Written By: Robert Todd
In the second of our stories this year on the top boutique law firms in the country, Canadian Lawyer turns its attention to those specializing in labour and employment, environmental, and maritime law. While each of these firms has a different approach to standing out from the crowd to attract business, each group of firms face similar challenges and opportunities in their respective markets.
Geoffrey Litherland, a partner at Vancouver’s Harris & Co. LLP, suggests labour and employment boutiques have largely managed to weather the recent economic storm. “We’re in a position to deal with changes in the economy,” he says. “When times are difficult, employers are looking for ways to reduce labour costs, and sometimes they’re looking at downsizing,” which brings work to his firm in the form of dismissals and contract changes. Conversely, when the economy expands, labour and employment firms are more often called in to help manage squabbles between management and unions, and to help draw up employment contracts as hiring increases, he adds. But that is not to suggest success is guaranteed, says Litherland. Boutique shops hoping to attract work from large employers must offer a wide range of advice in order to exceed services offered by large national firms, he says.
Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP Toronto managing partner Stephen Shamie maintains that clients are becoming more sophisticated, and more demanding. He believes that is increasingly leading them to specialized firms. “What we’re really seeing is the one-size-fits-all type of firm is not really what the clients want anymore,” he says. “I think that’s to the advantage of labour and employment boutiques generally.”
But the boutiques still need to find a way to stand out. For John Willms, senior partner at Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP in Toronto, marketing is the best way to gain visibility. “A lot of our clients are one-shot clients,” he says. “In other words, they’ve got a big environmental problem, we work with them, we help them clean up their act, fix the problem, normalize their relationships with their neighbours and the Ministry of Environment . . . then they don’t need us anymore, and they don’t want us.” He adds that most companies tighten their approach to environmental regulations after going through a lengthy and costly dispute. Many environmental law firms like Willms & Shier aim to maintain those relationships, and develop new ones, by offering conferences and events that raise their firm’s prominence.
Maritime law boutiques face their own unique challenge of staying afloat in a market that shows no sign of picking up in volume. Christopher Giaschi, a partner at Vancouver’s Giaschi & Margolis, says the focus for these boutiques is to hold on to existing clients. That places a premium on the provision of top-notch service with a “lean and mean” operation where costs and overhead are kept to a minimum. “It’s a small market, and to a large degree [the businesses] know one another and talk to one another,” he says. “If you’re not giving good service, that’s going to be known.”
Whatever challenges they face, each of the firms listed below has been recognized for exceptional provision of legal service in its respective area of law. As with our earlier top boutique lists, Canadian Lawyer’s editorial team compiled these choices by first creating a short list of the most notable firms in each area of expertise. We then called on in-house counsel and lawyers from larger firms with experience in these areas of practice for their views on which boutiques — defined as stand-alone firms with a major concentration in the respective legal specialty — they believe are the best at what they do. That input was used to compile the following lists, ordered alphabetically, of Canada’s top 10 labour and employment law, top five environmental law boutiques, and top six (we couldn’t break the tie for just five) maritime law boutiques.