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Tax boutiques have continued on a path of steady, understated success. In some ways, it’s surprising tax boutiques continue to do so well considering they can’t get the spin-off work that their full-service brethren enjoy. “Because of the boutique model, it does change a little bit the way we deliver the service,” says James Murdoch, managing partner of Thorsteinssons LLP. “We have always had to be entrepreneurial, we’ve always had to focus on client needs in order to get clients through the door.”
Some firms like Thorsteinssons, continue to thrive as “full-service” tax practices, doing everything from personal income tax to big deal work. And with large offices in both Vancouver and Toronto, and clients throughout the country, the firm also bills itself as having a national practice. “Our Vancouver office is very substantial, it’s 30-plus tax lawyers in that market. If you look around at Bay Street firms, you will probably have trouble finding 30 tax lawyers in one office in most of these firms.”
Other firms, like Millar Kreklewetz LLP have succeeded by taking a narrow focus; in its case, commodity, and customs tax.
The boutiques associated with the Big Four professional services firms also continue to make their mark. This year, Couzin Taylor LLP, the affiliated firm of EY Canada, and Deloitte Tax Law LLP are on our list. Murdoch says despite this development, his firm still gets referral work from the accounting firms. “It’s relationship driven a lot of the time,” he says.
The business of tax law continues to be driven by the steady stream of new rules the Canada Revenue Agency imposes on clients. “There is always, every year, new rules, new compliance requirements imposed on businesses and individuals in the tax realm,” says Murdoch. “And those bring work to us — legal advice is needed in situations where maybe it didn’t used to be.”
Taxes may be one of life’s two certainties, but it’s that other one — death — that drives the estates and trusts business. “I think there’s a great deal more interest in talking about things like death, dying, disease, aging than there was five years ago,” says Jan Goddard, founding partner of Goddard Gamage Stephens LLP.
She points out we’re in an aging society, which inevitably leads to a greater volume of work for estate and trusts firms. “We’re seeing a large transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. Sometimes people behave very well and plan ahead and sometimes people don’t do any planning and don’t behave very well either.”
Her firm is well-positioned to take advantage of this trend. “I’ve always been very clear that we were interested in working in the area of elder law,” says Goddard.
However, the practice area as a whole continues to face some challenges. The first is it’s difficult for young lawyers to be adequately trained in estates and trusts. “A lot of legal work around estates and trusts and elder law is done by sole practitioners and smaller firms,” says Goddard. “And in fact, some of the larger firms are really pulling out of offering those services at all.” That means there are fewer articling positions available, despite a greater need.
The other challenge is finding ways to engage younger clients. “How do we help people who are in their 20s and 30s understand that it is useful for them to have a will and to have powers of attorney?” asks Goddard. “There’s a real untapped market out there of younger people.”
The following are the Canadian Lawyer's top 5 tax law boutiques and top 5 wills, trusts, & estates boutiques, in alphabetical order.
Top 5 Tax law boutiques
Couzin Taylor LLP
Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal
Couzin Taylor LLP, which is allied with Ernst & Young LLP, has 44 lawyers in five offices across Canada, and deals in all areas of tax law, including tax litigation and tax controversy, corporate tax, human capital, international tax, mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance and capital markets, sales, customs and excise, and indirect tax.
Founded in 2002 by tax law heavyweights Robert Couzin and Roger Taylor, the firm acts for a wide array of clients that includes individuals, tax planners, and public and private companies. Bell Aliant, Canadian Tire, Dow Chemical, Ford Credit Canada Ltd., Hudson’s Bay Co., JDS Uniphase, Navistar, and Standard Life Assurance Co. of Canada are among those the firm has advised.
Deloitte Tax Law LLP
Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal
Deloitte Tax Law LLP delivers a full range of tax law services with 17 lawyers operating from four offices across Canada, providing legal services in all areas of tax law including: tax litigation and controversy, tax advisory, customs, and global trade and commodity tax services. Representing both foreign and domestic clients, its lawyers have extensive experience in helping taxpayers manage large and complex audits and disputes, including those involving transfer pricing and the application of the General Anti-Avoidance Rule. Deloitte Tax Law also helps clients resolve customs and international trade disputes, minimize duties and taxes, and manage compliance concerns.
“Joyce Lee, partner there, is extremely talented, responsive, and available to clients. Wonderful to deal with,”
gushed one survey respondent.
Felesky Flynn LLP
This Alberta boutique was founded in 1978 after Calgary tax lawyer Brian Felesky and Edmonton’s Gordon Flynn during a flight hatched the idea of launching a regional tax boutique, but their reputation stretches far beyond the province. Recently, the firm has carved an even finer niche for itself in butterfly transactions, where large companies are broken up into smaller pieces, leading the tax planning for clients in two of the largest such deals in Canadian history. Flynn is one of a number of the firm’s 32 lawyers who double as professional accountants.
Millar Kreklewetz LLP
Formed in 1996 by Jack Millar and Robert Kreklewetz, the firm is small, but has laser-beam focus, working exclusively on tax, trade, GST/HST, and customs matters. And since they don’t do income tax, the firm often receives referrals from other tax specialists. It has represented clients in tax and trade litigation before all levels of court, including before the Tax Court of Canada, the Canadian International Trade Tribunal, the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court of Canada. The firm also runs a “Tax & Trade Blog.”
One respondent said Millar Kreklewetz was best in the country when it comes to GST/HST work, while another praised the firm’s work on both tax planning and representation.
In 1964, Pat Thorsteinsson, one of the first tax law specialists in Canada, founded the firm. It now has 27 lawyers at its Vancouver headquarters, with another 13 in the Toronto office, which opened in 1991. The firm has had strength in the resource sector since its early days, and it is still a source of some of its most significant mandates. The firm has also acted in other high profile cases, including representing Winston Blackmore, the leader of the polygamist community Bountiful, B.C., in a dispute with the government. The firm is also strong in tax litigation and tax planning, and has produced a disproportionate number of judges, including Federal Court of Appeal Justice Karen Sharlow and Tax Court of Canada Justice Leslie Little.
“Intelligent and practical legal advice; deep expertise in tax planning and excellent reputation for litigation,” said one respondent. “Very proactive in teaching and very professional and knowledgeable,” notes another.
Top 5 Wills, trusts, & estates boutiques
Goddard Gamage Stephens LLP
The firm was founded by Jan Goddard in 1999, and became Goddard Gamage Stephens in 2012 reflecting partners Nimali Gamage and Ontario’s former Children’s Lawyer Debra Stephens. The seven-lawyer firm has carved out niches in capacity and elder law within its broader estates and trusts practice. The firm is very active in the legal community and beyond, through participation in developing and speaking at education programs, writing, and volunteering at the OBA, CBA, Canadian Centre for Elder Law, and Law Commission of Ontario.
“Incredible knowledge of the law in this area,” said one survey respondent who refers clients to the firm. “Professional, knowledgeable, and just awesome,” said another.
Hull & Hull LLP
Hull & Hull began its rise to the top of the trusts and estates bar when the late Rodney Hull and his son Ian hung their shingle in the early 1990s. Rodney became one of the most respected estates lawyers in Canada, receiving the Ontario Bar Association wills and trusts section’s award of excellence in 2005 and the Law Society Medal in 2007. The firm, now led by Ian and managing partner Suzana Popovic-Montag, currently lists 16 lawyers under its banner. Many respondents were impressed by the firm’s litigation experience.
“The lawyers in this firm are friendly, communicate well with clients and most of all, they are in the forefront and well respected by the judiciary,” said one voter.
Legacy Tax + Trust Lawyers
Four of this boutique’s seven founding principals still practise at its Vancouver office 14 years after its 2000 launch. Two — justices Sandra Ballance and Jane Dardi — now sit on the bench of the British Columbia Supreme Court and one — Gordon B. MacRae — has just retired. The firm has grown to 20 lawyers, with a focus on private clients and owner-managed businesses. The firm has a strong focus on representing charities and not-for-profits as well as ongoing tax planning and litigation, as well as estates and trusts work, including succession planning, for individuals and family owned businesses.
“I have worked with lawyers at Legacy on mutual clients or on opposing sides,” wrote a respondent. “They are knowledgeable and I would recommend them should there be a conflict.”
Schnurr Kirsh Schnurr Oelbaum Tator LLP
Established in 1992, this Toronto-based, eight-lawyer boutique specializes in estate, trust, and guardianship litigation. Its lawyers have chaired conferences, taught extensively, and authored two leading texts in estate law, Estate Litigation and The Annotated Ontario Estates Statutes. The firm acts as counsel to lawyers throughout Canada. The lawyers conduct mediation in all areas of estate and power of attorney disputes.
“Brian Schnurr’s expertise,” was called out by respondents as a key reason for recommending this boutique.
Whaley Estate Litigation
This boutique was formed in 2005 when principal Kimberly Whaley struck out on her own following a spell as a partner at Dickson MacGregor Appell LLP. Her estate litigation practice now boasts seven lawyers and eight litigation support clerks and focuses on dispute resolution in the areas of estate, trust, capacity, powers of attorney, guardianship, elder law, fiduciary advice, and opinion work. The firm also mediates estate and related disputes and has a string of clients including major trust companies, lawyers, doctors, family members, beneficiaries, and fiduciaries.
“Whaley keeps the community informed. Our go-to group,” said one voter.