Long before they get to court, personal injury boutiques face a foe every bit as tough as the stingiest of insurers: each other. “It’s very competitive, and it’s going to become even more so,” says Alan Farrer, managing partner of Thomson Rogers in Toronto. His firm recently teamed up with fellow boutiques Oatley Vigmond Personal Injury Lawyers LLP and McLeish Orlando LLP to form the Personal Injury Alliance.
The group’s series of slick television and radio ads bucked the industry trend, and have helped all three firms — each of which make our list — stand out from an increasing crowd ready to represent Canadians injured in accidents. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for consumers, especially in a climate like today, where insurers are lobbying well-financed campaigns with regulators to cut back on what people can get,” adds Farrer. “We use our resources, our size, and our experience to fight those efforts and get the type of recovery they need.”
At Slater Vecchio LLP in Vancouver, co-founder Michael Slater steers clear of advertising in favour of word-of-mouth and referrals. “We don’t advertise. It’s not about getting the maximum number of people coming in the door, but about how you deal with people and how you look at the world,” he says. “The best referral sources are previous clients. We’re fortunate that we’ve been doing it for a long time, so the client base continues to expand.”
Canadian Lawyer got its own taste of the competition as our online survey attracted unprecedented interest levels. A spectacular turnout saw thousands of voters giving their views in what one managing partner described as a “feeding frenzy.”
And it’s not just fellow boutiques our winners have to compete with. Some larger firms with more diversified practices have significant personal injury sections, and may even handle a larger volume of files than some of our final selections. However, for the purposes of our lists, we consider only firms that devote at least 80 per cent of their total work to a particular area. In order to stick with that definition, we were forced to discount a number of full-service firms whose PI practitioners were highly recommended.
According to Roger Oatley, a founder of Oatley Vigmond, the singular focus of the firm is key to its success. “We all used to think that tax law was the most complicated area, but I’d venture it’s now personal injury litigation, particularly where auto insurance issues are involved. It’s so highly complex that to do it well, a law firm has to restrict its practice to that one area.”
In the relatively new arbitration field, where half our winners didn’t even exist three years ago, competition is just heating up.
Kim Neeson, who founded Neeson Arbitration Chambers in 2010, says a wave of senior lawyers leaving large law firms to act full-time as arbitrators has catalyzed the rise of the arbitration chamber. She says the broad client bases of the Bay Street giants is more likely to be a hindrance than a help to someone transitioning into an arbitration practice. “It was becoming apparent to arbitrators who were previously working in law firms that conflicts were coming up, whether or not they were real or perceived, simply because of where they had their office,” she says.
NAC started with three members, including William Horton and Edward Saunders, but pretty soon, Neeson was getting more calls from prospective members. Now they’re up to eight. “In law, we like to be around other law people,” says Neeson. “Sharing a space that’s synergistic allows you to come in and be around like-minded individuals doing similar things.”
Arbitration Place CEO Kimberley Stewart wants to capitalize on the growth in ADR by putting her year-old centre at the heart of a push to get major international arbitrations into Canada. “I sent members of my team to virtually every other major centre of arbitration, including Singapore and London, so we were able to incorporate all their best features. The vision is to put Canada on the map as an excellent seat of arbitration internationally.”
Canadian Lawyer’s editorial team began the process of selecting Canada’s top 10 personal injury boutiques and top 10 arbitration chambers by creating a long list of the most notable players in their respective fields. We ran an online survey, alongside confidential interviews with the lawyers who refer work to, and deal regularly with, the firms and chambers on the long list. The editorial team then combined that input to compile the following results, listed in alphabetical order.
Top 10 Personal Injury boutiques
Bogoroch & Associates LLP
Bogoroch & Associates LLP opened its doors on Nov. 1, 1999, as a boutique plaintiff personal injury firm specializing in motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, disability claims, and product liability. Firm founder Richard Bogoroch is among eight current lawyers, in addition to law clerks and support staff. Its charitable-giving program has donated to causes including resources and services for injured persons, the advancement of medical research, and scholarships and bursaries for students to attend law school. Their lawyers “realize that they are opposing but not oppositional — they are working for the best result, not to be difficult or take unreasonable positions,” said one voter in the insurance business.
Gluckstein Personal Injury Lawyers PC
Bernard Gluckstein founded this firm in 1962, and his son Charles Gluckstein joined as a partner in 1999. The younger Gluckstein is the incoming president of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association. The firm concentrates solely on personal injury litigation and its lawyers have tried cases at every level including the Supreme Court of Canada. Junior lawyers trained there have gone on to be leaders in personal injury litigation or appointed as judges of the Ontario Superior Court. The firm has also carried out charitable work with brain and spinal cord injury organizations. “Produce results and care — a rare combination,” said one voter who ranked the firm at the top.
Howie Sacks & Henry LLP
On Jan. 1, 2000, Jim Howie, Neil Sacks, and Michael Henry formed a new personal injury law firm after breaking away from Thomson Rogers. The partnership has expanded over the past 13 years to include Adam Wagman, David Levy, Howard Blitstein, Renee Vinett, and Brad Moscato. Now with 14 lawyers and 60 staff, the firm is dedicated to assisting people who have sustained serious injuries or disabilities, along with their families, throughout Ontario. Howie was co-counsel in a case that ended with a $9-million settlement for a plaintiff severely injured in a collision along Highway 401. “Great lawyers from top to bottom. Exceptional commitment to their clients,” noted one voter.
McLeish Orlando LLP
Toronto, Barrie, Hamilton, Ont.
This firm was established in 1999 by John McLeish and Dale Orlando, who broke away from Loopstra Nixon Orlando LLP to set up their own shop. They were joined shortly after by fellow principal partner, Patrick Brown. All three are past presidents of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association. The firm later added Salvatore Shaw and Rikin Morzaria as partners, and they are among 11 lawyers currently practising there. In 2009, the firm made history by obtaining more than $18 million for teenage crash victim Katherine-Paige MacNeill. “They would be at the top of most people’s lists,” said one insurance defence lawyer, whose sentiments were reflected by a large number of voters. “That’s where I would send my family members,” she added.
Neinstein & Associates LLP
Established by Gary Neinstein more than 40 years ago, this Toronto firm has 11 lawyers, including Gary’s sons, Jeffrey and Greg Neinstein, as managing partners. The firm prides itself on providing comprehensive and compassionate service to its clients and their families, and its partners are recognized as certified specialists in civil litigation by the Law Society of Upper Canada. The firm represented Morgan Van Breda, who was rendered a paraplegic while in Cuba, in her action against the resort in a case that has become Canada’s leading authority on jurisdiction.
Oatley Vigmond Personal Injury Lawyers LLP
Roger Oatley, a past Advocates’ Society president, founded the firm in 1974 after spending two years as a defence lawyer. Jim Vigmond, a former president of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association, joined in 1993, and in 2002 the pair focused in on a specialized plaintiffs’ practice. There are 13 lawyers and around 80 other staff at the firm, which, apart from its head office in Barrie, has consultation offices dotted throughout the province in Toronto, Hamilton, North Bay, and Sudbury. Oatley pioneered “the science of what makes a jury or judge tick, and has taken it further than anyone else,” said one voter who credits the firm with setting the model for the prosecution of large catastrophic claims.
Singer Kwinter Personal Injury Lawyers
The firm was co-founded in 1974 by partners Alf Kwinter and the late Morris Singer, who were classmates at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. The firm’s original focus was criminal and family law, but gradually shifted to personal injury work. In the 2006 case Pereira v. Hamilton Township Farmers’ Mutual Fire Insurance Co., the seven-lawyer firm secured the largest jury award in the province’s history for punitive damages against an insurer. It also represented the plaintiff in Kamin v. Kawartha Dairy, which changed the law with respect to trip and fall. “The trial skills and integrity of Alf Kwinter are singular in the insurance bar,” said one voter of the firm’s principal.
Slater Vecchio LLP
Tony Vecchio and Michael Slater founded this Vancouver-based firm in 1998 and it has continued to grow each year. There are now 15 lawyers and 75 support staff, including three case managers. Slater recently claimed the 2013 Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia Bar award, while Vecchio earned himself a Queen’s Counsel appointment last year. A 2007 case fought by the firm — Aberdeen v. Township of Langley — resulted in one of the largest personal injury awards in British Columbia history. One defence lawyer, who regularly clashes with the firm, singled them out for praise: “They give me a serious run for my money, fighting the good fight, without alienating defence counsel in the process. If I was seriously injured, that’s where I would go.”
Founded in Toronto in 1936, and with 34 lawyers, Thomson Rogers is both the oldest and the largest firm on our list. Since its beginnings as a full-service commercial firm, the firm has gradually moved to specializing in personal injury cases. It now primarily helps people who have been catastrophically injured, usually as a result of a brain or spinal cord injury. Around 120 people are based at the firm’s Toronto office, carrying out work for clients in the province and across Canada. “They know when to settle and when to fight,” said one insurance defence lawyer, who ranked it first and commended the firm for its unrivalled bench strength.
Formed as Wagner & Associates in May 1988 by Raymond Wagner, this six-lawyer firm bills itself as the first boutique personal injury law firm in the Maritimes. Its practice extends beyond the boundaries of Nova Scotia into both New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Initially a general personal injury firm, it has developed a focus on clients seriously injured in catastrophic motor vehicle accident cases and medical negligence, especially birth trauma. Clients also include Westray mine disaster victim families, survivors of abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, and residents of the Sydney Tar Ponds. “Entrepreneurial, pragmatic, committed, and prepared to take matters to trial,” said one voter who ranked the firm top.
Click here for Part 2: Canadian Lawyer's top 10 arbitration chambers