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Survey: Canada’s leading law firm boutiques

|Written By Beth Marlin
Survey: Canada’s leading law firm boutiques

In our second annual feature on leading boutiques, we look at why these smaller, super-specialized firms are becoming so popular. We also find out which ones are leaders in their fields, and why.

In our second annual feature on leading boutiques, we look at why these smaller, super-specialized firms are becoming so popular. We also find out which ones are leaders in their fields, and why.

When it comes to describing Canadian law firms, terms like “big, medium and small” don’t make much sense anymore. The reality is a complex, rapidly evolving landscape, with firms structured around changing client needs; that can mean a handful of international outposts or a raft of lawyers with parallel training in business or applied sciences. One of the fastest-growing areas is that of the “boutique” firm; usually small (under 20 lawyers) but sometimes not (as many as 60 or 70). This practice model is taking off among a certain kind of lawyer —boutique founders are often driven stars who are willing to bear the substantial risks that come with calling the shots.

They range from esoteric new niches like environmental law to the well-established labour and employment law. For some — like 40-lawyer Thorsteinssons LLP — there’s more than enough work to support a move off the typical boutique growth chart to a size more commonly associated with a full-service firm.
A rare few — such as intellectual property and technology leader Smart & Biggar/Fetherstonhaugh, with five offices across Canada and a professional staff of more than 100 — almost defy characterization as a “boutique,” having achieved the size and national breadth more typical of a mid-size full-service firm.
Still, whatever their size, legal specialization remains the common denominator across these firms, allowing practitioners to hone their chosen craft to an art form. In recognition of the growing size and sophistication of many of the country’s top-flight boutiques, particularly in areas demanding multiple areas of expertise such as intellectual property and technology law, Canadian Lawyer magazine has expanded its definition of the size that constitutes a “boutique.”


In consultation with our readers, well-placed sources and other practitioners who participated in our confidential surveys, Canadian Lawyer has identified 52 law boutiques across nine practice areas that are widely viewed as the “go-to” experts by their peers. Litigation boutiques are, of course, in a class all their own. Canadian Lawyer magazine plans to dedicate a special feature to litigation boutiques later this year.
Many law boutiques are the love child of entrepreneurial and talented legalists who venture out on their own — often giving up well-paid and lofty platforms offered by prestigious national megafirms — for the promise of greater freedom to cherry-pick their files and office colleagues. That’s not always the case — the reasons that practitioners start their own shops are as varied and individualistic as the lawyers themselves. But many do speak of a desire to forge their own unique practice and a flexible working environment, rather than adapt to the corporate culture of a big firm.


Less talked about are the stories behind the boutique firms that got their start with a subtle, or not-so-subtle, nudge from another partnership. These things happen, of course. Markets change, law firms change course. Conflicts emerge between practice groups and must be settled for the overall good of the partnership. Under such circumstances, many lawyers have found themselves in the disconcerting position of choosing between adapting their practice to their partners’ new agenda or quitting the firm. For others, there is no choice. Shown the door, they must sink or swim.


Yet swim is exactly what many do. In hindsight, many lawyers have discovered that “the nudge” — gentle or otherwise — was the best thing that has ever happened to their career. Take Halifax’s Pink Breen Larkin, a 16-lawyer union-side labour law and pensions and benefits law firm. It was born out of a 1989 vote asking the partnership of Patterson Kitz, then Atlantic Canada’s biggest law firm with 55 lawyers and a precursor to what eventually would become the regional firm Patterson Palmer: “Do we want to do union-side labour law?” The answer was an unequivocal no, precipitating an amicable split by that practice group.


“It was decided we didn’t want to do that anymore,” recalls Ronald Pink, founder and managing partner of Pink Breen Larkin, who says the choice between leaving the firm or switching his practice area was a no-brainer. “I didn’t want to leave my clients.” (If the vote had gone the other way, retaining a labour-side practice may well have precluded the 2005 merger between Patterson Palmer’s Halifax office and McInnes Cooper, which represents the opposing side on many of Pink Breen Larkin’s files, notes Pink.)


Hanging out a shingle with colleague Raymond Larkin, two associates and a clerk, Pink says the resulting Pink Breen Larkin has since become the biggest labour and employment law boutique in Atlantic Canada, and also boasts a national client base that includes several pension funds and benefits providers. “We draw from the whole country,” says Pink, who wonders if he would have taken the plunge into his own firm if not for the nudge provided by the partnership vote.


“Would I do it again if I was back in the same situation, knowing what I know now? In a nanosecond. The opportunity to specialize, to provide a high-level service to a special group of clients, develop a national reputation, not having to worry about the potential ups and downs of a practice. It’s way better, way better.”
The same story has been played out in the emergence of hundreds of well-regarded boutique law firms across Canada — many of them stars to their loyal clients and within their peer group. More and more are aggressively growing their businesses, preparing to compete head to head with the largest, full-service firms and no longer content with the castoffs and conflicts referrals sent their way. “We are in competition with — not here as a conflict clearing house for — the big firms,” confirms Patrick Burgess, managing partner of the 40-lawyer Calgary-based energy law boutique, Thackray Burgess, which also seconds lawyers as contract in-house lawyers to clients for one month to a year at a time. “Frankly, we rarely see conflicts work from the big firms because most of the big firms are not doing the ‘bread and butter’ energy practice that has been the backbone of this firm for over 10 years.”


But a boutique law practice need not be uniquely poised to service an economic hot spot like Alberta’s booming oil and gas sector in order to thrive. Lawyers, wherever they choose to practise their specialty, need only to be good, believes Pink. “People sell themselves short. If you have the experience and you have the ability, then [a boutique practice] is the place to go,” he says. “I think we’re living proof.”

Leading Boutiques: The List
*in alphabetical order

Admiralty and Transportation Law
1) Bernard & Partners (Vancouver)
2) Brisset Bishop (Montreal)
3) Bromley Chapelski (Vancouver)
4) Metcalf & Company (Halifax)
5) Strathy & Isaacs (Toronto)

Carrying on the tradition
Admiralty and transportation law is a specialized niche that lends itself to the boutique model, with top-notch shops from coast to coast. While some boutiques are spin-offs of practice groups from larger firms — for example, Vancouver’s 11-lawyer Bernard & Partners was started in mid-2002 by former partners and associates of Vancouver’s Campney and Murphy — others are not. Montreal-based Brisset Bishop with its six lawyers, for instance, is one of the oldest law firms in Canada, playing a role in most major maritime law cases over the past 120 years, including the notorious collision between the Empress of Ireland and the Storstad on the St. Lawrence River during the summer of 1914.


An area that covers shipping law, marine insurance law and related litigation, and the marine component of Canadian offshore oil and gas activities, this practice area is growing along with Atlantic Canada’s thriving offshore oil industry. Many of these firms act as Canadian legal counsel for a variety of international protection and indemnity clubs, as well as cargo, hull and machinery and general insurance underwriters around the world, requiring fluency with international law and conventions. Still, most of Canada’s admiralty and transportation boutiques run a tight ship, with four lawyers working out of Vancouver’s Bromley Chapelski, five lawyers at Toronto-based Strathy &  Associates and six lawyers at Halifax-based Metcalfe & Company.


While some of these boutiques say they receive conflict-driven work from larger firms, they receive considerable direct work from shipping and transportation firms. In the post-9/11 world, there are more security-related legal issues moving to the fore. Bernard & Partners recently acted in a matter in which a judgment in excess of $6-million dollars was made against Transport Canada on behalf of a ship owner whose vessel had been detained for a lengthy period by marine inspectors.

Bankruptcy and Insolvency Law
1) Bennett & Company (Toronto)
2) Goldstein, Flanz & Fishman (Montreal)
3) Page, Arnold LLP (Toronto)
4) ThorntonGroutFinnigan LLP (Toronto)

Unique practices, unique firms
Canada’s bankruptcy and insolvency bar is a small one — with the same players turning up again and again in many of the significant cases. “Although we are Quebec-based, we have been involved in virtually every major insolvency in Canada in recent memory,” confirms Avram Fishman of Montreal’s 14-lawyer Goldstein, Flanz & Fishman, which was involved in the CCAA filings of Air Canada, Eaton’s and Ivaco, along with the bankruptcy of Castor Holdings Ltd. and the ensuing litigation against Coopers & Lybrand, the largest lawsuit for professional negligence against an accounting firm in Canada. “Our firm is larger than the insolvency department of most large firms,” Fishman says. “This allows us to offer more experienced practitioners in our field of specialization than large firms are able to.” With 85 years of practice behind it, Goldstein, Flanz & Fishman is an anomaly among boutiques, many of which are relatively recent spin-offs of practice groups from larger firms.


Many boutique founders say their business fills a niche created by the need to service clients of larger firms in conflict cases, which is a considerable source of work referrals. “We are a safe haven for specialized conflict work as we do not try to offer services in the broad range of areas that would compete with the large firms,” says Robert Thornton of Toronto’s 14-lawyer ThorntonGroutFinnigan, which has been involved in every major restructuring deal of late, including Air Canada and acting for the monitors in the restructurings of JTI-Macdonald and Stelco. Toronto’s eight-lawyer Page, Arnold, started by Murray Page in 1992, has been involved in many notable bankruptcies, including Eaton’s and Dylex Ltd. Toronto’s Bennett & Company, a long-time two-lawyer shop, is headed by Frank Bennett, author of Bennett on Bankruptcy.

Business/Banking & Finance
1) Eddy & Downs (Fredericton)
2) Heydary Garfin Hamilton LLP  (Toronto)
3) Keel Cottrelle LLP (Toronto, Mississauga)
4) McCullough O’Connor Irwin  (Vancouver)
5) Sangra Moller LLP (Vancouver)
6) Wildeboer Dellelce LLP (Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo)

Business, and more
Many firms that began as business law boutiques — at first specializing in securities law or the like — have since morphed into fuller-service firms, developing new practice areas as they’ve grown. These days, of course, the boundaries for any business law practice have grown hazy — with clients often requiring the skill of a consummate negotiator, dealmaker, contracts expert, litigator, M&A specialist, regulatory expert, and competition law expert, not to mention well-nurtured cross-border affiliations with law firms in the United States and overseas.


With this in mind, some business law boutiques that have attracted note across the country include Fredericton’s two-lawyer Eddy & Downs, which has campaigned for the need for a national securities regulator; Toronto’s 21-lawyer Heydary Garfin Hamilton, which has affiliated offices in Ottawa and Chicago; and 11-lawyer Keel Cottrelle, a Toronto-area boutique formed in 1987 by lawyers from larger firms who wanted to practice in a smaller, more focused and congenial environment; it is affiliated with Chicago-based Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon. Wildeboer Dellelce, with a total of 18 lawyers in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo, was founded in 1993 by Cliff L. Rand, a member of both the Alberta and Ontario bars. Notable for securities transactions, this boutique acts for a number of entrepreneurs and businesses, and for reporting issuers, investment dealers, private companies and venture capital funds both in Canadian and cross-border transactions.


Vancouver’s McCullough O’Connor Irwin is an 11-lawyer corporate and securities boutique that has recently been involved in various cross-border deals and represented lululemon athletica Inc., a world-renowned athletic wear maker and retailer, in a recent $108-million financing and corporate reorganization transaction. Also based in Vancouver is Sangra Moller, a nine-lawyer corporate finance and securities powerhouse formed in 1985 by Harj Sangra and Kim Moller. Several lawyers are licensed in the United States, enabling them to provide legal advice with respect to cross-border securities and other corporate/commercial matters, particularly in connection with disclosure obligations under the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.

Construction Law
1) Glaholt LLP (Toronto)
2) Goldman Sloan Nash & Haber (Toronto)
3) W. Donald Goodfellow (Calgary)
4) Jenkins Marzban Logan LLP  (Vancouver)
5) McLauchlin & Associates (Toronto)
6) Movat Eccleston (Toronto)
7) Rasmussen Starr Ruddy LLP  (Ottawa)

Blueprint for success
Any lawyer specializing in construction law will inevitably find his or her practice building on related areas such as contract disputes, construction liens, defence of professional liability claims against engineers and architects, labour and employment issues, including barriers to labour mobility, bond claims, real estate liens, delay claims, mould and environmental contamination claims, Occupational Health and Safety Act charges and Workplace Safety and Insurance Board claims. Such was the case with Toronto-based construction law boutique Naftolin & Associates, which merged in 1996 with Goldman Sloan Nash & Haber LLP, forming an expanded boutique practice of 26 lawyers who service the corporate/commercial real estate development industry. “[Construction law] is a very esoteric area of the law, one which has many tentacles reaching out,” says Stanley Naftolin. “As a construction lawyer, you become somewhat of an amateur architect, engineer, soils expert, mechanical and electrical expert. In other words, your construction law expertise takes you into many other disciplines closely connected with the construction industry.”


Ottawa’s 11-lawyer Rasmussen Starr Ruddy, which is counsel for the Canadian Construction Association and the Canadian Construction Documents Committee, was started in 1987 by a practice group that left a slightly larger Ottawa-based firm. “We were, and continue to be, concerned about the conflicts that can arise within larger organizations,” explains Donald Rasmussen. “We also enjoy the freedom, independence and collegiality of practising in a smaller group.” Similarly, the six-lawyer Toronto-based McLauchlin & Associates was formed in mid- 2002 by a group of lawyers who had originally belonged to the construction law practice group of Woolley, Dale & Dingwall.


While conflicts may have played a role in their formation, leading construction law boutiques are not passively waiting on referrals from the bigger firms. “In January 2004, we made the decision to move back to the downtown core to more directly compete with the big firms,” says Kenneth Movat of Toronto’s 4-lawyer Movat Eccleston. “We believe that we offer the same service to our clients that they might get from the construction law group at a large, full-service firm without some of the disadvantages that go along with the large infrastructure needed to run one of those shops.”


Also in Toronto, the nine-lawyer Glaholt firm is particularly noted for its construction litigation expertise. In Calgary, W. Donald Goodfellow has gained prominence as a strong arbitrator in his more than 40 years of practice. On the west coast, Vancouver’s 13-lawyer Jenkins Marzban Logan was formed in 1964 by lawyers previously with Vancouver’s Russell & DuMoulin. Their enviable client list includes the British Columbia Construction Association and O&Y Properties Inc.

Environmental/Natural Resources/Energy
1) Birchall Northey (Toronto, Ottawa)
2) Robert Daigneault, Cabinet d’avocats (Montreal)
3) Houlihan & Associates (Vancouver)
4) Hunter Voith (Vancouver)
5) Dianne Saxe Professional Corporation (Toronto)
6) Thackray Burgess (Calgary)
7) Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP (Toronto)

Riding the resources rollercoaster
With Canada’s natural resources in huge demand worldwide, it’s no wonder that lawyers specializing in environmental, natural resources and energy law are tremendously busy. Certainly, Calgary’s 40-lawyer energy boutique, Thackray Burgess, is right in the thick of the oil and gas industry, acting for several energy royalty trusts. The firm, which was formed in 2001 by practitioners trained at firms now known as Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, Macleod Dixon LLP, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, Bennett Jones, and Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP, recently added a cutting-edge “emissions management and green power development” practice group to its roster.


Further west, at Vancouver’s 9-lawyer Hunter Voith, founding partner Peter Voith is recognized as a leading expert in forestry law. Also in Vancouver, Houlihan & Associates’ Patricia Houlihan, a former McCarthy Tétrault LLP lawyer and past chair of the CBA’s environmental law section who practices with one associate, is known for her generous pro bono work.


Montreal’s 4-lawyer Robert Daigneault, Cabinet d’avocats was founded in 2001 by Daigneault, a biologist, a former legal counsel to the Quebec Department of Environment and author of the standard French-language legal reference text on federal and Quebec environmental law. Clients include refineries, mining and forestry companies, fisheries, gas and electrical utilities, real estate developers, financial institutions, engineering firms, Crown corporations and Native organizations.


In Toronto, 12-lawyer Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers is known for its top-flight environmental law bench strength, advising some of Canada’s leading corporations and municipal organizations on how to structure their affairs to stay out of trouble, with strong environmental litigation, regulatory services, transaction, managing regulatory investigations and prosecution defence services.


Toronto’s Dianne Saxe Professional Corporation is the name firm of one of Canada’s leading environmental lawyers, who practises with Michelle Kassel. A certified specialist in environmental law, Dianne Saxe holds one of Canada’s only Doctorates of Jurisprudence (PhD) in environmental law and has thrice been named by ranking publishers as one of the world’s leading environmental lawyers. A former prosecutor with the Ontario Ministry of the Environnment, she is the author of the province’s standard environmental law reference, Ontario Environmental Protection Act Annotated.


Referring to 3-lawyer Toronto and Ottawa-based Birchall Northey, one of Canadian Lawyer’s confidential survey respondents told us: “Chuck [Birchall] and Rod [Northey] are renowned for their expertise in the federal environmental assessment arena, with many high-profile (albeit sometimes on the losing end) cases.”


Intellectual Property/Telecommunications/Broadcasting
  1) Bereskin & Parr (Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo)
  2) Deeth Williams Wall LLP  (Toronto)
  3) Dimock, Stratton LLP (Toronto)
  4) Johnston & Buchan LLP (Ottawa)
  5) Leger Robic Richard LLP (Montreal)
  6) Macera & Jarzyna LLP (Ottawa)
  7) Oyen Wiggs Green & Mutala LLP (Vancouver)
  8) Ridout & Maybee LLP (Ottawa)
  9) Shapiro Cohen (Ottawa)
10) Smart & Biggar/Fetherstonhaugh (Ottawa)

Geeks they are not
Toronto’s Dimock, Stratton, which successfully defended Mega Bloks in the highly publicized trademark lawsuit with Lego at the Supreme Court of Canada last year, set up shop in 1994, when Ron Dimock and Bruce Stratton left IP boutique Sim Hughes Dimock, which itself had been a 1970 spinoff of McCarthy Tétrault. All 14 lawyers at Dimock, Stratton have science or engineering degrees, and claim more patent trial experience than lawyers at any other Canadian law firm. It’s no surprise then the firm has turned down a dozen offers to merge with other boutiques and full-service firms in recent years. Also in Toronto, Deeth Williams Wall is an innovative, entrepreneurial law firm, whose 17 lawyers assist clients to develop, protect and commercialize all types of intellectual property and technology.


Canada’s biggest firms in the IP boutique class are Smart & Biggar/Fetherstonhaugh, which has offices in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton and more than 100 professionals on staff, including lawyers, patent and trademark agents, and technical consultants, and Bereskin & Parr, which has more than 65 lawyers and trademark and patent agents working out of offices in Toronto, Waterloo and Montreal.
Considerably smaller, though still sizable by boutique standards, is 36-lawyer Ridout & Maybee, which recently successfully defended Jaguar’s car mark. Formed in 1893, Ridout & Maybee is one of Canada’s oldest intellectual property law firms, with offices in Toronto, Ottawa and Mississauga.


Ottawa’s 11-lawyer Macera & Jarzyna, which was started in 1978 by John Macera and Andrew Jarzyna, has litigated many of the leading IP law cases, including Molson v. Labatt, Sara Lee v. A&P, Wal-Mart v. Crazy Lees and Toyota v. Lexus Foods. The firm is currently representing a retailers’ group that includes Wal-Mart, Radio Shack, Future Shop, Costco, London Drugs, Staples, Business Depot and the Retail Council of Canada in a challenge of the constitutionality of Part VIII of the Copyright Act before the Copyright Board and the Federal Court of Appeal. Another leading Ottawa boutique is Shapiro Cohen, which was founded by the late Norman Shapiro in 1963 and which grew through mergers with Mantha and Associates, Pascal and Associates and Baker McLachlen. It now has 16 lawyers, an in-house counsel and four consultants.


Also in the national capital is Johnston & Buchan, a 13-lawyer communications and public law boutique formed in 1980 by Christopher Johnston and Robert Buchan. Though not a spinoff of a larger firm per se, three Johnston & Buchan partners hail from Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP and two from Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. Consistently ranked as a leading firm in communications law by the Chambers Guide to The World’s Leading Lawyers for Business, the firm has played a role in nearly every major Canadian communications regulatory proceeding since 1980, acting as lead counsel for Unitel, now MTS Allstream, in the 1992 proceeding that allowed facilities-based competition in long distance telephony. Johnston & Buchan also represented Canadian Satellite Communications Inc. in proceedings on the satellite capacity rates charged by Telesat Canada and Rogers Communications Inc. in its historic takeover of Maclean Hunter.


Further east, Montreal’s 23-lawyer Leger Robic Richard, which traces its roots to 1892 and represents leading clients in the pharmaceutical and technology sectors, has confined its practice to intellectual property law since 1970.


On the west coast, Vancouver’s Oyen Wiggs Green & Mutala emerged 25 years ago after persuading B.C.’s legal community that their intellectual property work could be done locally rather than requiring the touch of an Ottawa-based firm. Today, all 15 Oyen Wiggs lawyers are also qualified patent and/or trademark agents and the firm hosts the annual “Patski” conference at Whistler that attracts patent lawyers from Asia, Europe and North America.

International Trade
1)  Gottlieb & Pearson (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa)
2)  Thomas & Partners (Vancouver, Ottawa)

Navigating the borderless world
In an increasingly global economy, lawyers able to help Canadian and overseas companies with Canadian business ties successfully find their way through the legal complexities of international trade are in hot demand. Leading boutiques specializing in this challenging area are seven-lawyer Gottlieb & Pearson, which has offices in Toronto and Montreal, and has specialized exclusively in international trade and customs law since 1969. Heavyweight clients include Hyundai Motor Company, Asea Brown Boveri, the Chinese steel mill Baosteel, Toshiba, the Retail Council of Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the European Community, Mattel, Tommy Hilfiger Canada Limited, and Microsoft.


Meanwhile, seven-lawyer Thomas & Partners, started in 1993 by Christopher Thomas, a former partner at Ladner Downs (now Borden Ladner Gervais), and a Ladner Downs associate, Greg Tereposky, who is now a partner of Thomas & Partners, practise out of offices in Vancouver and Ottawa. Specializing in international trade disputes, Thomas & Partners claims their lawyers have worked their magic on more World Trade Organization cases than any other Canadian law firm. Their cases include Canada’s challenge of Brazil’s subsidies on civil aircraft production, Japan’s challenge of Canada’s implementation of the Autopact, and the United States’ challenge of aspects of Mexico’s telecommunications regime.


Labour/Employment Law
  1) Emond Harnden LLP (Ottawa)
  2) Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP (Toronto)
  3) Harris & Company (Vancouver)
  4) Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP
     (Toronto, London, Kingston, Waterloo, Ottawa)
  5) Kuretzky Vassos LLP (Toronto)
  6) Laird Armstrong (Calgary)
  7) Loranger Marcoux (Montreal)
  8) Mathews, Dinsdale & Clark LLP
      (Toronto, Sarnia, Sault Ste. Marie)
  9) Pink Breen Larkin (Halifax, Fredericton)
10) Stringer Brisbin Humphrey (Toronto)

Taking sides
Clearly, labour and employment law poses many potential conflicts for full-service law firms and it’s not surprising most firms are reluctant to risk losing a future corporate mandate for a one-off employment file. Many of the country’s most noteworthy labour and employment boutiques are split-offs from bigger firms.


Vancouver’s 30-lawyer Harris & Company, which founding partner Eric Harris bills as “the largest management-side labour and employment group west of Toronto,” was started in 1992 by lawyers who left Vancouver’s mid-sized Campney & Murphy to form their boutique. “We act for most of the public sector in B.C. and we were involved recently in the illegal strike by the teachers in B.C. We also have a substantial private-sector practice,” says Harris. “We do not see ourselves as dependent on referrals from the big firms, as our practice is freestanding and independent. We do, however, have very well-developed referral relationships with other lawyers.”


On the union side, Halifax-based 16-lawyer firm Pink Breen Larkin, which also has an office in Fredericton, was formed in 1989 by a group making an amicable split from 55-lawyer Patterson Kitz, then Altantic Canada’s biggest law firm.


In Montreal, 14-lawyer Loranger Marcoux has represented Quebec-based employers since 1991 and works closely with law firms practising in other jurisdictions and other areas of the law. In Ottawa, 19-lawyer Emond Harnden has grown to become the largest boutique representing employers in labour relations and employment law in eastern Ontario since its 1987 launch.


In Toronto, the legal landscape among labour and employment firms is dominated by five firms: 30-lawyer Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti; 91-lawyer Hicks Morley; 9-lawyer Kuretzky Vassos; 27-lawyer Mathews, Dinsdale & Clark, and 10-lawyer Stringer Brisbin Humphrey. Many of these firms are developing complex pension and benefits and privacy law practices to complement their employment law practices. With the rapid consolidation of Canadian and global industries, these firms are also increasingly facing challenging cross-jurisdictional issues.


In Calgary, four-lawyer Laird Armstrong represents management-side private- and public-sector clients. Before senior principal David Laird went to law school, he worked in labour relations, representing management in Alberta and British Columbia. Not a bad way to set the stage for a healthy legal client base.

Tax
1) Felesky Flynn LLP (Edmonton, Calgary)
2) Millar Kreklewetz LLP (Toronto)
3) Thorsteinssons LLP (Toronto, Vancouver)

The fine print
Excluding the tax practices that are in-house at the big accounting firms — like PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Wilson & Partners and Ernst & Young’s Couzin Taylor — Canada’s independent tax boutiques form a small exclusive club, led by Thorsteinssons, the largest with a 10-lawyer shop in Toronto and 30 lawyers in its Vancouver digs. Much endorsed by the national megafirms, P.N. Thorsteinsson, one of the country’s first tax law specialists, began the firm in 1964. Over the years, Thorsteinssons has produced an impressive number of judges.


Also in Toronto is Millar Kreklewetz, a six-lawyer firm that specializes in commodity tax and customs law. Under the Liberal government, founding partner Jack Millar was a member of the Canada Revenue Agency’s Minister’s advisory committee. Millar is also a past governor of the Canadian Tax Foundation and past chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s National Sales and Commodity Tax Section.


In Edmonton and Calgary, the 31 lawyers and two consultants at Felesky Flynn are the resident tax aficionados. The firm was created after Calgary tax lawyer Brian Felesky met Edmonton’s Gord Flynn, then one of the first in Alberta to hold a dual CA/LLB designate, on a flight and pitched the idea of a fully regional tax boutique. Along with corporate tax planning and other mainstream business tax areas, Felesky Flynn specializes in — wait for it — resource taxation.

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