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From good to great

Ontario's mid-size business firms are thriving
|Written By Kirsten McMahon

Diverse but focused, flexible, and entrepreneurial, Ontario''s mid-size business firms are similar to the wide range of clients they service and they''re successful.

Ken Kallish, chairman of the corporate/commercial group at Toronto’s Minden Gross LLP, recalls reading a helpful book by Jim Collins called From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t. In it, the author answers the question: “Can a good company become a great company and if so, how?” Kallish says it’s recommended reading for those in mid-size firms.

 “The factors he concluded that existed where these firms went from to good to great are: knowing who you are, staying true to your core principles, not trying to be something you’re not, and making sure you have the right people on the bus . . . that’s the approach we’ve always used.” It’s an approach that’s worked for 50-lawyer firm Minden Gross and for countless other mid-size business firms in Ontario. Their key to success is knowing what they want to be and focusing on their strengths.

Servicing clients

Almost every firm Canadian Lawyer spoke to for this article had no more than a handful of core practice areas, combined with a sprinkling of personal services. Within those confines, clients can range anywhere from large institutions to mid-size, owner-operated businesses. “Primarily, especially in the entrepreneurial mid-size owner operated businesses, it’s just a fundamental understanding that they are very similar to what we are,” says Jeffrey Cohen, managing partner of Toronto’s 72-lawyer Torkin Manes. “We’re basically all owners of our business, we feel that way. We understand the mindset and we can bring an understanding of that mindset to the legal services we provide that client base.”

Lisa Borsook, managing partner of Toronto’s 80-lawyer WeirFoulds LLP, agrees and says that just as these clients grow, so too does the firm. “They started out as small-growth companies and their needs have gotten more sophisticated, and I think it’s fair to say we’ve gotten more sophisticated,” she says. “We act for a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of new listings, a lot of what you call mid-market equity work, which is in the $100-million to $500-million private equity investments.”

Mike Peerless, executive committee member of London, Ont.’s Siskinds LLP, is experiencing the same thing, despite the firm’s location 180 kilometres southwest of downtown Toronto. “A lot more big companies are figuring out you don’t necessarily visit your lawyer on a weekly or monthly basis. It doesn’t really matter where your lawyer is located, so I think the costs of providing legal services out of a smaller city like London are attractive,” he says.

Michael Appleton, managing partner of Toronto’s 80-lawyer firm Fogler Rubinoff LLP, says the firm’s focus is on business law and its corporate department is much larger than those of larger firms. As a result, the client base is a mix of banks, brokers, and large public companies. While the mid-size firm may do some aspect of legal work for a large corporation or bank, the M&A work is usually doled out to the large national firms. “We don’t act for BCE and Alcan didn’t call us on their latest deal,” says Borsook, “but you know what? That’s OK.”

Going global

With the growth and expansion clients and corporations are going through, cross-border legal matters are continuing to grow in scope, and not just with our neighbour to the south, but around the world. “One issue we’ve noticed is that the international borders seem to be fading somewhat in that increasingly clients and their work [are] crossing borders,” says J. Gregory Richards, chairman of WeirFoulds’ marketing committee and former managing partner. “The U.S. is close by, so a lot of it is coming from that direction, but there are other directions as well.” As a result, the firm has been adapting and is initiating geographical practice groups, playing off the strengths of lawyers within the firm.

Minden’s Kallish says an affiliation with Meritas Law Firms Worldwide, an integrated, non-profit alliance of more than 170 independent commercial law firms in over 60 countries, is crucial to his firm. “One of our challenges about 15 years ago was how do we service our clients who need representation outside of Ontario if we want to stay mid-size?” he says. “So our strategy back then was to join Meritas, because it leveraged our ability to use the organization to service our clients throughout the world.

“In addition, we receive a lot of inbound work throughout the world through the Meritas affiliation.”

No firm we talked to had plans to expand outside Ontario, so these types of networks can be crucial to compete with the national firms. Eldon Bennett, managing partner of Toronto’s Aird & Berlis LLP, says the 120-lawyer firm is part of Interlaw, an association of independent, quality-monitored commercial law firms in some 120 cities. “It’s quite interesting how many times within the course of a week you’ll get an inquiry if you can refer a client to someone in, say, a South American country,” he says. Membership in an international association allows you “to be able to say with confidence to the client, ‘This is the law firm we would refer you to and here’s the individual you should contact.’”

He says the vetting process for member firms is quite intense, but that also puts the firm at ease knowing other member firms went through the same rigours. As with most of these alliances, member firms are of similar size and the referrals are non-exclusive.

Blaney McMurtry LLP, the 100-lawyer Toronto firm is a member TAGLaw, a global alliance of independent law firms with more than 150 member firms based in nearly 100 countries. “We don’t have offices in Paris and London and Moscow like some of the Seven Sister firms have, but we belong to an international association of firms called TAGLaw, which has been an excellent association for us,” say managing partner Ian Epstein.

Michael Slan, partner at Fogler Rubinoff, says he’s finding the firm’s affiliation with the International Lawyers Network is bringing work in the door, useful for referring clients around the world, and definitely increases their chances on RFPs. “An organization like the ILN allows us to reach out to clients and say, ‘We may be a regional, mid-size firm in Toronto, but we actually have a lot of depth and breadth around the world, with local knowledge in a lot of places,’” he says.

“The way I look at it is, if I’m at a national firm I have to use somebody in Vancouver or somebody in another location that may or may not be best for the job, but he’s part of my firm and part of my operating profits, so I have to use him. The members of our organization are generally mid-size firms that are locally based, and I may have something that’s a small thing, but because I have an ongoing relationship with them, I get response from them.”

Recruitment and retention

Clients and corporations appear to be flocking to the mid-sizers, with almost every firm we spoke to reporting increased revenue year after year. But what about associates, junior lawyers, and laterals? Are they, too, embracing them?

“We are always looking to increase strategically. If we can increase the corporate area, we would,” says Torkin’s Cohen. “I think that would be an area we would like to focus on, but the talent pool and the recruitment opportunities in the corporate area are toughest.” He says this isn’t a new challenge and they’ve made a more concerted effort to ensure the quality of the articling and summer students and will continue to grow from within.

WeirFoulds is recruiting using the same model. “Virtually all students from last year are hired back this year and we’re hiring an increasing number of students, and we’ve found that works best, actually,” says Richards. Adds Borsook: “We’ve had a lot of luck. I know there are different models of growth: lateral hires, mergers, and growing from the bottom, but the one we’ve found that works best is growing through students. It takes a long time, but we seem to think it’s worth the effort because we don’t have really any attrition. They seem to be interested in being partners here, which is great.”

In the same vein, Peerless says Siskinds’ approach is to “recruit people who have the brains, then teach them the skills.”

Ontario’s mid-size firms, then, know how to attract talent, but do they know how to retain it? Are they worried that the lure of going to a big Bay Street firm or joining a client in-house may be too strong to resist?

“We have to make sure that we’re at least competitive from a salary perspective,” says Cohen. “I think the quality of the work and the speed with which we train our lawyers to deal directly with clients at a very early age, by the time they’re out three to five years [they] have a good foundation. They are very often the client contact lawyers. I think that for people who are self-starters and very motivated and somewhat entrepreneurial, that’s a very significant incentive for them to stay.”

Indeed, the mid-size model is ideal for those who are self-starters, eager to network and build relationships, and get on-the-ground training both in court and with clients. But it’s still not without its challenges. “Our retention numbers are certainly better than average, but retention in the junior ranks is always a struggle in large part because of the hours expectation,” says Aird & Berlis’ Bennett. “They want more balance in their lives than certainly the older lawyers experienced in their early years of practice, and fair enough. We try to address that. The demands of practice aren’t predictable.”

Mid-market pressures?

Speaking of unpredictability, some were caught off guard when mid-size firm Goodman and Carr LLP announced it was dissolving earlier this year. At the time, partner Steve Watson told the media failed merger discussions with Chicago-based Baker & McKenzie LLP weren’t to blame, but rather it was the competitive marketplace and recent staff departures that led to the firm’s decision to close.

Did this toll the death knell for other Ontario mid-size firms? Or at least made mid-size firms wonder who’ll be next? Not really. It seems to be more of an “it’s not us, it’s you” mentality. “I don’t believe it has anything to do with being a mid-size firm,” says Cohen. “On the other hand, I think if you’re trying to be a 50-to 100-lawyer mid-size firm where you’re specializing in only corporate law and as a result trying to get primarily institutional work, I don’t think that’s a model that works. I think that’s the primary reason we continue to have that personal services component. You need to have a mix.”

Richards says WeirFoulds read the June 2007 article in Canadian Lawyer on the demise of Goodman and Carr “with great interest and very carefully to see if there was anything in the tea leaves that we’ve got to be aware of.” Borsook adds: “The thing that I found most interesting, a lot of the spin was about mid-size firms . . . when you talk to the people who are no longer there you can see that the real story had less to do with size and had more to do with personalities involved. They wanted to be something different from what they were.”

Kallish, who articled at Goodman and Carr, says having lived in only a mid-size world, he doesn’t have a concern about the demise of other mid-size firms. “The reality is the mid-size firm will always have a place as long as the buyers of legal services want the type of hands-on, efficient, responsive, and cost-effective services that we provide,” he says. Epstein, who also used to work at G&C, says it boils down to trying to be more than you are and spreading yourself too thin in the process. “I think that the problem with G&C was that they were trying to be more than a mid-size law firm. It was a great firm and as a mid-size firm they could have been very successful, but I think they were trying to get to the next tier and couldn’t quite make up their mind as to who they were.”

Bennett, who says it was an open secret that he was approached by a consulting firm merging with the defunct firm, says, “It was them. It was the way they ran the firm, the decisions they made, the things they didn’t do. Frankly, I think a lot of people, with respect to them, had been wondering just when it would happen.”

The environment for mid-sizers is very competitive, he notes. “Canada is a relatively small place and we’re subject to what’s going on in the market and the fact that significant Canadian clients are being taking over by foreign entities, and when you have mergers and acquisitions, domestic clientele is being reduced for somebody.

“You pick your spots and, if you pick your spots right,” says Bennett, “you can compete with anybody.”

See the following page for a list of Ontario’s 50 mid-size business law firms.

Ontario’s 50 mid-size business law firms
(note: number in brackets denotes number of lawyers in firm)

Barrie: Burgar Rowe Professional Corporation (18)  
Barrie: * Graham Wilson & Green (13)  
Barrie: * Purser Dooley Cockburn Smith LLP (15)    
Brantford: Waterous Holden Amey Hitchon LLP (20)  
Guelph: Smith Valeriote Law Firm LLP (20)  
Hamilton: * Agro Zaffiro LLP (20)  
Hamilton: Evans, Philp LLP (22)  
Hamilton: Ross & McBride LLP (37)  
Hamilton: Simpson, Wigle LLP (24) Hamilton Office: (19) Burlington Office: (5)
Kingston: Cunningham, Swan, Carty, Little & Bonham (18)  
Kitchener: Giffen Lee LLP (18)  
London: Brown, Beattie O’Donovan LLP (19)  
London: Cohen Highley LLP (28) Satellite Office in Sarnia
London: * Harrison Pensa LLP (51)  
London: McKenzie, Lake Lawyers LLP (30)  
London: * Siskinds, (70) Offices also in Windsor & Toronto
Mississauga: Keyser Mason Ball LLP (21)  
Mississauga: * Pallett Valo, LLP (25)  
Mississauga: Racioppo Zuber Coetzee Dionne LLP (18) Offices also in Kingston & Whitby
Oakville: O’Connor MacLeod Hanna LLP (18)  
Ottawa: Burke-Robertson (18)  
Ottawa: * Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP (42) Offices also in Kingston, Alexandria & Vankleet Hill
Ottawa: Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall LLP (45)  
Ottawa: Soloway, Wright LLP (20)  
St. Catharines: Lancaster, Brooks & Welch LLP (21)  
St. Catharines: Sullivan Mahoney LLP (29)  
Sudbury: Weaver, Simmons LLP (27) Branch in Chapleau
Toronto: * Aird & Berlis LLP (120)  
Toronto: Aylesworth LLP (35)  
Toronto: * Blaney McMurtry LLP (100)  
Toronto: Devry, Smith & Frank LLP (26)  
Toronto: * Fogler, Rubinoff LLP (80)  
Toronto: Gardiner Roberts LLP (61)  
Toronto: Goldman, Sloan, Nash & Haber LLP (25)  
Toronto: Koskie Minsky LLP (37)  
Toronto: Kronis, Rotsztain, Margles, Cappel (25)  
Toronto: * Lerners LLP (100) Office also in London
Toronto: McLean & Kerr LLP (25)  
Toronto: Mills & Mills LLP (26)  
Toronto: Minden Gross LLP (50)  
Toronto: Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP (22)  
Toronto: Robins, Appleby & Taub LLP (19)  
Toronto: Sack, Goldblatt, Mitchell LLP (38)  
Toronto: Shibley Righton LLP (33) Branch in Windsor
Toronto: * Torkin Manes Cohen Arbus LLP (72)  
Toronto: * WeirFoulds LLP (79)  
Windsor: McTague Law Firm LLP  (18)  

* Previously Identified Ontario Law Firms

  • RE: From good to great

    Ed. Taylor
    I do believe you're forgetting Guelph lawyers. If I stand corrected than I think you should at least look into them.
  • Guest
    Hi Larry:

    [b]Very good article about DSF[/b].

    If you want, can welcome some community base article such as our contribution and help DSF has given last 3 years to some of the local community people.

    Also focus on our language strength the staff has.

  • Partner, Devry, Smith & Frank LLp

    Larry Keown
    I read this article with great interest and was pleased to see my firm listed as a member of the group of the 50 law firms. Our firm has gone from a small, eight (8) lawyer firm only 12 years ago to a 32 lawyer firm today. Despite our torrid growth, there are a large number of the lawyers who articled at DSF and who have worked at the firm for their entire career. Our growth has been largely organic and we are very careful about who we hire from outside. We believe that because our firm is a great place to work, the lawyers and staff stay at the firm for a long time. This breeds stability, continuity for clients and, we believe, success. There are innumberable business opportunities available in this City and this Province and for us, it is an exciting time to be a mid-size law firm in Toronto.

    Larry W. Keown