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Making connections

|Written By Judy Van Rhijn

When the binoculars on the CN Tower in Toronto turn south and west, they look towards a region that gets its strength from diversification, both within and between its cities.

Whether riding out the depression of the 1930s or the current economic downturn, many of the cities of southwestern Ontario hold their own because they are not dependent on one industry, a fact not lost on local law firms. A rash of mergers and moves in the last decade has now settled down and firms are well-positioned to service the remarkable growth which is still continuing.

The bottom corner of Ontario may be lake-locked in geography but it is stereotype-free in its culture and economy. While the physical landscape is dominated by the Niagara Escarpment, stretching like a long backbone from Tobermory in the northwest to Niagara Falls in the southeast, the legal landscape is dominated by local offices of national law firms that have recently moved in.

Generally, they have merged with an established local firm to obtain a base, and then fostered further expansion by acquiring practice groups from other firms, moving lawyers down from Toronto and harvesting graduates from law schools in London and Windsor.

Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, Miller Thomson LLP, and Borden Ladner Gervais LLP are national firms with local offices. Lerners, Siskinds, Ross & McBride, Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP, Hicks Morley, and Bereskin & Parr have Toronto offices and a southwestern Ontario presence.

They compete, and sometimes partner with a swathe of local mid-sized firms, usually in the 10- to 30-lawyer range, although Harrison Pensa in London has amassed a professional staff of over 50 lawyers. In addition there are boutiques and small and sole practitioners in abundance in every major centre.

The first large centre you encounter as you move west from Toronto is Guelph, an attractive tree-lined city dominated by a large cathedral and one of the best universities in Canada. Smith Valeriote Law Firm LLP, the largest locally owned firm in Guelph, was formed in 1999 through a merger of two local firms. Partners Diana Piccoli and Mark Rodenburg point out that Guelph has such a diverse cultural and economic base that it has often been used as a test city for government initiatives.

“As well as its strength in [the] agricultural industry, Guelph has a lot of builder/developer work,” says Piccoli. “There is a huge manufacturing base as well as agricultural industry [off-shoots].” If that range of work is not enough, Guelph is also close enough, and has low enough fees, to capture work from the Toronto area. “They get the same service in Guelph but there is a big difference in the hourly rate,” says Rodenburg.

Things get more industrial as you move southwest to Kitchener/Waterloo. Bruce Lee, a partner at Giffen Lee LLP, one of the largest locally owned multi-service firms, describes it as an industrial community with many private business corporations and family-owned businesses. “There is a typical commercial base and then there is the high-tech industry. It centres around the University of Waterloo, where many students have become graduates and stayed.”

It was the high-tech industry that attracted Gowlings to set up an office in Kitchener/Waterloo. In 1986, it merged with a local firm of 44 lawyers — Simmons Siber Jenkins. “The attraction was the growing technology market,” says John Doherty, managing partner of the Waterloo regional office where intellectual property is a key aspect of the practice.

“The merger helped us get a foothold in that market. Our range of services runs the gamut of the needs of a company from start up.” Doherty comments on the diverse and entrepreneurial spirit of the Waterloo business community. “It’s part of the DNA of Waterloo region’s culture. From the Schneiders to the RIMs and the Sandvines, there’s a growing and thriving cluster.”

Richard Trafford, managing partner of Miller Thomson for southwestern Ontario, is a veteran of what was the oldest local firm in Kitchener/Waterloo. “Sims Clement Eastman had a direct lineage back to 1858,” he says. “At the time when we were approached by Miller Thomson in 2002, a great many of our clients were slowly but surely moving to the national stage, and we felt we had to do the same thing to maintain and grow our client base.”

Trafford says he feels this reality was very much a product of the area, which has been growing rapidly. “My office has doubled in size since then. In 2003, we merged with Kearns McKinnon, a firm with about 105 years of history in Guelph, and that office has also grown substantially. In 2006, a London office was added when the partners and associates of McCarthy [Tétrault LLP] came over.”

Trafford feels that other business decisions have impacted positively on the growth of the firm in the region. “Sims operated in the heart of Kitchener but we have moved to the Accelerator Centre in the University of Waterloo Research Park. The first floor is tenanted by businesses in their infancy — start-ups that are being incubated. The second floor has the master’s and bachelor degrees of business entrepreneurialism, and we occupy the third floor. There has been a tremendous amount of high-tech activity north of Research Park and the move has been very positive for us.”

In Guelph, the Miller Thomson office, which has a strong agri-business group, also moved from downtown Guelph to the University of Guelph Research Park. “We literally dropped it in the middle of agri-Canada,” says Trafford. “There are hundreds of head offices within walking distance.”

Gowlings further increased its southwestern Ontario strength with an office in Hamilton in 1995. The Hamilton Bay area has a population of 650,000. Hamilton is one of the oldest cities in Ontario, and its development as a transportation hub, with the largest inland port and the largest cargo-carrying airport in Canada, have made it an active and thriving community.

While most people associate Hamilton with megalithic steel companies, Paul Milne of Simpson Wigle Law LLP says what you see from the Skyway Bridge of the steel plants is only one view of the city. “There is certainly an industry base here, much of it family owned, but the community has changed enormously with the introduction of a health-care industry centred around the huge research facilities at McMaster University. It is one of the major universities in the country, with significant research aspects and substantive research facilities including Innovation Park.”

Milne thinks the unique thing about Hamilton is the greater preponderance of private family businesses, all within the envelope of health care and education. “The community is moving towards information/knowledge with health care and education leading the way.”

In the middle of the region, you will find the lawyers of London. Iain Sneddon, one of the managing partners at local firm Cohen Highley, says London’s position is such that it is treated like the Toronto of southwestern Ontario. “Small practices use our expertise. Just as the larger firms in Toronto might capture work up to Kitchener/Waterloo, London is far enough away from Toronto to capture the work from the southwestern realms. The work in our Sarnia office is almost all referral based.”

As you move down towards Windsor, you start finding a more international presence exploiting cross-border opportunities. Greg Monforton, while working in his personal injury boutique Greg Monforton and Partners, frequently sees the effect of the proximity of the border. “In personal injury work, we often see Americans injured in Ontario and Canadians injured in Michigan.”

Monforton has also observed that the number of lawyers practising immigration law has increased greatly in the last five years and that capital is flowing more freely between countries as corporate matters become transnational and international.

Miller Canfield is an American firm that in 2002, combined with Wilson Walker Hochberg Slopen LLP, the largest firm in Windsor, to become Windsor and Metro Detroit’s largest law firm. Its Canadian law group services organizations seeking to invest and establish operations in Canada. It has offices across America, in Poland, and recently started up in Toronto.

Siskinds LLP, which also has offices in London, Toronto, and Quebec, maintains its Windsor office primarily to handle immigration going both ways over the border.

“Many clients are commercial-based and we are arranging workers for their businesses,” says partner Catherine Bruni. “From here we can service most of the province. You don’t need to be where the work is.”

Monforton agrees. “With the increased role of technology, it’s not as important in any field to be as Toronto-centric.” And you don’t have to be Johnny-on-the-spot in Windsor to get all the cross-border work either.

Doherty of Gowlings in Waterloo says one of the strongest trends he has seen in the last 10 or 15 years is the increase in cross-border work. “This naturally reflects the business reality. Southwestern Ontario is a great place to do business. There are a lot of connections.”