When insurers sneeze, insurance defence firms are likely to catch a cold. There are only a handful of other practice areas that are as sensitive to the ebbs and flows of an industry controlled by a small number of corporations. And while recent developments in the insurance world might appear to be trivial from the outside, they’re having an outsized effect on the law firms that inhabit that domain.
Take the slow-moving consolidation amongst insurance companies. “There’s a lot of smaller defence firms that have sort of fallen by the wayside because insurers have become extremely large and they require firms with capacity,” says Paul Tushinski, managing partner at Dutton Brock LLP. “If you don’t have the ability to deal with those files either by way of numbers or resolution, they don’t deal with you.”
Cameron Godden, the managing partner at Bell Temple, takes note of the same trend. “There are fewer insurers — they keep buying each other — and there are accordingly fewer thriving boutique insurance defence firms,” he says.
And as these insurers get bigger, some have been expanding their in-house legal departments. “That’s a pressure on the outside firms like ours to compete with the in-house departments,” says William Chalmers, Hughes Amys LLP’s managing partner. Tushinski predicts over time “you’ll see more and more of that simple litigation, commodity work staying with the insurance companies because it’s easier to deal with that internally.”
Like many clients, insurance companies are increasingly pushing for alternative billing arrangements for much of the work they do send out. Tushinski says they’re “used to adapting to” the new reality of pressure from insurers to work on a flat-fee basis or using reduced or block fees. Chalmers adds: “We’re looking for alternative fee arrangements that really make sense on both sides and I think the insurance companies are looking for law firms that are not afraid of alternative fee arrangements and are willing to do some experimenting.”
While smaller firms and large, full-service firms may struggle in this environment, many of the larger insurance defence boutiques are finding themselves in a sweet spot. Godden says Bell Temple, which already has 45 lawyers, is in “growth mode.” Meanwhile, Hughes Amys has taken on half of another floor in anticipation of future growth. Dutton Brock LLP is also slowly adding lawyers as work from insurers piles on. “They beat a path to your door,” says Tushinski. “We can turn down work or we can increase the size of the firm in order to deal with the work.”
There are other tailwinds in the sails of insurance boutiques. According to Chalmers, insurance companies are becoming more comfortable taking an assertive line on small claims. “Insurance companies are at this time taking a bit more of an aggressive approach with respect to personal injury cases, maybe forcing plaintiffs to go to trial,” he says. He’s also seeing an explosion in accident benefit work in Ontario.
Of course, insurance defence lawyers don’t just deal with injury litigation. “We are really lawyers dealing with complex forms of litigation that just happen to involve an insurance company paying your fees,” says Tushinski.
And it’s the complex litigation that’s bringing in more business and attracting young lawyers to the practice area. Derek Abreu, a partner at Bell Temple and the firm’s articling chairman, says students drawn to litigation are increasingly moving towards careers in insurance. “We’re finding that we’re getting a lot of interest from young lawyers, and that interest has been growing over the last three, four, five years,” he says.
Chalmers is optimistic about future growth for insurance defence boutiques. “I’ve always wondered why there isn’t a mega-insurance defence firm. There’s lots of work out there, there’s lots of insurance clients, so why isn’t there a 100-person insurance defence firm?” he says. “I think we will continue to grow and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
The following are the Canadian Lawyer's top 10 insurance defence boutiques in alphabetical order.
Founded in 1945, Bell Temple has almost seven decades in the insurance field, during which it has established longstanding relationships with many of North America’s most prominent insurers. The firm’s 45 lawyers practice in areas including property, subrogation, casualty, commercial, environmental, class actions, health discipline, and malpractice claims. The firm has handled a number of major cases, including class action E-coli suits and the Sunrise Propane Depot explosion. Senior partner Cameron Godden has spearheaded the use of joint-defence strategies for multi-million dollar, multi-party litigation, such as the so-called “Operation Fog,” which involved more than 80 vehicles in one of Canada’s worst traffic collisions.
“Excellent lawyers; always well-prepared in court; strong advocates for their clients,”
said one voter who put Bell Temple at the top.
Benson Percival Brown LLP
Since Philip Benson founded it in 1956, the firm’s focus has always been on insurance defence. Barry Percival joined seven years later in 1963, and today the 25 lawyers who work out of its Toronto office represent some of the largest insurers in the country. The firm has also been a training ground for a number of judges. Among its alumni are three Superior Court judges, three Provincial Court judges, and three Superior Court masters. Benson Percival has also produced two attorneys general for Ontario, including current partner David Young and Roy McMurtry, who went on to become Ontario’s chief justice.
“Benson’s attention to detail and reliability — constantly a pleasure to work with,” noted one of the firm’s fans.
Clyde & Co. Canada LLP
International law firm Clyde & Co LLP stepped onto the Canadian stage in September 2011, after a merger with boutique Nicholl Paskell-Mede LLP. The firm has 53 lawyers split between its two Canadian offices with a practice focused on advocacy and dispute resolution in the areas of professional liability, casualty, construction and engineering, and insurance.
“Broad and deep experience, especially in provision of coverage opinions and limitation issues,” noted a voter.
Dolden Wallace Folick LLP
Vancouver, Toronto, Kelowna
Eric Dolden, Steve Wallace, and Lorne Folick established their insurance defence boutique in 1994. Recently celebrating their 20th year of service to the insurance industry, DWF has grown to a stage where it now employs 27 lawyers, including three in their Kelowna office and four in Toronto. The firm’s clients include insurance companies Aviva, Lloyd’s of London, Economical Mutual, and the Co-operators. The firm has managed to stand out from the crowd by prioritizing its expertise in specialty lines of insurance, such as directors’ and officers’ liability, professional liability, technology E&O, environmental impairment liability, and cyber data recovery and liability policies.
Dutton Brock LLP
This firm emerged from a line of shops that began in the early 1950s as Ferguson & Montgomery and then Cassels Mitchell Somers Dutton & Winkler. The modern firm was established in the early 1980s and currently boasts 48 lawyers. At least four judges including the former chief justice of Ontario Warren Winkler hail from the firm. Dutton Brock LLP has been involved in most major insurance matters — defence and coverage over the last 30 years. The firm focuses on achieving viable solutions to complex insurance litigation issues and includes substantial expertise representing defendants in many major class actions.
One respondent noted the firm has “excellent lawyers who know the law and are sensible in their handling of cases. No games, no silly tactics, just good lawyering.”
Flaherty Dow Elliott & McCarthy LLP
Toronto, Whitby, Ottawa
Co-founded in 1994, by Grant Dow and the late James Flaherty, longtime MP and federal minister of finance, the 20-lawyer firm led by Grant Dow and Todd McCarthy represents insurers and individuals across Ontario and the United States, from offices in Toronto, Whitby, and Ottawa. Focused on motor vehicle tort and accident benefit claims, including catastrophic, priority and loss transfer disputes, occupiers’ liability matters, and advancing class proceedings, the firm assists its clients in developing an overall litigation strategy and managing risk. Firm members are dedicated to both education and public service including Catherine Zingg who authors Accident Benefits in Ontario (originally authored by Flaherty) and Christine Elliott who is an MPP and was deputy leader of Ontario’s official opposition and currently running for leader.
“Great service, intellectual lawyers, sense of community and respect,” noted one firm booster.
Gasco Goodhue St-Germain LLP
Founded in 1977 by Robert Gasco, this 15-lawyer outfit from Montreal has made local, national, and international insurance clients its focus from inception. The firm boasts a perfectly bilingual team that has argued at all levels of Quebec court. Its practice includes: class actions, professional liability, civil liability, sports liability, municipal liability, libel and slander, inland marine insurance, environmental liability, construction, business interruption, transport, product liability, personal injury, property damage, and many other insurance areas.
Hughes Amys LLP
Toronto, Hamilton, Ont.
Hughes Amys LLP was originally established in 1918 by Frank Hughes and Thomas Agar. They were later joined by Jack Amys. In 1930, Hughes became the first lawyer in Canada to be appointed directly to the Supreme Court of Canada. This 54-lawyer firm focuses wholly on insurance defence providing legal services to many of the most respected insurance companies in the country. It offers services in a variety of areas including automobile insurance, libel and slander, marine and admiralty, property claims, personal injury, products and professional liability, fire and property insurance, and sport, recreational, and ski area liability. Alumnus Jamie Trimble was appointed to the Ontario Superior Court bench in Dec. 2013.
McCague Borlack LLP
Toronto, Ottawa, Kitchener, Ont.
Paul McCague and Howard Borlack established this boutique in 1994 with nine other lawyers. Nearly two decades later the firm boasts 57 lawyers, including seven in Ottawa and four in Kitchener, working in 39 practice areas. The firm has built a reputation for excellence in advocacy including their appearance before the Supreme Court of Canada in the precedent setting case on jurisdiction, Club Resorts Ltd. v. Van Breda.
“Great solicitors and the service is very good,” says one fellow Bay Streeter.
Stieber Berlach LLP
This Toronto boutique was founded in 1997 by Steven Stieber, Deborah Berlach, and Frank Csathy with eight lawyers. In the last 17 years, it has grown to 31 lawyers advising insurers, associations, municipalities, health care professionals, hospitals, managing general agents, insurance brokers, and corporations. Stieber Berlach’s expertise covers the entire spectrum of insurance litigation and it represents many of the largest insurers in Canada, as well as their policyholders, in courts across the country. Key practice areas are casualty and property, class actions, coverage, directors’ and officers’ liability, environmental and toxic torts, medical malpractice, municipal liability, products liability, and professional liability.
“Exceptional calibre of lawyers, intelligent, practical and personable counsel, and stellar client service,” noted one voter.
Click here to read Part 2: Canadian Lawyer's Top 5 Tax law boutiques and Top 5 Wills, trusts, & estates boutiques.