If the story of boutique law firms and big national shops was ever about the little guy’s unlikely victory against a giant, that’s no longer the case. “It’s not a matter of David versus Goliath and we’re the David; we’re actually the Goliath,” says Gregory Heywood, founding partner and a member of the management committee at Roper Greyell LLP, a Vancouver-based law firm and one of the top 10 vote-getters in this year’s Canadian Lawyer labour and employment boutique law firms survey.
As new areas like privacy and the use of social media in the workplace proliferate, labour and employment boutiques say they have no shortage of exciting work or the legal skills to tackle them.
One of the biggest changes in the labour and employment market was the arrival last year of Littler Mendelson PC, which snapped up almost all of the lawyers from a well-established Toronto boutique practice. Calling itself the world’s largest labour and employment firm representing management, Littler opened an office in Toronto in August 2015 with seven lawyers; all but one, office managing shareholder Sari Springer, are from Kuretzky Vassos Henderson LLP. It’s the latest move in a series of expansions Littler Mendelson has been undertaking recently, especially in North, Central, and South America, the firm said at the time. It now has more than 1,000 lawyers in 67 offices.
It’s no secret that traditional labour work is going down due to a decline in union representation, says Heywood, but the areas of human rights, labour arbitration, and the question of duty to accommodate continue to yield work. Still, the employment law market remains extremely tight and competitive, according to Janice Rubin, partner at Rubin Thomlinson LLP.
Although employment law work remains a vibrant part of practice at Rubin Thomlinson, the firm has found a niche in the workplace investigations, review, and training area, says Rubin, who led a high-profile investigation at the CBC last year of alleged sexual harassment in the workplace by former radio host Jian Ghomeshi.
In part due to prominent cases such as that one, employers are more open to doing workplace reviews before problems reach a crisis point, says Rubin, adding her firm is not only called upon to do these reviews but to also provide a unique training program for employers. “I’d say that we are absolutely continuing to grow workplace investigations, which are reactive. We’re also now working with employers with a slightly more proactive iteration of that, which is the assessment or the review.”
If Ontario passes bill C-132, the sexual violence and harassment action plan act, employers will have a statutory obligation to conduct workplace investigations, which could potentially increase work in this area, Rubin also says.
Even as Canada’s economy faltered in the last year, Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP managing partner Stephen Shamie says 2015 was his firm’s most successful of its 43 years. “That’s the beauty of labour and employment or human resources law practice because we’re busy when the economy is good and we’re busy when the economy is poor,” says Shamie. “We just do different things.”
Employment litigation has been a busy area, according to Shamie, who says the creation of the Ontario government’s new pension legislation also produced “a terrific amount of work” for his firm. Hicks Morley has seen growth in work coming from existing firms as well as new clients, Shamie adds, noting in 2015, the firm hired nine new lawyers, “which is an incredible number for us.”
How we did it: Canadian Lawyer selected Canada’s top labour and employment boutiques by asking readers to rank a long list of notable firms, which was whittled down to a short list through votes drawing on input from our editorial team. The following results are an alphabetical list of the 10 boutique firms that are rated most highly by other lawyers.
Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre Cornish LLP
Paul Cavalluzzo, Jim Hayes, and Elizabeth Shilton founded the firm in 1983 with a social justice and equality focus. The 35-lawyer firm now represents clients such as the Ontario English Catholic Teachers, the Ontario Nurses Association, and Laborers’ International Union of North America. The firm’s notable mandates include representing the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression on the Bill C-51 constitutional challenge, serving as counsel to Canadian non-residents in their constitutional challenge relating to their right to vote, and advocating on behalf of complainants and the CCLA in the disciplinary hearings for Supt. David (Mark) Fenton for his role in police “kettling” during the G20 summit in Toronto.
“Depth of talent, longtime commitment to union cause.”
Emond Harnden LLP
Founded in 1987 by Jacques Emond and Lynn Harnden, Emond Harnden says it’s grown to become one of Canada’s largest fully bilingual boutique labour and employment law firms exclusively representing the interests of management. The firm works with clients in a broad range of sectors, such as hospitals, school boards, aviation, universities/colleges, manufacturing, municipalities, and governmental and non-governmental employers. Its areas of specialization include education, privacy, human rights, occupational health and safety, pension and benefits, civil litigation, and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
“Talented, personable individuals who deal fairly with all parties in a matter.”
Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP
Toronto, Hamilton, London, Ont.
The firm’s history dates back to the establishment of full-service firm Ferguson Montgomery Cassels and Mitchell in 1953. In the early ’80s, the firm’s labour department founded Winkler Filion & Wakely, which became Filion Wakely & Thorup in 1993 when founding member and former Ontario chief justice Warren Winkler was appointed to the bench. The firm gained its current name in 2001 with the addition of partner Frank Angeletti’s name to the brand. All of the firm’s 42 lawyers practise exclusively on behalf of employers in industries that range from education and health to transportation and retail. Its clients include Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Home Depot, National Steel Car, McMaster University, and Roots. Filion Wakely cites depth of experience and a focus on the clients’ businesses as its greatest strengths.
“Top expertise in all areas of labour and employment, and good talent at all levels.”
Harris & Co. LLP
Founded in 1992 by 12 partners, the firm has grown to 45 lawyers today and holds the status as the largest management-side employment and labour firm in Western Canada. It acts for leading companies in sectors such as forestry, mining, oil and gas, banking, airline, entertainment, retail, food, and construction. In the public sector, the firm represents most post-secondary institutions and health authorities in the region, as well as school boards and municipalities. It’s currently representing Seaspan ULC in an interest arbitration involving a major restructuring of its collective agreements. It represented the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association in the 2014 provincial teacher labour dispute, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority in a challenge to its attendance management program, and the Pacific Newspaper Group in its restructuring.
“Great lineup of top lawyers.”
Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP
Toronto, Waterloo, Kingston, Ottawa, London, Ont.
The largest Canadian labour and employment boutique firm, Hicks Morley is armed with 117 lawyers, the size of a mid-size national firm. Managing partner Stephen Shamie says there’s no shortage of work for those lawyers, who represent major universities, financial institutions, school boards, and manufacturers. Robert Hicks, Colin Morley, Fred Hamilton, Bruce Stewart, and Tom Storie founded the firm in 1972. Its most notable works include representing Ontario universities in the negotiation of a new sector-wide pension plan, acting for professional sports leagues involved in concussion class actions, and serving as counsel to one of Canada’s leading steel producers in its CCAA restructuring.
“Diversity of practice, large number of expert lawyers with a wide variety of experience who provide good counsel and advice.”
Littler Mendelson PC
Toronto, (plus 70 U.S. and global offices)
Founded in 1942, Littler is the world’s largest employment and labour firm. It expanded into Canada in August 2015, opening its Toronto office with Barry Kuretzky, George Vassos, and Monty Verlint, lawyers who were part of the well-known boutique Kuretzky Vassos LLP. The firm has seven lawyers in Toronto and 1,067 around the world. Its clients include Brink’s, Maxxam Analytics International Corp., Manpower, Lakehead University, and Amer Sports. It practises in virtually every area of employment and labour law: employment contract negotiations; collective bargaining; human rights; disability and accommodation; attendance management; workplace violence and harassment prevention; workplace investigations; structuring of severance packages; wrongful dismissal litigation and dispute resolution; employment standards; and workers’ compensation.
High level of professionalism, quality of their work, and collegiality is “a trickle-down effect from the senior lawyers, George Vassos and Barry Kuretzky.”
Mathews Dinsdale & Clark LLP
Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Sarnia, Ont., Sault St. Marie, Ont.
First established in Toronto, the 47-lawyer firm now has offices in three provinces and has represented clients across Canada for more than 60 years. It is the Canadian member of Ius Laboris, the world’s largest alliance of workplace law firms. The firm’s notable clients include EllisDon Corp., Cargill Ltd., Labatt Breweries of Canada, Lafarge Canada Inc., Overwaitea Food Group, Porter Airlines Inc., Shoppers Drug Mart, and Sofina Foods Inc. Recent successes include: arguing under s. 8 of the Charter for the exclusion of the majority of the evidence obtained by the Ministry of Labour during its investigation of a workplace incident; successfully defending an employer against unfair labour practice allegations during a union organizing campaign; defending an employer charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act after a worker was killed in an accident in the workplace.
“Constructive strategic approach to labour relations combined with consistent, high level of practical negotiation and litigation skills.”
Roper Greyell LLP
Founded in 2006, the firm is among the largest labour and employment boutique firms in Western Canada with national reach through its Employment Law Alliance membership. Its 28 lawyers represent clients like Lafarge Canada and Interfor. The firm’s founding partners in 2006 included Tom Roper, Delayne Sartison, Gregory Heywood, Kim Thorne, Gabrielle Scorer, Michael Wagner, and Graeme McFarlane. It represents clients in most areas of the B.C. economy including construction, forestry, marine transportation, mining, health care, post-secondary education, retail food and drugs, public transportation, utilities, and the municipal sector. Its practice areas include management-side labour law, human rights law, wrongful dismissal litigation, drafting employment contracts, privacy law, workers compensation, and employment standards. The firm has an alliance with Sherrard Kuzz in Ontario.
“Roper Greyell has long been noted for excellence, and Tom Roper particularly is undoubtedly one of the leading labour lawyers in the nation.”
Rubin Thomlinson LLP
Toronto, Mississauga, Ont.
Rubin Thomlinson gained national recognition last year when it took on a high-profile workplace investigation at the CBC looking into the Jian Ghomeshi affair. Founded in 2003 by Janice Rubin and Christine Thomlinson, the 13-lawyer firm says clients see it as “the go-to” firm for workplace investigation-related work. Its other notable mandates include an independent review of the Canadian Olympic Committee and an external review of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Harassment and Discrimination-Free Workplace Policy. Its employment law clients include Canada Colors and Chemicals Ltd., Cineplex Ltd., Hallmark Canada, Intact Financial Corp., Kinross Gold Corp., and Tridel.
“Their publications are the best. They are not focused on revenue but on service. Their integrity is flawless.”
Sherrard Kuzz LLP
The Toronto-based law firm of 24 lawyers serves clients in various sectors in both unionized and non-unionized workplaces, including the health sector, the construction sector, the retail, and service sector. In operation for 14 years, the firm works with clients in Canada and internationally, in both the public and private sectors. Its clients range in size as well as complexity of operations from small, single-location, single-business enterprises to large, multi-site, diverse, multinational corporations. Its extensive areas of practice include: collective bargaining, employee relations, executive employment agreements and compensation, arbitrations and mediation, human rights issues, workplace audits and investigations, wrongful and constructive dismissal litigation, policy development and implementation, and occupational health and safety. The firm has an alliance with Roper Greyell in B.C.
“Sherrard Kuzz provides amazing service, has a strong team, always available, do not back away from tough situations, creative and solutions driven, aware of costs.”
Click here to read part 2: Top 10 Intellectual Property boutiques.
This version of the article includes an update to Roper Greyell's information.