When Frank McKenna was premier of New Brunswick he delivered one consistent message to the world, and he delivered it often: New Brunswick is open for business.
The word, it seems, has gotten out.
Other business opportunities are opening up, especially in the natural resources sector. Indeed, says Paul Smith, a partner with Stewart McKelvey in Saint John, “the strongest force shaping or affecting the practice here is the impact that the growth of New Brunswick as the energy hub for northeast North America is having and will have on the demand for legal services.”
Several major projects are in the works that will rely heavily on the expertise of the legal community every step of the way. These include the Point Lepreau generating station refurbishment project, the first complete overhaul of a CANDU 6 nuclear reactor in the world, which is forecast to extend the life of the station for at least another 25 years at a cost of more than $1 billion. Plans are also well underway for construction of a second Irving Oil refinery in the province, designed to pump out 300,000 barrels a day. The current engineering, design, and feasibility phase alone represents over $100 million of investment.
All of which spells good news for law firms, especially the three that dominate the region: Cox & Palmer, McInnes Cooper, and Stewart McKelvey. “Regionalization and the growth of the three Atlantic regional firms is a major consideration in the evolution of legal practice in New Brunswick,” notes Philip Bryden, dean of law at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. “The Cox Hanson/Patterson Palmer merger was particularly significant in New Brunswick because Cox & Palmer emerged as the largest of the three regionals in New Brunswick, though not across Atlantic Canada,” he adds.
Not surprisingly, the big firms tend to scoop up the big business, which includes multinational companies like Irving Oil and McCain Foods Ltd. However, much of the business in New Brunswick is small- and medium-sized companies. And much of it is rural. As a result, says Stéphane Viola, a partner with Bossé Viola LeBlanc in Moncton, “there’s a change in the way lawyers are practising. It’s either the big box type of firm or the boutique firm.” That transformation is relatively new, says Smith. “When we formed Stewart McKelvey almost 18 years ago, the legal market was characterized by a relatively large number of prominent smaller-sized firms. In the years since, newer regional firms have formed and consolidated and, other than some smaller firms that occupy certain fields of expertise, the position of the smaller firms in New Brunswick seems to have diminished.”
Like elsewhere in Canada, many small firms in New Brunswick are struggling. “Some of the smaller firms continue to be successful, but it’s tough for them to attract larger institutional clients and the question is whether there is enough work from individuals and smaller businesses to sustain mid-size firms,” says Bryden. “My impression as well is that fewer lawyers want to live in small communities and serve the individuals and small business clients in those communities,” he adds. “So lawyers from Fredericton tell me that they are doing work in small communities, such as Woodstock or Doaktown or even Miramichi, that might once have been done by a local lawyer.”
The rural exodus is also being driven by government legislation, in particular insurance reform, which includes a payment cap on minor injuries. “It makes it difficult for a small practice,” says Viola. “That has been quite a big hit.” Forestell agrees. “The firms that do insurance defence have also seen a decrease. That primarily affects junior lawyers. While they still have work, they’re not flat out like they were before the cap.”
The hit, says Forestell, could go well beyond where lawyers locate. “There could be problems for access to justice in smaller communities if they lose their lawyers.
There are clearly three major, and distinct, legal centres in the province: Fredericton, Saint John, and Moncton. “Here there is a more dispersed practice,” says Miller. “You know each other well within the three centres,” he adds, “but day to day you don’t usually interact with other centres.” That is not to imply any lack of collegiality. In fact, quite the opposite. “It’s a small province. Everybody knows everybody. There’s a spirit of co-operation,” says Viola. “I’ve never felt there was competition per se,” he adds. “We’ve never tried to get business at the detriment of our colleagues.”
Smith says: “We like to say that practising law in New Brunswick offers a better quality of life. I think that is sometimes taken to mean that we don’t work as hard as lawyers elsewhere in the country, and while I can’t speak for other firms, my experience is that at Stewart McKelvey we work as hard and on as interesting of files as lawyers at any large firm. The difference is that we can have a practice that satisfies our need for high quality work but without some of the downside of working in a large centre.”
That better quality of life spans two cultures and includes two languages. As Canada’s only officially bilingual province, New Brunswick is home to both English- and French-speaking lawyers and their clients. “Being bilingual is a definite asset,” says Miller. “Business can be conducted in English or French.” Bryden notes: “There are more clients who want their legal work done in French than in other parts of Atlantic Canada. Much legal work is still done in English, especially in Saint John, but there is a demand for bilingual lawyers not only in Moncton but in Fredericton, and to some extent in Saint John as well. Bilingualism in New Brunswick is a source of cultural diversity and distinctiveness, and therefore a source of strength,” he adds, “but it’s also the case that serving both the anglophone and francophone linguistic communities presents significant challenges for government.” And law firms.
In either language, the road ahead looks promising. It pales in comparison to Newfoundland and Labrador, which has now uncorked enough natural resource wealth to remove itself from “have-not” status, and the province does not have the centralized strength of neighbouring Nova Scotia, whose capital city is a beacon of business for the entire region. But there are signs of strength. Some of those come in the form of mega-projects with big budgets, big timelines, and big reach. Many, however, are more on the slow-but-sure path.
Like the provincial economy itself. Overall, says Finance Minister Victor Boudreau, New Brunswick’s economic growth in 2008 is anticipated to be moderate, but remain healthy, supported primarily by capital investment and strong world demand for mineral products. Moderate growth and a slower path is not a bad road to travel, says Bryden. “I believe there are reasons to be optimistic about New Brunswick’s future and the future of the legal profession in the province, but I don’t think there are a lot of easy roads to success in this province over the next few years.
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he adds, “because having to work hard for success can make it a lot more satisfying when it comes.”