Skip to content

Big business beyond Bay Street

Abundant opportunities in Calgary are drawing young lawyers away from the ‘centre of the universe'
|Written By Pamela Fieber

Like many Ontario law school students, Julie Inch assumed she’d focus her career ambitions on Bay Street. Then she spent a summer in Calgary. “I loved it,” she says. “Once you work there, you will never want to leave. I loved the energy of Calgary.” Inch, now in her final semester at the University of Windsor, begins her articling year at Calgary law firm Burnet Duckworth & Palmer LLP this summer.

I didn’t even apply to Bay Street at all,” says Inch. “I had read up on the economic boom, and it just really made sense to go where the action is. There’s a lot of potential to be successful.”

It’s boom time in Calgary, and the big deals are flowing as fast as the oil and gas. That means good times for law firms — and good careers for those who want in on the action. Tom Booth is one of them.

“I was looking for an exciting city, a city where there was a strong business culture and lots of activity happening, huge potential for growth,” Booth says. “I have no regrets.”

After considering both Vancouver and Toronto, Booth moved to Calgary in 2005. He articled at the Calgary office of Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, which boasts 116 lawyers. He’s now an associate whose practice has an emphasis on regulatory law.

“From my own experience, Toronto is the biggest city in Canada and it’s the biggest legal market, so naturally people are going to look there,” says the Dalhousie graduate. “But I think now that people are realizing there are more opportunities in Calgary that didn’t exist before, and people are reading about the size of deals that are coming through Calgary in terms of what the legal community is doing there, it’s certainly shifted the focus.”

Jamie Niessen, marketing director for Burnet Duckworth, a Calgary firm with about 80 lawyers, has spoken with students on the crux of the big decision at many career fairs.

“Students who are from eastern Canada ask ‘Why Calgary? Why would I leave Bay Street?’ ” he says. “They want expertise. They’re looking to do skill building, and they need to understand the calibre and quality of work that’s being done here. Part of the problem is perception. There might be a perception that it’s just regional work that’s being done here. But Calgary’s not the farm team anymore.”

Whether you’ve been away for a while or never even visited, Calgary is probably not what you expect or remember. This city, now hitting the one-million mark in population, is becoming more cosmopolitan — and more of a business law centre — by the day. There are now 93 law firms and 1,282 business entities involved in law in Calgary, employing 3,974 lawyers, according to figures provided in late January by the Alberta Law Association.

With Calgary salaries and cost of living starting to line up with Toronto, the decision to apply out west for an articling position or a job comes down to two things: the quality of the work, and the quality of the lifestyle.
Recruiters know that, and as the demand for good lawyers increases in Calgary, they are ready to lure new graduates with talk of big opportunity.

“In Calgary now, things are good, and the work is interesting and challenging. And that has a trickle-down effect right down to the student ranks,” says Adam Pekarsky, the director of professional development and recruitment for Fraser Milner in western Canada. “Our articling students get good work. They get exposed to top-notch litigation files, to corporate deals, to regulatory hearings. Chances are, if there’s a pipeline being built in this neck of the woods, our students are going to have some exposure to that.”

Articling students in Calgary may indeed have more opportunities for a wide range of work, according to Kyla Sandwith, director of professional recruitment at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP. “I think the quality of work is one of the main things,” she says. “Students have the opportunity to be involved in whatever they want, not necessarily oil and gas, but all the spinoffs from that industry. There are restaurants opening all over the place, buildings going up.”

Calgary is the headquarters of the oil and gas industry in Canada, with companies like Petro Canada, Imperial Oil, Shell, and Encana — all huge multinational corporations — based in the city. That means big direct involvement, and that means big spin-offs.

Gina Ross thinks that’s a good incentive. She’s co-chair of the hiring committee at Burnet Duckworth. “In terms of dollar value, the number of transactions that have been handled by Calgary law firms in general and by this law firm specifically, it’s just huge,” she says. “It is astronomical the size of the deals that come through.”

In the last couple of years there’s been more and more work available through the oil sands projects, which offer an array of legal challenges. The projects are so massive, they need their own infrastructure. “They have their own planes and runways and their own fire departments and their medical staff,” Ross says. “It’s fascinating work because of the magnitude of the projects.”

So, the deals are big. But it’s not just the size of the deals that matters. It’s the approach. As many who live here will point out, there’s something different about the corporate culture in Calgary.

“Calgary certainly has a reputation for having a very entrepreneurial, youthful corporate culture that distinguishes it from some of the other major cities in Canada and in fact in the U.S.,” says Booth.

What does that mean for those who work here?

“If you’re willing to come in and work hard, there are so many opportunities right now,” says Sandwith. “And really, I don’t have direct experience with this but I’ve been told that in Ontario and the eastern provinces, there’s a bit of a glass ceiling, you know, unless you know someone. Whereas out here it’s a bit more of an entrepreneurial spirit. You’re very much rewarded for hard work.”

Those rewards, she says, may not mean changing the timeline to partnership, but they do mean getting better and more senior work. And at this firm, maybe rubbing shoulders with celebrity: BLG just signed on former Alberta premier Ralph Klein as a senior business adviser.

And then there are the regular people. “It’s not like my life is perfect, but it’s better than it would be on Bay Street,” says Chris Glover, a University of Toronto graduate who now works at BLG in high-profile oil and gas litigation. “I found on Bay Street people are really stuffy and concerned about what other people think. People here are really laid back.”

That’s a comment you’ll hear time and again about life in Calgary. “It’s really the people here that make the difference,” says Glover. “It was a more collegial atmosphere, they were a little bit more relaxed than on Bay Street.”

For Inch, the friendly support network she found in her summer job at Burnet Duckworth made all the difference. “Honestly, when I finished at BDP, I was like, this is where I want to be,” she says. “I don’t know if that’s every firm in Calgary, but I think it is. Because there’s always this push to excel. I could go to this partner and say, ‘Look I’m working on this, you know, any ideas?’ The quality of my work was excellent, because there was so much support.”

Calgary’s also known for its quality of life. “It’s this huge city with intense growth but it has a small-town feeling,” says Inch. “And I’m from Deep River, Ont., which has a population of 4,000. So coming to Calgary and it’s just people being people, it’s nice.”

And recruiters won’t forget to mention the mountains. “The students who become Calgarians are always amazed by the mountains, that you can look out the window and see those darn things,” says Ross. “They’re overwhelmed by what the city has to offer. We are half an hour from hiking in Bragg Creek or skiing in the mountains — and real skiing, not pretend skiing.”

Ross says as much as recruiters can point out the appeal of a city or its natural setting, ultimately it has to be a personal choice.

“We sometimes compete with [Toronto],” she says. “That’s a difficult choice for people, where they want to live.

Professionally, I can say the work here is equally as good. The offices that are here are numerous. We’re no longer Toronto’s agent on deals, we’re doing the deals. So professionally, the work is excellent. But you can’t compete with where you really want to live for personal reasons. “We want people to be happy here professionally and be living in a city that they’re happy in.”

Catherine Reyes knows a thing or two about that. The McGill graduate came out of law school with the usual debts and ambitions. She cast a wide net looking for the right career and ended up in New York. At the time, salaries were not competitive in Calgary, she says, and that was a big reason to go to the traditional markets. But all that has changed.

She’s now articling with Burnet Duckworth, and says Calgary is the perfect place to do big work and maintain a lifestyle balance at the same time. “I think Calgary still has a little more of a focus on life outside the office. One great thing is, we have the mountains an hour-and-a-half drive away. That was always something that really drew me. If people are outdoorsy, like to ski and hike, it’s a great place to be.”

But what about those salaries and that cost of living? Housing costs have skyrocketed in Calgary in the past few years; the average price of a single, detached home is now nearly $500,000. Which makes salary all the more relevant. “The fact that I was even able to even think about buying a house, I still think Calgary still has some of those cost of living advantages,” says Booth, who rented last year but bought his own house this year.

Salaries in Calgary are now within striking distance of Toronto — the average salary for an articling student is about $60,000 in Calgary, and about $70,000 in Toronto.

“The Toronto salaries and the Calgary salaries have started to fuse together,” says FMC’s Pekarsky. “A lot of that is driven by the larger Toronto firms moving to town and they’re paying their people top dollar . . . we need to play in that arena.”

And what about the incentives — hire-back promises, signing bonuses — rumoured in the Toronto market? “We try to be creative,” Pekarsky says. “We’re not using incentive signing bonuses at the student or articling level. We’re not quite there. We’re still trying to position it as, we sell them on the benefits of working at a top-tier national firm, and our culture and our reputation in the marketplace as a forward-thinking firm.”

Over at Burnet Duckworth, Ross says so far the Calgary market has not had to put financial incentives in place for two reasons: the firm is deluged with top-quality resumes from strong students, and no one else in Calgary is doing it. Having said that, she adds that Burnet Duckworth has to work hard to hire staff from all across the country. “We’re swamped with students from Alberta and Saskatchewan, but we want to get a representation across the country.”

Don Higa is the director of professional development and risk management for Calgary-based Macleod Dixon LLP, a law firm of 330 staff. As far as he’s concerned, incentives are not necessary in Calgary. “Obviously Calgary has a booming economy. We’ve got no shortage of people applying. We had over 300 applicants for six to eight summer student positions.”

But not a lot of those applications are coming from students in eastern and central Canada. Part of the problem might be recruitment practices. Traditionally, the eastern firms are more aggressive in the eastern schools. “If you want to go to Calgary, there’s definitely more you have to do on your own,” says Christie Malecki, a student at law at Burnet Duckworth. “I showed an interest in Calgary and so I found out a lot of the information on my own. I think a lot of it is, Toronto firms are a lot more aggressive in Ontario, in comparison to western firms. They seem to have more of a presence in schools.”

Tom Booth agrees. “At different law schools across Canada, different stereotypes would probably be fostered. So much of the information students receive is influenced by their peers and their career development centre.”
But there are signs that may be changing. Mary Jackson, director of legal personnel at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto, sees two emerging trends. “Law schools are recognizing that Calgary is such a great market, that eastern schools are reaching out to Calgary more than they did in the past. The other trend, I would say, is that [University of Calgary and University of Alberta] students seem to be more nationally focused. So not everybody that goes to ‘X’ school goes to that province’s law firms anymore.”

The interest in Calgary has definitely spiked. Just as the number of law firms and the number of lawyers have increased in Calgary, so have the number of applicants. At FMC, Pekarsky says there’s been an uptick in interest for the summer and articling positions. “It has noticeably spiked in the last couple of years. We’re probably up about 10 per cent.”

At the same time, business is booming and the firm’s services are in demand. That means they need those applications. “Absolutely there is an increase in demand. I think more and more firms are coming to town, putting a strain on the ability to just keep up with the demand to staff their firms with enough junior people to get the work done,” he says.

FMC, like so many other firms, is still expanding. It now has about 120 lawyers (eight years ago they were at 100) and will move into new office space in 2008. They just have to wait for it to be built. “We’re certainly growing and the pressure to keep up with the demand that our clients are putting on us, there’s no doubt that that’s increasing all the time. We need more good people.”

And he doesn’t mean just any people. Pekarsky is interested in “that top five per cent of law school grads.” He thinks the best way to attract them is through programs, not salary or the mountains. FMC has a number of programs in place to help develop young lawyers, from a mentoring system to a lecture series to a “pool” system that allows new associates to leave more options open before deciding on a specialty.

So is it the mountains, the fresh air, the outdoor recreation, and the friendly people? Or is it the ability to work on the best files possible? In the end, that’s for each student to decide. “You can get a lot of great experience here,” says Malecki. “I’d tell graduates to try to find out more. It’s definitely worth looking into.”