Hodgson Russ celebrates 35 years of cross-border legal excellence

Focus now on deepening and strengthening Canadian connections with next generation of lawyers

Hodgson Russ celebrates 35 years of cross-border legal excellence
George Eydt, Toronto office managing partner and leader of the Canada-U.S. cross-border practice; Britta McKenna, partner and international trusts & estates practice leader, Buffalo office; Kinsey O’Brien, partner, labour and employment, Buffalo office

This article was produced in partnership with Hodgson Russ LLP

George J. Eydt never intended to be a cross-border lawyer. Called to the bar in Ontario he assumed he’d be practicing on Bay Street, but when his wife was offered a fantastic career opportunity in Buffalo, NY, his career path changed.

Knowing he would return to Toronto at some point, he joined 200-year veteran Hodgson Russ LLP, because he saw opportunity in the firm’s vision. The Buffalo office especially had been a point of call for Canadian businesses and individuals with U.S. interests since the 1950s and it was increasingly evident that Canadian demand for U.S. legal services was growing. In 1989, Hodgson Russ made its intentions known by setting down roots in Mississauga followed by a move ten years later to its Toronto office. The idea was to enhance service delivery and be in closer proximity to Canadian clients, with the Toronto office as the hub for Canada-U.S. cross-border transactions, individual client matters, and multijurisdictional disputes.

“For me, it was obvious,” says Eydt, now Toronto office managing partner and leader of the Canada-U.S. cross-border practice. “Give up the practice of Ontario law to be a New York lawyer.  An instant competitive advantage by being one of the few New York lawyers who are active in Canada as opposed to being an Ontario lawyer among many.”

Over the years, Hodgson Russ continued to cement itself as a stalwart in the Canadian legal community and the cross-border practice became an integral part of the firm’s overall success. With visionary corporate partners John Barber and Pam Heilman, Dianne Bennett and Alice Joseffer in tax, and immigration partner Lance Madden as the driving forces of the original expansion, the cross-border team carried the torch forward by broadening and deepening relationships in Canada. From attending conferences in Vancouver or Halifax to meeting with referral firm connections in Calgary or Toronto, it's an approach that works: this year, Hodgson Russ is celebrating the 35th anniversary of its first bricks-and-mortar office on Canadian soil.

“We look at the lessons from the early days and we believe that model still makes good sense,” Eydt notes. “We understand we can do legal work remotely, but it’s still a business strongly built on relationships. We’re doubling down on our model to get more of our people out there, wherever that may take us in Canada — that was the goal then, and that’s the goal now.”

Comprehensive support for Canadians’ U.S. interests

The clients served by Hodgson Russ’ cross-border team are many and varied, but the bottom line is there’s support for virtually any U.S. legal issue a Canadian might have related to personal or business interests. Hodgson Russ collaborates with clients’ Canadian accountants, lawyers, and other advisors to ensure coordination of laws between jurisdictions.

“We represent both businesses and the individuals behind them, with added practice areas that complement cross-border practice — not a lot of other firms offer the total package like we do,” says Eydt, who spends his days advising Canadian companies that are growing organically through contractual relationships or acquiring businesses in the United States.

“When I have a U.S. expansion conversation with a Canadian business, we often start by talking immigration. To run a U.S. business, key people have to be able to get across the border. We have folks at the firm who practice in this area, so it’s a seamless process to set up a consult and come up with a solution.”

While practicing only U.S. law, the team is familiar with Canada’s culture and legal system in a way that allows them to get up to speed on new matters quickly and solve problems practically.

Known for significant experience advising on U.S. estate and income tax issues that arise for Canadian families, including for U.S. family members and from ownership of interests in foreign trusts, estates, corporations, or other entities, “we’re often called in on these types of matters and we can issue-spot for clients,” says Britta McKenna, partner and international trusts & estates practice leader in Hodgson Russ’ Buffalo office.

“While we don’t practice Canadian law, we are familiar with it and have an ear to changes,” McKenna, who has been with the firm for 19 years, explains. She points to a recently proposed tax change on the Canadian side that would increase the capital gains tax rate effective June 25. When working with impacted clients to address this potential change, she’s not starting from square one.

“I’m not suggesting options A-C, which won’t work in Canada, but go right to option D which might be a solution. The firm’s extensive history in the cross-border space helps us efficiently address ever-changing environments on both sides of the border. Overall, I like that we’re crafting solutions from whole cloth and working with Canadian advisors on a joint approach to a project.  It’s my favourite way to work — and doing so with unique cross-border client scenarios makes it all the better.”

On the employment and labour side, the firm serves Canadian clients across a broad array of industries, including in the tech, finance, and manufacturing fields. Hodgson Russ brings a unique understanding of the workforce-related issues Canadian clients face when expanding into the United States and are prepared to offer timely and practical solutions in this arena as well.

For Kinsey O’Brien, a newer partner who’s been practicing labour and employment for 10 years and with the firm for seven, working with clients north of the border made sense: she grew up in Buffalo, and, like many Buffalo natives, hopes her Canadian neighbours would consider her “an honourary Canadian.” Day-to-day she advises on hiring, firing, and any disputes that arise, often with pleasantly surprising results.

“Canadian clients are often pleased to learn that we can structure employment arrangements as at-will and that there are no statutory entitlements to holiday pay or severance. It is always nice to be the bearer of good news that there is flexibility when hiring in the U.S.”

A large portion of O’Brien’s work also involves multi-state compliance, layering together “many different puzzle pieces” to develop strategies that work across a nationwide workforce.

“It’s interesting work and though my cross-border practice is not as well developed as George’s and Britta’s, I enjoy my regular trips to our Toronto office and am looking forward to taking my involvement to the next level.”

Charting the course for another three decades, and beyond

Going forward, a smart and focused recruitment approach that underscores diversity, equity, and inclusion is one of the main objectives for Hodgson Russ. Once onboard, the firm also emphasizes training and development opportunities. “We need to find and keep the right people, and our multi-faceted efforts help us retain the best and brightest so that we can serve our cross-border clients well,” says O’Brien.

Embracing legal technology and investing in technological advancements for efficiency in client matters is also a top priority, as is leveraging it to foster a culture of continuous learning and support within the firm. The firm’s AI Task Force explores the use of a variety of such tools, identifying best use cases for technologies that will increase the efficiency of providing legal services to the firm’s clients. 

For the firm, the importance of face-to-face interaction can’t be overemphasized. O’Brien explains that she sees her role as a strategic advisor and partner, with the depth of relationships coming from “walking through fires together and being there for the ups and downs.”

Now that forced virtual catchups during the COVID era are a thing of the past, the established cross-border lawyers are making more trips up North and bringing the next generation along to show them how it’s done. From Barber’s and the other firm pioneers’ time, business development is a specific skillset that’s built into the fabric of the firm culture and considered from entry-level recruitment. McKenna, who was hiring partner for the firm for many years, says the cross-border practice is always a prominent part of hiring discussions, and this year, the firm’s summer associate class includes three students from Canadian law schools.

“We are employing summer associates from Canadian law schools who are looking to practice U.S. law as part of a vibrant cross-border practice — the hope is they will be part of the next generation of cross-border attorneys and will deepen and further our relationships,” says McKenna.

Firm co-chairs Carol Fitzsimmons and John Zak, who were appointed this February, are also integral to the firm’s continued growth in Canada. The firm believes the Canadian market is underserved by U.S. law firms, particularly regional markets outside of main city centres. The idea is to bring the firm’s top legal minds to the table for Canadian clients in whatever role they request, whether that’s leading a deal or simply providing U.S. subject matter expertise. And importantly, “we don’t over-lawyer,” says Eydt, “which means we can come in at a comparatively lower price point.”

“We aim to provide one-stop-shopping for Canadians with U.S. components to their business or personal lives,” McKenna sums up. “We help identify and service their every legal need in the cross-border space, and we look forward to continuing to do so.”

The importance of community engagement

Contributing to organizations that serve the Canadian business, legal, and individual communities and are important to clients and friends in Canada is another way the firm highlights its commitment to both sides of the border. Supporters of the Ontario Bar Association, Society of Trust and Estates Practitioners (STEP), Canadian Tax Foundation, Canadian Franchise Association, Human Resources Professional Association, Canadian Association of Counsel to Employers (CACE), to name a few, the lawyers participate as members, sponsors, and speakers.

One community engagement of particular note is the firm’s long-standing history with Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival, where many of the firm’s lawyers have served on the board of governors and in other capacities. It’s a partnership Eydt calls natural given the geography: it’s located closer to Buffalo than to Toronto.

Another call-out is the firm’s work with the Central Canadian Public Television Association (CCPTA), an organization that looks to promote education both in Canada and the U.S. on cross-border topics. Working in concert with public broadcasting in Buffalo, CCPTA helped raise the funds to produce a comprehensive TV program about the War of 1812. It was broadcast across both countries and is used as an educational piece in schools. Despite academic debate, the border didn’t change, so clearly the war was a draw, says Eydt, the latest from the firm to sit on the board of the CCPTA. He adds that the firm’s work in the communities they live in and serve is part of good citizenship. The cross-border team has built itself up on many long-standing traditions and the 35th anniversary “is really a celebration of those who came before us.”

“We’d like to thank the Canadian legal and business community for welcoming our expansion across the border and putting their confidence in us as one of the preeminent U.S. law firms in Canada,” Eydt says. “We celebrate this milestone with them and look forward to the challenges and successes to come.”

O’Brien agrees that herself and her colleagues are “standing on the shoulders of giants who paved the way,” and puts special focus on the future. She believes the firm’s legacy is in good hands.

“The calibre of our people is unmatched; they’re incredibly bright and bring their A-game every day. As one of the new generation coming up in Hodgson Russ, I can confidently say we’re committed to being a part of the community and helping Canadian clients meet their goals. We’re in it for the long haul — and we’re just getting going.”

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