On the surface, the change of office buildings by even a major law firm would normally be considered something of a “ho-hum” event.
But that’s not the case when it comes to the recent move of Winnipeg’s Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP. The decision by the long-established law firm to commit to a downtown development, which at the time had not even begun construction, was a huge dollars-and-cents endorsement of a bold gamble to help revitalize Winnipeg’s struggling downtown.
Wayne Johnson is a commercial realtor in Winnipeg and the author of the influential, twice-a-year Johnson Report on the state of commercial real estate in the city. He calls the law firm’s commitment to the True North Square project “absolutely crucial” to the project’s success. “They are the lead tenants. They are lawyers, highly respected members of the community. That spoke volumes for the development.”
With TDS on board, the True North developers could sign other top-quality tenants, including MNP, the largest accounting, tax and consulting firm in Winnipeg. They also landed the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Manitoba Liquor Commission, which is planning a retail outlet on the ground floor.
When complete, True North Square will be a four-tower development that will include a rental condominium and a hotel component, which are now under or nearing construction. True North Square is owned by the same company that owns the Winnipeg Jets. They were behind the construction of the nearby NHL hockey arena downtown in 2004. The hope is a combination of hockey, other entertainment events, retail, business offices and residential will mean more feet on the street and, hence, greater vibrancy for this development, as well as for Winnipeg’s downtown.
Donald Douglas, former managing partner and CEO of Thompson Dorfman Sweatman, calls the project “the most important downtown development in Winnipeg in a generation," in a press release when it was first announced in 2016.
In the view of Allan Fineblit, chief operating officer of the firm, the vacant lot on which the new development is built “reflected the decline of Winnipeg.” He says it was “the vision of the building that really excited our lawyers.”
But the move was not strictly some sort of altruistic, city-building move. It was a hard-headed business decision. The building is new, TDS has the top three floors and it has enabled the firm to overhaul the way it does business. According to Fineblit, “It was an opportunity to start with a blank piece of paper.” And speaking of paper, legal practice requires much less paper and much less room today. No more two-storey libraries, no more huge offices. “Lawyers just don’t need a lot of space anymore,” says Fineblit. “It was an opportunity to decide what we wanted our space to really be.”
Fineblit says all the offices are the same size. About 9.3 square metres. “We moved from an environment loaded with paper and introduced new technology.”
He acknowledges that the move initially met resistance from about half the firm’s partners, but, in the end, he says, “I think it was the vision that really excited our lawyers.”