City Review - Halifax: where roots run deep and the livin' is easy

Nova Scotia''s economy is doing well and there are loads of opportunities for lawyers who are willing to trade high salaries for other lifestyle considerations.


{mosmodule module=Multi-ad box1}The Atlantic Ocean has defined Halifax. Indeed, it was the panoramic view out to sea that persuaded Col. Edward Cornwallis to drop anchor in the world’s second-largest ice-free harbour and establish the New World’s first fortified town, a strategy intended to thwart the French threat looming in Louisbourg.

While no cannon was ever fired in battle from Citadel Hill, the fortress built to defend the British honour and its land-locked assets, settlers arrived in droves. Among the 2,500 colonists on board the Sphinx with Cornwallis were tradesmen and merchants. They were soon joined by settlers from New England drawn to the thriving community and its equally thriving fishery.

Not surprisingly, new commercial enterprises, expanding industries, and military concerns also attracted another group of settlers: lawyers. Many of the families they represented are still here in one form or another. Many of the firms they established still exist, if only in name.

Those connections are significant, says Bernie Miller, the managing partner and CEO of McInnes Cooper who spent 18 years with the firm’s Halifax office before moving to its Moncton, N.B., office. “[The city] has got long roots and a deep history. You can trace that history back,” he notes.

His colleague David MacDougall, a partner in the Halifax office, agrees. “There are firms here with longstanding attachments to their legal providers,” he says. “This reflects the fact that many of these firms were family run. . . . Their legal service providers grew with them.”

Today that growth is reflected in two distinct ways in the Halifax legal community. First, economic development in the city and throughout the region as whole is spurring demand for more lawyers and more services. Second, in an effort to meet that demand, law firms are reorganizing, realigning, and recreating themselves. In the process, what is believed to be the country’s only truly regional firms have emerged.

Economically, Nova Scotia is doing well. A total of 46,000 jobs have been created since July 1999, and employment reached a record high of 450,800 in February 2007. Unemployment is expected to remain steady at eight per cent provincially and six per cent in the city. And the outlook remains positive. Real growth of 2.3 per cent is expected this year, along with low interest rates and inflation. Exports of goods and services are forecast to increase by 3.5 per cent.

Nothing breeds success like success. That may account for the sense of optimism in the business — and the legal — community. “There has not been a time when the confidence has been as high,” says Miller. “People seem quite bullish,” says Miller. For good reason.

“There are an unusually good range of opportunities in Halifax,” says Graham Steele, who served as general counsel for the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia before being elected to the provincial legislature as the New Democratic Party representative for Halifax Fairview.

Those opportunities are, to a large extent, linked to the city’s status in the region. “Halifax’s position as the financial centre of Atlantic Canada allows you to do work comparable to that in any major Canadian centre,” says Suzanne Rix, a partner with Cox & Palmer in Halifax.

Those opportunities generally echo the growth of companies in the city, the province, and the region. As a result, lawyers and firms have grown to accommodate demand, says Deanne MacLeod, a partner with Stewart McKelvey in Halifax. “The size and complexity of the transactions is getting greater and greater,” she notes. “A billion-dollar transaction was very new when I first started; it is less so now.”

That sophistication mirrors what is happening with business-attraction efforts in the city and the province. Halifax, for example, has been the direct beneficiary of dynamic, and dramatic, growth in the financial services sector. In the last few months of 2006, three of the world’s largest hedge fund companies announced they were setting up shop in the capital city. Putting down roots are Citco Fund Services, the leading global provider of administrative services to the hedge fund industry; Butterfield Fund Services, which manages more than US$65 billion in hedge-fund and mutual-fund assets; and Olympia Capital, an international hedge fund administrator.

This is not an anomaly, says Stephen Lund, president and chief executive officer of Nova Scotia Business Inc., the business-development arm for the province. Indeed, he contends, “We’re being called the next Dublin,” referring to the Irish city that went from being the “basket case of Europe to the number-one-performing city.”

While the financial firms will require a professional and pedigreed employee base, they will not require lawyers for the most part. As John Lewis, managing director of Butterfield Fund Services, explained to Canadian Lawyer, “We will be using law firms for incorporation, etc., as any new operation would do, but this is not really related to the financial sector. As the funds that we will be administering will not be Canadian or sold directly to retail Canadian investors, it will not involve Canadian securities lawyers or the Nova Scotia Securities Commission.”

Still, as accountants and business school grads flock to fill the positions in the financial sector, they will have legal needs that need to be met: everything from buying a house, to preparing a will, to drawing up divorce papers. In addition, as the sector grows, it will begin to create its own economic hub with demand for more and varied legal services.

The sector for which there is the greatest growth potential is offshore oil and gas. Nova Scotia yearns to be a “have” province and those dreams are fueled by the energy sector, specifically the Sable Offshore Energy Project, led by ExxonMobil Canada Properties Ltd., and the Deep Panuke offshore gas initiative, headed by EnCana Corp. Sable is a $3-billion project that began gas production in 1999 and involves development of six major natural gas fields. “[It] has been excellent for Nova Scotia and lawyers,” says Steele.

It’s hoped Deep Panuke will be just as excellent. The project is still in the exploration stage, but last year the province and EnCana Corp. signed an agreement that outlines the framework, including employment expectations, industrial benefits, royalties, and research and development funding for development of the natural gas field. The agreement includes a top-tier net-revenue rate of 32.5 per cent, 12.5 per cent above the high-risk generic rate, and a guarantee of 1.35 million person hours of work in Nova Scotia, with 850,000 hours of that work to be undertaken by Nova Scotians.

Oil and gas is not the be all and end all when it comes to energy opportunities for Nova Scotia. Growth is also strong on renewables like wind energy, hydroelectricity, tidal power, and biomass. “This is happening across the country,” notes MacDougall, who heads up McInnes Cooper’s energy and natural resources practice group. “We’re not a leader, but we’re not a lagger.”

With one noteworthy exception: tidal power. “We could be a world leader,” says MacDougall.

Nova Scotia has some of the highest tides in the world, and there is hope that power could be safely harnessed. A study conducted by the California-based Electric Power Research Institute concluded that Nova Scotia was the best location in the world to develop such power and identified eight potential tidal-power project sites along the coast. The maximum power generated from the sites using tidal-flow generators could exceed 300 megawatts.

Increased economic growth has put pressure on the legal community to meet increasing client needs. One way firms have done that is to merge. But they have not merged in typical law-firm fashion. “We have truly regional firms,” says MacLeod. “Other areas have city firms. Then there are national firms.”

There are three regional firms in Atlantic Canada: McInnes Cooper, Stewart McKelvey, and Cox & Palmer. They all have significant lawyer power in Halifax, the region’s largest city. What separates out the regional law firm concept here from elsewhere appears to be the emphasis on “regional.” “[We] share resources across the region. We don’t operate as an individual office. That concept is meaningless to us,” says MacDougall, who was born in Sydney, N.S.

He notes that his firm has now formally established practice groups and client service teams to ensure that ongoing and seamless service. “That’s our go-forward basis.” In Atlantic Canada, says MacLeod, it is not unusual to have clients who need services in all four provinces. “Trying to co-ordinate things is much easier when you have a regional firm. Departments are integrated, and at the end of the day, we can provide one bill.”

The concept — and realization — of the regional firm is in keeping with the history of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. “People are used to thinking cross-border,” says Steele. Atlantic Canadians, he adds, “have always been traders.”

Do not expect the success of the regional firm, however, to drive those firms to even greater heights. “Anything’s possible,” says Miller, “[but] I think it’s unlikely regional firms will become national.”

Another distinction of the Halifax bar is the breadth of service lawyers provide. “We do things differently. . . . We don’t specialize to the same degree. A corporate lawyer in Halifax can include corporate real estate, securities, and financial management,” says MacLeod. “That,” she adds, “suits me better.”

Indeed, work, and life, in Halifax seem to appeal to many lawyers. From a selling perspective, lifestyle is a key factor. Stephen Dempsey, president and CEO of the Greater Halifax Partnership, the economic growth agency for the municipality, says in Halifax alone, “We enjoy the benefits of over 196 communities offering a wide variety of lifestyle options.”

“There is more work-life balance in Halifax than in some larger Canadian centres,” says Rix. “Halifax is a great place to live and raise a family, and there are lots of fun activities made possible by living next to the Atlantic Ocean and many lakes.” For many lawyers, the city simply feels like home. “People that choose Halifax feel very comfortable in the city,” says Miller.

Part of that comfort comes from knowing you can afford to buy a house. For roughly $340,000 you can buy a senior executive two-storey home in Bedford, which is about a 20-minute drive from downtown in non-peak times and 40 minutes when traffic is “heavy.” Part of that comfort also comes from the possibility of balance. Museums are as close as a hike in the park. Sailing is as easy as slipping away to the cottage. Rock concerts are as likely (the Stones anyone?) to be in town as Cirque du Soleil.

The downside: cold, hard cash. “You pay a price for living here,” says Steele, who notes that his Dalhousie Law School classmates who moved out of province are earning more than those who stayed. That reality makes it difficult to compete for talent, says MacLeod, who is responsible for recruiting law grads to the firm’s Halifax office. “There is still a very large income gap, especially at the associate level.”

What is not lacking in the profession is amicability or skill. “The bar in Halifax is generally very collegial,” says Rix.
“There is healthy competition,” notes Miller, “but it is tempered by the fact that we are part of the same community.” Indeed, when McInnes Cooper unveiled its new digs in downtown Halifax, it hosted a gala open house for clients and then another one for lawyers and law firms in the city, including its major competitors. There is a practical reality to the collegiality, of course. “It’s a relatively small bar,” says MacLeod. “You’re going to run into the same lawyers. You want to make sure you have the reputation you want. Word travels fast.”

It is the community’s reputation for friendliness that has some lawyers in the city feeling a little under-appreciated on the national scene. “Some lawyers feel the community isn’t recognized across the country for its expertise,” says MacDougall. “That may or may not be true, [but] many lawyers here have practised elsewhere.”

Indeed, MacDougall is one of them. After a stint in Toronto, as he says, “I came home.”

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