Skip to content

St. John’s city review

Where legal tradition and changing practices meet
|Written By Donalee Moulton

Change is central to the practice of law, and perhaps nowhere has that change been as dramatically felt as in Canada’s youngest province. In the last few years, Newfoundland and Labrador has gone from being one of the country’s poorest provinces to one of its richest.

That dramatic shift from “have-not” to “have” has had a direct and noticeable impact on lawyers in St. John’s, their practices, and the community in which they live. At the same time, being a lawyer in St. John’s has remained, comfortably, the same.

“The biggest change in the last 30 years is the emergence of the offshore oil industry,” says Alexander (Sandy) MacDonald, a partner in the St. John’s office of Cox & Palmer whose practice focuses on offshore natural resources and energy. The numbers attest to just how significant that change is. “Just under 50 per cent of Canada’s light crude oil is in Newfoundland, and 35 per cent of Newfoundland’s gross domestic product comes from oil,” says Jim Thistle, a partner with McInnes Cooper in St. John’s who practises primarily in public law litigation and resource development.

That impact is being felt with only three fields in production: Hibernia, Terra Nova, and White Rose, which earlier this year pumped out the province’s one billionth barrel of oil. Next up, the Hebron oil field. Last summer, the province signed a formal agreement with the Hebron consortium to develop this field, which is estimated to contain more than 581 million barrels of recoverable reserves.

Then there is the mining sector, which includes nickel, iron ore, copper, and zinc. In 2008, mineral shipments totalled $4.7 billion, an increase of 22.2 per cent over the previous year, and employment in the sector totalled 4,000 person years. What is good for the Newfoundland economy is good for the practice of law in St. John’s. “We still do many of the same things, but they seem to be bigger,” says Dan Boone, regional managing partner for Newfoundland with Stewart McKelvey. “From a legal work perspective,” notes Thistle, “what is different here is the extent to which the economy is driven by these [natural resources] sectors. They’re just bloody huge.”

With increased growth, comes a demand for more legal services, and the presence of more lawyers doing business in the oldest European settlement in North America. “We’re seeing more specialization. . . . Before, most lawyers in St. John’s were generalists whether they were in a large firm or a small firm,” says Boone. “When I first started, there were lawyers who did criminal work, lawyers who did family work, and lawyers who did everything else. Now there is almost enough work in every area [of specialization].”

The development of specialized legal services is now an accepted part of the legal landscape, particularly for younger lawyers. The change has become a constant. “In my practice, the level of work has stayed constant since I was called, and I have not noticed any decrease in civil litigation, real estate, or family other than the normal ebbs and flows of private practice,” says Cheryl Mullett, a seven-year associate with Curtis Dawe, a primarily civil litigation firm. “I have noticed, an increase in associates moving out of private practice and into the private sector or government in-house positions. For example, of the lawyers that were called to the bar with me, there are only a few of us left in private practice.”

This may reflect much healthier government coffers and a need for more lawyers in the public sector. The private bar is also enjoying fatter paycheques. “Hourly rates are starting to move up,” says MacDonald. It is, he notes, “a reflection of the new prosperity.”

Another reflection of the prosperous legal terrain: the presence of more lawyers doing business in the capital city. “We see a lot of lawyers from out of town,” says Boone. “It shows we’ve arrived.”

With that arrival comes a more varied list of essential services. “The work you have to do requires more time acting as an intermediary between companies and the local legal regime,” says Thistle. For example, companies often arrive in St. John’s unfamiliar with such important issues as mechanics lien requirements. “It can shift your economies pretty quickly.”

These new enterprises also have a need for services that at one time might not have been on the roster of services provided by most lawyers. “There is definitely growth in new specialization areas such as intellectual property, resource law, and even family law,” says Boone. “We are starting to see more and more people who define themselves this way.”

That definition defies the image of the Newfoundlander popularized across Canada. “There’s great legal talent in Newfoundland by national and international [standards],” says MacDonald. “The stereotype of the Newfoundlander is rapidly disappearing. Lawyers here are as good as anywhere else in the world.”

Indeed, says Mullett, “I think people from other jurisdictions would be surprised to know the diversity of litigation that takes place here and the high quality of legal expertise. It is a great place for a young lawyer to develop a plethora of legal skills and participate first hand in high-level litigation,” she adds.

What hasn’t changed: the renowned Newfoundland warmth and friendliness. “There is a sense here of how you practise law that requires a greater degree of polite professionalism,” says Thistle. Boone agrees. “Lawyers in St. John’s are really, I do believe, just nicer to each other and more courteous and more accommodating. . . . It’s just the way we are.”

Part of that tradition of niceness can be traced back to the size of the profession in Newfoundland: it’s small and familiar. “In Newfoundland, you still ask, ‘So who is your grandfather?’” says MacDonald. “It is unusual not to have a family connection, which means you automatically have a connection to the community. It’s the glory of Newfoundland, and it’s also a curse.”

A smaller bar also means a greater likelihood of running into one another, routinely. “You will end up in court against people on a regular basis. You can also end up on the same side — in all circumstances treating everyone with an upfront and honest approach,” says Thistle. Your survival as a lawyer depends on it. “When you’re practising in this province, reputation goes a long way,” says Mullett. “It is very important to maintain a professional working relationship with other lawyers and with the judiciary.”

However, she notes, there are disadvantages. “One of the drawbacks of being a smaller bar is that there are hierarchal and patriarchal structures within the private bar that are difficult to change, especially as a young lawyer and a young female lawyer. There is certainly a place for new and innovative ideas within private practice.” What is also missing  —  a common thread. The single biggest difference between St. John’s, which was founded on the feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 1497, and most other major centres in Canada is the absence of a law school. That absence is noteworthy, says Thistle. “There really isn’t a home team. There isn’t a culture  that is set from your law school days. In other provinces,” he adds, “there is a common history. There is a degree of envy for that.”

On the other hand, the pace of practice in St. John’s is the envy of many lawyers in larger cities. “I have a horrible commute to work. I don’t get to listen to a full song,” says Boone. “You can have a really interesting practice here and still get home for supper.” In fact, says Mullett, many lawyers outside St. John’s would be “surprised that many of my colleagues go home everyday for lunch.” Many of them also head to the Duke of Duckworth, a popular pub in the heart of St. John’s every Friday for a brew and breather.

Today, there is much to celebrate. As MacDonald notes, “When the sea rises, everyone in the boat floats. That’s definitely the case here. Everyone is doing very well.” 

SPECIAL REPORTS



Save