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In the limelight

Top 10 full-service law firms in Atlantic Canada
|Written By Andi Balla

Economic growth and development have led to an optimistic outlook among Atlantic Canada’s top 10 full-service law firms. Increased investment and development in the region mean more opportunities for all firms on this year’s list — large and small, say managing partners. The firms made this year’s list through Canadian Lawyer’s annual survey based on the votes of lawyers across Canada. To qualify, these firms needed to offer a wide range of legal services and have offices only in Atlantic Canada — New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.

When the results came in, Canadian Lawyer analyzed the data several ways and arrived at the conclusion that the top three firms on the list were not only ahead of the pack in terms of size and votes, but the results among them were too close to call. So the top three firms, Stewart McKelvey, McInnes Cooper, and Cox & Palmer share this year’s top spot. 


These three large firms are part of a trend of consolidation in the region, which has led to several mergers aimed at serving the greater business opportunities in the region. “Atlantic Canada is burgeoning with opportunity,” says Stewart McKelvey CEO John MacL. Rogers. While Bernard F. Miller, McInnes Cooper’s managing partner, says the growth is “organic and also led by finding the right people in the right cities.” 


A trend mentioned by several of the managing partners on the top 10 list is that the practice of law has become more specialized and sophisticated and at the same time clients are increasingly cost-sensitive. “Given those two factors and the fact that you can’t compromise on quality or service, that puts a premium on increased productivity,” says Daniel Gallivan, CEO at Cox & Palmer. 


Following is the list of the top 10 full-service firms in the Atlantic region.

How we did it

Canadian Lawyer asked lawyers from across Canada to vote on the top full-service firms based in the Atlantic provinces. Voters were asked to rank 10 firms from a preliminary list, with a chance to nominate a firm that was not included on the list. Respondents’ rankings were based on firms’ regional service coverage, client base, notable mandates, service excellence, and legal expertise. To be considered in the vote, firms were required to have offices only in Atlantic Canada — in one or more provinces — and offer a wide range of legal services. The final rankings were determined through a points system, in which firms were rewarded on a sliding scale for the number of first- to 10th-place votes received.


Top 3 (listed by size)

Stewart McKelvey 

Total Lawyers: 222 


Lawyers by Office: Charlottetown, 28; Fredericton, 14; Halifax, 101; Moncton, 14; Saint John, 33; St. John’s, 32


Core Practice Areas: civil litigation; commercial litigation; corporate-commercial; labour and employment; tax


Key Clients: Sobeys Group Inc.; Aviva Canada Inc.; J.D. Irving Group; Royal Bank of Canada; Emera Inc.; Allstate Insurance Co. of Canada


Notable Mandates: acted for Empire Company Ltd. in the renewal of its $350-million syndicated revolving term credit facility and for Sobeys in the establishment of a new $500-million medium-term note program; counsel for Eastern Health in Doucette v. Eastern Regional Integrated Health Authority in defence of allegations of improper quality-control measures for hormone receptor tests for breast cancer patients; acted for Emera in its acquisition of a 38-per-cent interest in Light & Power Holdings Ltd.  from Leucadia National Corp. for US$85 million 


Star Alumni: Sir Graham Day, counsel to Stewart McKelvey, recently named one of Canada’s Top 25 Most Influential in the legal profession; Tax Court of Canada Associate Chief Justice Eugene Rossiter; John MacDonell, chief of staff, Ministry of Defence; Robert Dexter, chairman, Empire Co. Ltd.; N.S. Court of Appeal Chief Justice Michael MacDonald


Affiliations: None


The Firm: In 1990, Stewart McKelvey became Atlantic Canada’s first fully regional law firm with the consolidation of four prominent firms, some dating as far back as Confederation. The firm has a reputation for understanding its clients’ business goals and objectives from a 360-degree perspective.

The growth in the economy of Atlantic Canada comes from significant project work currently underway and there is more on the horizon, says CEO John MacL. Rogers. “Our lawyers . . . have a full understanding of entrepreneurs,” says Rogers. “That means that we are in the business of law, but we are also in the business of solving business problems. We have an understanding of our clients’ business goals and objectives, and we find practical ideas that connect our clients with value. And we don’t over-lawyer.” Rogers adds the firm is able to see and identify issues and opportunities with a holistic business prospective, not just the legal side.

McInnes Cooper

Total Lawyers: 201


Lawyers by Office: New Brunswick, 62; Nova Scotia, 100; Prince Edward Island, 14; Newfoundland and Labrador, 25


Core Practice Areas: energy and natural resources; business law; litigation; employment and labour; tax; real estate


Key Clients: Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. Ltd.; Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.; St. John’s International Airport Authority; Beaverbrook Art Gallery; New Brunswick Highway Corp.


Notable Mandates: assisted Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering in a joint venture partnership with the province of Nova Scotia to manufacture wind turbines; helped the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, N.B., win a five-year dispute over 133 works of art valued at approximately $100 million; provided legal support for the growth of cranberry farms in New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and P.E.I. 


Star Alumni: Nova Scotia Court of Appeal justices Peter M.S. Bryson and Linda L. Oland; Fred Dickson, senator; Frank J. McKenna, deputy chairman, Toronto-Dominion Bank and former premier of New Brunswick; Stewart McInnes, former MP for Halifax and minister of Supply and Services and Public Works; former Nova Scotia appeal court justice A. Gordon Cooper


Affiliations: Lex Mundi 


The Firm: The product of nine mergers, the firm marked its 150th anniversary in 2009. Founded in 1859, McInnes Cooper has supported clients through nearly every major event in Atlantic Canada’s history. It acted for the White Star Line in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. When the French munitions ship Mont Blanc exploded in Halifax Harbour in 1917, McInnes Cooper was retained to represent its owners. It represented Mitsubishi, the builder of the Ocean Ranger when it capsized off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982. When Nova Scotia Power was privatized in 1993, the firm handled part of the legal work in what was at the time, the largest IPO in Canadian history. Through strategic alliances and partnerships with firms in Charlottetown, Fredericton, and St. John’s, the firm expanded its mandate to serve clients region-wide. In 2000, with the opening of the Saint John office, McInnes Cooper gained a presence in every major Atlantic Canada centre. 


“We are built on the concept of one region one firm,” says managing partner Bernard F. Miller. “In Atlantic Canada with four provinces and a diversified business sector, it is very important not only to recognize that diversity but to focus the firm on one thing — a relentless focus on client service.” Growth in the natural resources sector, energy in particular, is creating new opportunities, he adds. “We have a fairly broad spectrum of clients but we are strategic decision-makers, that we have seen in the future in the small- and medium-sized business sector that is currently very strong in Atlantic Canada. Atlantic Canada has been built on family businesses that became bigger over time.”

Cox & Palmer

Total Lawyers: 181


Lawyers By Office: Halifax, 62; St. John’s 40; New Brunswick: Fredericton, 26; Moncton, 16; Saint John, 21; P.E.I.: Alberton, 1; Charlottetown, 10; Montague, 2; Summerside, 3 


Core Practice Areas: corporate-commercial; financial services; banking and insolvency; insurance; labour and employment; litigation


Key Clients: Bell Aliant; Aviva Canada Inc.; Canadian Medical Protective Association; Husky Oil Operations Ltd.; Bank of Nova Scotia; Loblaw Companies Ltd.


Notable Mandates: counsel to Hydro-Québec on the proposed acquisition of N.B. Power; regulator, government, and partner approvals and commercial arrangements with respect to the expansion of the White Rose offshore Newfoundland and Labrador oil and gas project; counsel to Bell Aliant with respect to the structural reorganization from an income trust to a corporate entity


Star Alumni: William Cox, former president, Canadian Bar Association; John C. Crosbie, lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador; Ian M. MacKeigan, former chief justice of Nova Scotia; Clyde Wells, former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador; M. Douglas Young, former federal cabinet minister


Affiliations: World Services Group; Risk Management Counsel of Canada


The Firm: Cox & Palmer was formed in January 2007 as the result of a merger between Cox Hanson O’Reilly Matheson and Patterson Palmer. The merger created one of the largest full-service firms in the Atlantic region with roots tracing back over 100 years. With nine offices, Cox & Palmer services local, national, and international clients including a significant francophone client base.


CEO Daniel Gallivan says the market is becoming increasingly sophisticated. “We are finding that there is no shortage of career challenges. It’s also a smaller market so there is increased familiarity as you can end up working on transactions with the same number of people, which makes it nice.”  He says the firm has an uncompromising commitment to service, including conducting client interviews to see if it is meeting client expectations.


He says the firm invests a lot of time in its work culture, which is why it is recognized as one of the best places to work in Atlantic Canada. “One of the barometers of success is our recruitment. We have hundreds and hundreds of applications each year for a handful of positions. And that tells me we are doing something right.”


4. Barry Spalding

Total Lawyers: 27


Lawyers By Office: Saint John, 21; Moncton, 6


Core Practice Areas: insurance and personal injury; corporate-commercial; construction law; administrative and regulatory law


Key Clients: major corporate entities in sectors such as insurance, energy, mining, consumer products, aquaculture, and professional services


Notable Mandates: lead counsel in defending three tobacco companies in product liability litigation commenced in New Brunswick; local counsel to the province of New Brunswick in relation to N.B. Power’s estimated $4-billion asset sale to Hydro-Québec; New Brunswick counsel for Emera Inc. with respect to its $300-million New Brunswick natural gas pipeline installation project


Star Alumni: New Brunswick Court of Appeal Justice J.C. Marc Richard; David Barry, chairman and CEO, New Brunswick Securities Commission; Cyril Johnston, vice chairman, New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board


Affiliations: Meritas, the ARC Group Canada Inc.


The Firm: Established in 1981 and merged with White Debow Johnston in 2001. Barry Spalding is one of the most respected law firms in New Brunswick. It provides a full range of bilingual legal services and expertise to clients in Atlantic Canada and beyond. Over the past decade, the firm has developed a significant expertise in the energy sector having represented clients in the natural gas and pipeline sectors with business transactions and regulatory proceedings.


Don Keenan, Barry Spalding’s managing partner, says things have been good at the firm of late. He adds, “We have a diverse group with a wide range of experiences, we have great litigators and great corporate commercial lawyers. And we are able to provide a full range of service to our clients. We are not the 200-person law firm. We are a small, fairly close group and I think that translates [in] how we serve the clients. We tend to know the clients of the firms just because of the size of the firm.” Keenan says the firm’s strength lies in its size. “It does seem that firms like ours seem to be disappearing. The larger firms seem to be getting larger. But the big change for us was adding a few experienced corporate lawyers . . . which allows us to compete for some of the larger work which we might otherwise not have. We are now in a much better position to compete.”

5. Wickwire Holm

Total Lawyers: 20


Office: Halifax


Core Practice Areas: banking and finance; corporate structures and transactions; labour and employment; insolvency and restructuring; tax and wealth management; energy; environment; construction law; commercial litigation


Key Clients: Pharmasave Drugs (Atlantic) Ltd.; Toronto-Dominion Bank; Efficiency Nova Scotia Corp.; XL Insurance; Royal Bank of Canada


Notable Mandates: retained by a local First Nation community in a complex multimillion-dollar environmental legal action against the province of Nova Scotia and a U.S.-based pulp company; extensive involvement in the development and financing of various renewable energy projects and facilities, including the largest wind power project in Nova Scotia and the only liquefied natural gas development in Nova Scotia; also represented one of the parties involved in the Bay of Fundy tidal power demonstration project currently being developed jointly by the federal, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia governments


Star Alumni: former Nova Scotia Court of Appeal judges J.E. (Ted) Flinn and Doane Hallett; Russell MacLellan, former MP and premier of Nova Scotia; Ted Wickwire, former president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society who helped develop the Nova Scotia legal ethics handbook


Affiliations: State Capital Group; Meritas Law Firms Worldwide


The Firm: Wickwire Holm focuses on providing legal services to business and institutional clients. The firm considers clients as partners and its professional staff is committed to providing legal services of the highest quality in a timely and cost-effective manner. The firm says the cornerstones of successful partnerships are responsibility, accountability, and effective communication. 


James Boudreau, a member of the firm’s managing committee, says the firm’s strength is its independence. “The trend towards regionalization of law firms has positioned us as a strong and viable alternative for first-rate and conflict-free service,” he says. There is also a continuing strong economy. “We are still seeing significant growth in commercial and residential construction. We are also delighted with what we see as a trend by large institutional clients to seek out the smaller independent firms to address their legal needs.”

6. Boyne Clarke LLP

Total Lawyers: 43 


Office: Dartmouth, N.S.


Core Practice Areas: business law; employment law; litigation; real estate; wills, estates, and trusts


Key Clients: Ocean Contractors Ltd.; Canadian National Railway Co.; Doctors Nova Scotia (Medical Society of Nova Scotia); CBC/Radio-Canada; Cresco Developments Ltd.


Notable Mandates: acting on behalf of National Bank Financial Ltd. with respect to ongoing litigation on the Knowledge House matter; acting for King’s Wharf, which has now begun construction of the largest commercial and residential project on Halifax Harbour


Star Alumni: Dereck M. Jones, former vice president and general counsel at BMO; Michael F. LeBlanc, senior vice president, First Canadian Title Co.; Brian Crocker, former secretary and general counsel, Dalhousie University; the late James L. Connors, vice president and general counsel, Emera Energy; Supreme Court of Nova Scotia Justice Moira C. Legere-Sers


Affiliations: TAGLaw; Greater Halifax Partnership 


The Firm: In 1972, a small group of lawyers, Thomas O. Boyne, Brian Crocker, and Dereck M. Jones, went out on their own rather than join one of the large established Halifax firms. In 1981, the firm merged with the Dartmouth office of Claman Dietrich Clark Bright & Clarke to form Boyne Clarke. One of the founders of the original firm, Boyne, practises corporate-commercial and insolvency law at Boyne Clarke LLP today. A blend of personal, business, and institutional lawyers, the firm is the largest law firm in Dartmouth, and the fourth largest in Atlantic Canada.


Managing partner John A. Young says every lawyer in the firm has a very specialized practice. “It has allowed people to focus on a more specific skill set that allows us to compete at a higher level,” he says. “We also emphasize personal service, we answer our own phone, we deal directly with our clients.” That’s part of the firm’s strategy since it deals with a lot of individuals and small businesses rather than large institutions. One of the challenges the firm is trying to take on is finding out how to successfully integrate more women lawyers in private practice. “Although law firms are dealing better with the issue, we still have a way to go,” says Young.


7. Patterson Law

Total Lawyers: 32


Lawyers by Office: Truro, N.S., 20; Halifax, 12


Core Practice Areas: corporate-commercial; tax; litigation; property; family and child protection; employment and labour


Key Clients: Canadian National Railway Co.; Stanfield’s Ltd.; CBCL Ltd.; Scotsburn Dairy Group; Wagner Forest Products; N.S. counsel for several insurance companies


Notable Mandates: Canadian National Railway Co. retained the firm to defend against a class action proceeding alleging environmental liability related to Sydney Tar Ponds and Coke Ovens; represented Wagner Forest in the largest land purchase in the history of Nova Scotia; in Kings Mutual Insurance Co. v. Ackermann, represented a local farmer in a winning action against Kings Mutual when the insurer denied the insurance benefit sought after Hurricane Juan


Star Alumni: former premier Robert L. Stanfield; former premier and senator George Isaac (G.I.) Smith; former N.S. Court of Appeal justice Kenneth Matthews; former N.S. Supreme Court justice William J. Grant; N.S. Court of Appeal Justice Jamie W.S. Saunders


Affiliations: None


The Firm: In 1928, a Truro law firm was established which ultimately became Patterson Smith Matthews & Grant, a firm with a provincewide practice. In 1986, a merger with Kitz Matheson created Patterson Kitz, and in 1995, Patterson Kitz merged with three other firms from Atlantic Canada to become the regional firm Patterson Palmer Hunt Murphy (PPHM). In 2006, Patterson Law emerged with offices in Halifax and Truro after dissolution of PPHM. In 2008, Harris Neonakis, a tax boutique, merged with Patterson Law.


Dennis J. James, the co-managing partner at Patterson Law, says, “In 2006, we made a decision to remain a Nova Scotia-based firm and not to continue to remain a part of a larger regional partnership, largely due to our fidelity to our base, and we demonstrated we could be successful at that. Our evolution as a Nova Scotia firm makes Patterson Law unique in the marketplace.” He adds that working with clients that are medium or small businesses is rewarding and challenging at the same time. “We understand the pressures of the economy.”

8. Ottenheimer Baker

Total Lawyers: 21


Office: St. John’s


Core Practice Areas: commercial and civil litigation; corporate-commercial; labour and employment; real property; natural resources law


Key Clients: Bank of Montreal; Government of Newfoundland and Labrador (Department of Natural Resources); Altius Minerals; Loblaw; Fairmont Hotels


Notable Mandates: worked with the government of Newfoundland and Labrador on the negotiation and preparation of royalty agreements for the development of Hibernia South, White Rose, and Hebron offshore oilfields; worked on the Cameron Inquiry (Eastern Health), appeared and provided advice with respect to ER/PR Inquiry; appeared and provided advice with respect to the inquiry into Cougar helicopter crash


Star Alumni: William Marshall, former deputy premier, cabinet minister, and Court of Appeal judge; Chief Justice of Newfoundland and Labrador J. Derek Green; N.L. Court of Appeal Justice Charlie White; senator Gerald Ottenheimer; N.L. Supreme Court Justice Raymond P. Whalen


Affiliations: Meritas Law Firms Worldwide


The Firm: Founded in 1972 as Marshall and White, Ottenheimer Baker has provided legal services to corporate and private clients in Newfoundland and Labrador for over 38 years. It evolved from an early focus on banking, corporate-commercial, and property law to a full-service firm.


William C. Boyd, who heads Ottenheimer Baker’s managing committee, says these are exciting times for the province. “There is an enthusiasm in the business community,” he says. “The investment in residential and commercial development creates opportunity.” That’s because the focus in offshore development has brought in more businesses in the area, which also translates to more opportunities for law firms. On a personal note, Boyd says many partners are graduates of Dalhousie University and follow the law school’s Weldon tradition of maintaining open-door access.

9. Burchells LLP

Total Lawyers: 24


Office: Halifax


Core Practice Areas: commercial litigation; insurance defence; aboriginal; corporate-commercial; administrative law


Key Clients: Bank of Montreal; TD Canada Trust; Economical Insurance Royal and Sun Alliance; Lawyers’ Insurance Association of Nova Scotia; Trustees of the NSAHO LTD Plan Trust Fund


Notable Mandates: represented Sonco Gaming New Brunswick Ltd.; partnership in the negotiation of agreements for Casino New Brunswick; represented the Mi’gmawei Mawiomi and the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council before the Supreme Court of Canada in the companion cases of Sappier Polchies and Darrel Grey


Star Alumni: Supreme Court of Nova Scotia Justice David MacAdam; Federal Court Justice Robert Barnes
Affiliations: The ARC Group Canada


The Firm: The firm started operations in Halifax in 1912 with the original members being A.K. MacLean, C.J. Burchell, and J.L. Ralston. By 1926, with the addition of new partners, the firm name became Burchell Smith Parker and Fogo. The firm is unique due to having “the largest aboriginal law practice in Eastern Canada, which mixes well with our general client base which is corporate commercial litigation. More and more, aboriginal work isn’t simply dealing with land claims or interaction with government but also assisting them with their own corporate endeavours,” he says. 

10. Benson•Myles PLC Inc.

Total Lawyers: 16


Office: St. John’s


Core Practice Areas: real estate; general litigation; insurance; corporate-commercial; labour and employment


Key Clients: some of the larger commercial and residential developers; a large number of insurance companies; a chartered bank and a number of other financial institutions; a large number of small- to medium-size businesses and several health-care institutions and facilities; health-related professional regulatory and disciplinary bodies


Notable Mandates: represented Persona Inc., Canada’s sixth-largest cable operator, in an ongoing private transaction valued at approximately $406 million; International Royalty Corp. in connection with the acquisition of a stake in the Voisey’s Bay nickel-copper-cobalt project and a related IPO and unit offering; the dominant cable operator and a telecommunications service provider in Trinidad and Tobago in a US$120-million refinancing with an international syndicate of lenders; and the Barbados-based borrowers of US$100 million in secured financing


Star Alumni: N.L. Supreme Court Chief Justice David Orsborn; former N.L. Supreme Court justice H. James Puddester


Affiliations: State Capital Global Law Firm Group; Canadian Litigation Counsel


The Firm: Benson•Myles PLC Inc. was originally formed in 1980 by two lawyers, H. James Puddester and David Orsborn. Throughout the 1980s, the firm enjoyed rapid growth and expansion of its practice. A merger in 1980 with Mercer Buffett McLaughlin LLP followed by a merger with Fowler Pike & Madden LLP in 1991 provided further growth. 


Gary F. Peddle, chairman of the firm’s management committee, says Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy wasn’t really affected by the worldwide recession. “Out of all the provinces, ours has the brightest future and the greatest outlook for prosperity,” he says. With that he notes “there is an increase in the complexity of transactions, and we find clients are becoming more sophisticated.”


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