Written By: Robert Todd
It wasn’t long ago that a wave of mergers formed a cluster of large, national law firms and prompted legal industry pundits to declare the death of the regional firm. There is no way they can stand up to the boundless resources of big law, the experts cried. Fast-forward a decade or so, and it’s safe to declare that doomsday scenario, shall we say, a tad premature. “As Mark Twain said, rumours of our demise are greatly exaggerated,” says Edmonton-based Field LLP managing partner James Casey.
Alexander Holburn Beaudin & Lang LLP managing partner David Garner says his Vancouver firm gets a share of clients who view larger firms as a poor fit. “Certainly there’s a place for national firms and international firms that have the multiple offices, but I think there’s also a place for the regional firm that knows this area, or knows an industry,” says Garner. He suggests many clients have taken a few deep breaths and returned to regional firms after the initial enthusiasm that followed the first round of national mergers.
Casey suggests that lawyers also continue to see the advantage of practising in the regional firm context. “Our partners have always said that they value their autonomy and their independence above all else in the practice of law, and we’ve found that we can maintain that through a regional firm structure, doing very challenging and interesting work, making good incomes, and delivering good value to our clients,” he says.
One advantage the regional firm managing partners say they exploit versus the bigger kids on the block are long-standing connections with businesses in the region. “When a national firm enters our market, they cannot match the historical, deep relationships we already have with our clients,” says Casey. “If we can keep our relationships strong, deliver excellent legal services, and provide those services at a lower cost than the national firms, our experience has been that we are growing our market share, rather than losing it.”
Certainly, all of the firms listed in Canadian Lawyer’s ranking of the top regional firms in British Columbia, Alberta, and the North are a testament to the continued viability of the regional platform. The rankings only include full-service firms with offices in those areas of the country. Each has a distinct formula for success, but all face similar challenges when it comes to standing above the crowd.
Retention of top legal talent is one key factor. The economic downturn has put a halt to fierce competition for top legal minds that just a few years ago had firms paying signing bonuses as high as $50,000. That doesn’t mean firms no longer face a battle when it comes to wooing top-notch lawyers. There are simply more good firms around that offer lawyers great resources to ply their trade, notes Bull Housser & Tupper LLP managing partner Herb Isherwood. When he started out in law about 25 years ago, there were four large, independent firms in Vancouver. Now there are 15 firms in the city with a multi-office or national presence. “The competition has changed, the marketplace has changed,” he says.