priced at $200,000 and diverse industry of forestry, mining and tourism.

There’s strong collegiality between law firms and lawyers, says MacEachern. With the lack of any rush-hour mentality and varied work, it all translates into a great lifestyle. “I walk to work,” he says. While smaller centres may struggle to recruit professionals, Smithers does not. “There is no shortage of doctors here,” he says, adding law firms have no problems recruiting.

Some areas, though, such as northern coastal port town Prince Rupert, struggle to get lawyers to shingle up. Economically, Prince Rupert hasn’t recovered from the 2004 pulp mill closure, a major employer, and the B.C. government-touted LNG developments haven’t materialized. Prince Rupert’s population has declined to just more than 12,000 in 2016. Sole practitioner Paul Johnston of Johnston Law says: “We need good lawyers.” He estimates there are about eight lawyers in town (counting Crown counsel), but not all are full time and retirements loom. There are wide gaps in the legal services available in the city. A few new lawyers have appeared, he says, but they are providing legal aid support out of basements. “We need lawyers who are willing to open firms.”

Meghan Wallace, located in Masset, is another lawyer who found where she wanted to live with family and then opened an office. A 2013 call, she took a break from working in Fernie and the family of three went to Haida Gwaii, drawn by its beauty and the fact that Wallace and her husband were avid surfers. The family spent three months in a beachfront cabin and vowed to return. Today, she is one of two lawyers (both women) who are based on the island serving a population of 5,000.

B.C.’s Okanagan is booming with the moneyed rush of retirees. James Paterson, managing partner for Pushor Mitchell LLP, based in Kelowna, has 35 lawyers and a staff of 90 and counting. “We have been very fortunate of late and been able to attract some top candidates,” he says, even pulling in a securities lawyer from Calgary as a result of Alberta’s slowdown. There’s no shortage of calls or articling students wanting to work in the Okanagan.

He sees changes. “The millennials are not as traditionally driven to the city [of Vancouver] as other generations,” he says, and they want a work-life balance. “The Okanagan offers a very attractive work-life balance,” he says, although the office quip is “why are we so busy?” But, when leisure time hits, the B.C. traditional vacation spot and interior B.C. town, with a population nudging 200,000, has spectacular lakes, ski hill, airport, cultural and outdoor attractions, wineries and a university campus. Housing is pricey, he says, but it still is not like Vancouver.

Another change is how lawyers view themselves. “We are very much able to specialize,” he says, adding that the firm has tax lawyers, litigation lawyers, lawyers who handle developments, corporate law, solicitors and more. That expertise, combined with today’s technologies, causes geographic boundaries to disappear. “If you are able to do the work, then you are able to get the work, even if it is in Vancouver,” says Paterson.

Sean Pihl, one of four partners in Kelowna’s Pihl Law firm, which has 30 members (eight lawyers) also sees geographic boundaries tumbling. “I have clients in the Kootenays, Prince George, Osoyoos and Salmon Arm. You can start a relationship by phone and Skype meetings. Even the courts are lending themselves to case management and trial management by phone,” he says.

The Okanagan’s influx of retirees, new businesses including a burgeoning technology sector, plus more employees transferring into the region is keeping legal business brisk with more housing developments, new business startups, medical and dental practices and new contractors. “It’s organic growth,” says Pihl.

Pihl, who joined and then became a partner in his father’s law firm, which dates back to 1972, is part of a growing trend of rural-raised lawyers returning home. Pihl looks for these candidates when hiring, saying he wants new hires with family or area connections. “That is important to us,” he says.

The interior of B.C.’s prosperity hasn’t escaped the eyes of Vancouver firms. MacLean Law, Farris, Lawson Lundell LLP, Spagnuolo Group and Young Anderson have a presence in Kelowna.

Despite more lawyers joining the population shift — Statistics Canada numbers released indicated a record number of almost 10,000 left Vancouver in 2016-2017 — Vancouver law firms thrive as 35,000 new immigrants arrived in the city during that time.

Vancouver’s legal services market has picked up considerably in the last couple of years, says Mike Race of ZSA Legal Recruitment, with all sizes of firms looking for experienced associates. “There is a real talent shortage at associate level in this city,” he says. The market is particularly tight in real estate, securities, commercial litigation and tax law.”

But, Race says, Vancouver is a double-edged sword of some of the most expensive housing prices in the country alongside lower salaries than either Toronto or Calgary. “No one moves to Vancouver anymore for lifestyle reasons,” he says. “There has to be a more compelling draw to consider moving to the city, such as returning home to family.” Even the Fraser Valley and surrounding suburbs come with trade-offs; housing is less expensive but still pricey and commuting time to downtown can be excessive.

Vancouver law firms, though, are adapting to keep good lawyers.

Boughton Law shareholder Luca Citton predicts firms will accommodate more working-at-home lawyers. “For a lot of our interviews [for new hires], we are asked the question would we be averse to that person working from home one or two days,” he says. “That is not a question we would have been asked 10 years ago.”

Dodging a long and unnecessary urban or rural commute, child-care issues or remote locations in northern B.C. make signing into the office cloud platform as effective when there’s no client to meet.

Lawson Lundell managing partner Clifford Proudfoot has also made alternative work arrangements when the firm wanted to keep a lawyer who left to live in Kamloops. The individual now travels to the Vancouver office when needed and works remotely the other days.

Both Proudfoot and Citton say they still have a good supply of resumés from new lawyers or lawyers with years of call, proof positive that large firms still have drawing cachet. “We get resumés from Toronto, Calgary, the Prairies — it is pretty steady,” says Proudfoot. The firm has just added six new partners — both associates who have grown with the firm and lateral hires.

But even large firm lawyers working large accounts want more. Corporate culture is becoming increasingly important. “Our culture is based on three things — trust, respect and teamwork — and we want to reflect in all parts of the firm,” says Proudfoot. The firm is known for building a strong diversity and inclusion program within its doors. Proudfoot believes it makes a difference when attracting new talent. The firm has 42 women lawyers in B.C., and Proudfoot tells of one instance where a woman lawyer joined after speaking with a senior woman within the firm.

Diversity is also good business. Lawson Lundell, the city’s third largest firm with 106 lawyers and corporate law the mainstay, has added its China Initiative, headed by partner Jack Yong, who assists Chinese clients in acquiring or investing in major commercial real estate deals.

 At Boughton’s 52-lawyer firm, corporate culture is also important. Citton says it is Boughton’s learning environment that attracts. Younger lawyers enter, hone legal knowledge and then after five or six years, with expertise, embark upon development as individual business centres. “We try to educate that lawyer in how to develop business, bring in business and how to develop a client base. It is a skillset.”

Citton says the ability to grow business has made the firm a regional one, moving beyond geographical boundaries. Aided by technology, it is possible to carry on corporate transactions across Canada and internationally as Vancouver is a hotbed of commercial real estate and development activity. “Commercial real estate lawyers are one of the most in demand in the city,” he says.

Residential real estate is also brisk in major B.C. centres, spurred by retirees, growing populations and immigration. It’s all good news to Metro Vancouver conveyancing lawyer Tony Spagnuolo and his group of residential real estate companies. He has 18 business outlets throughout Metro Vancouver and B.C., which collect deals and bring them to a central office.

“Business is booming — we are flying,” says Spagnuolo, who has five lawyers on staff. He’s honed efficiency into art with conveyancing software, automated accounting, emails, texting and a ratio of 10 support staff for each lawyer. The 18 offices gather work to a central office in Coquitlam where 5,500 deals churn through a year — enough to build a small town.

Spagnuolo, like other law firms, sees shortages of support staff. He’s currently working on putting together an apprentice-style course for conveyancing paralegals that move them over a 24-month training program. “Right now, training is spotty,” he says, and individuals want to be compensated for their skill levels. He’s still fine-tuning the program, but, once in place, there will be components (with evaluations) that will acknowledge both skill level and pay grade.

The rolling-boil residential real estate market shows signs of cooling. “As long they build them and sell them, we will close them,” Spagnuolo says.

British Columbia by the numbers

627        Number of new lawyers (314 men and 313 women)

11,668   Number of practising lawyers (4,574 women and 7,094 men)

1,585     Number of non-practising lawyers (656 men and 929 women)

1,041     Number of retired lawyers (261 women and 780 men)

40-54     Age group with the largest group of lawyers (2,362 men and 1,788 women),
              followed closely by the 20-39 age group

59           Percentage of lawyers in the Vancouver region

31.6       Percentage with a legal practice in civil litigation

Source: Law Society of B.C. 2016 Report on Performance

B.C.’s far north holds challenges and opportunity

When Nathan Bauder shutters his Fort Nelson office later this year, he will finish out more than a decade of serving in B.C.’s most northerly law post.

In 2004, he was drawn to a surging oil and gas sector in Fort Nelson, located on the Alaska Highway at Mile 300. “In Fort Nelson, I was the only lawyer in private practice. Times were booming. There were rewards there and opportunity,” he says. Bauder also has offices in Dawson Creek, where he is the only litigator in a town of 12,150, and Fort St. John.

Bauder, a sole practitioner, is closing Fort Nelson’s office as the energy sector has slumped in the town of 3,500. His focus on barrister work is in the other towns, although solicitor work is a small firm’s bread and butter.

The Fort Nelson office is up for grabs. “They can have it for $1 and I will give them the keys and they can take over the lease.”

He’s had articling students and young lawyers come “north” to scout the area, but unless someone comes from the area, they are unprepared for its rigours. “You can’t have a child in Fort Nelson,” he says, as there is no medical facility to handle birthing. “The North is a hard-working place with the oil and gas industry in the area. The climate can be extreme. The winter is long.

“I was raised in the North,” Bauder says, adding he looks at Prince George — 900 kilometres below Fort Nelson — as being south. Fort Nelson to Dawson is 500 km and, for years, he drove icy roads in winter before obtaining his pilot’s licence. He now flies among three points, greatly reducing his commute time.

The North’s rigours are balanced by its people, he says. “They are Indigenous people, oil and gas workers, farmers, contractors, local business people — blue-collar clients. They are straightforward. There are no surprises and you know what they want.”

Fort St. John has approximately 20 lawyers, counting Crown counsel, and lies in the Peace River region, which has almost 63,000 residents. Fort St. John lawyer Robert Zeunert says it draws those who want something different. “Living in the Mainland is a common experience,” he says. “You have to be an original to be here.”

A partner in Callison Zeunert Law Corporation, which has three practising lawyers and an articling student, Zeunert sees the Peace River area as a land of opportunity for lawyers.

“You can reinvent the practice of law,” he says as lawyers have more flexibility in the hours they work. The “old-school pyramid plan” — which saw younger associates at the bottom of the profit-sharing heap — isn’t prevalent in northern firms. “It’s more of a cost-sharing arrangement,” he says.

“There is need for more courtroom lawyers and we need more family lawyers,” he says, but the work throughout the region — reliant upon the oil and gas, agriculture and hydro-electric industries — is varied. Oil and gas work slowed, not disappeared. Debt litigation, large agricultural acreages transfer and First Nations people forming companies are a few areas in which his firm is seeing work.

“I don’t think the younger generation recognizes the opportunity that the North represents,” he says, as housing costs are $300,000 to $400,000, the rich agricultural area with sustainable and organic farming reduces living costs (fresh eggs and Mennonite sausages are delivered to Zeunert’s office), “there’s some of the best skiing in B.C.” and long summer days. Any lawyers or articling students intent on staying in the area would receive a good reception from any of the law firms in the area, Zeunert says.

For lawyers and articling students who aren’t enthralled with the run-of-the-mill, Zeunert offers the Peace River. “You are here because you know what you don’t want.”

Editor's Note: This article has been corrected as it incorrectly stated that Lawson Lundell LLP employs only 25 women.