Saskatoon: Strong economy boosts city's legal profession

Saskatoon: Strong economy boosts city's legal profession
Along the north bank of the South Saskatchewan River sits a bronze statue of a preacher and a chief gazing across the river looking at what is today the southeast side of Saskatoon. The monument marks the spot — according to the city’s history — of a meeting in August 1882 between the Dakota Sioux Chief Whitecap and Saskatoon’s founding father John Lake.

As the story goes, the Dakota chief counselled the temperance colony leader about where the best place would be to build a town site. A year later, Saskatoon was born and by 1884 the population was around 80 people with six houses, a store, and a sawmill and by 1903, the community officially became a town.

Like most other Saskatchewan communities at the time, Saskatoon depended upon agriculture to drive its economy and generate growth during numerous boom and bust cycles. Eventually the economy diversified turning to the mining industry and the province’s vast natural resources such as coal, uranium, and potash to fuel economic growth. “In Saskatchewan, as everyone I think knows now, we have had a very successful last 10 to 15 years for sure and before that as well,” says Dan Anderson, a partner and chairman of one of Saskatchewan’s largest law firms, MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman LLP. The last 10 or so of those years, the province  has had significant growth and he says he thinks the legal community has played a big part in that as it services that economy. “When [the economy] has done really well, then the lawyers have been busy with interesting work.
Lots of interesting clients to work with, interesting people, we’ve seen an influx of people from many parts of the world have come here to participate in what has been going on in Saskatchewan.”

International mining companies like Australia’s BHP Billiton and German-based K+S Potash Canada have opened offices in Saskatoon. Both are building new potash mines creating thousands of jobs related to the mining industry. This kind of economic activity and business growth usually means lots of legal work, something not lost on Anderson.

He has ties to Saskatoon’s business community serving as the president of the Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce in 2003. His list of clients include the First Nations Bank of Canada, Canpotex Ltd., Pacific & Western Credit Corp., Claude Resources Inc., AREVA Resources Canada Inc., and Cameco Corp. “It’s bound to have had an impact, there’s certainly a higher level kind of activity with those two and there’s lots of other companies that have come into the province not with any intentions at this time I don’t think to be producing but there’s still companies out there exploring for resources,” says Anderson. “That’s on top of the existing producers, the three existing [potash] producers going through significant expansion here in the province. That’s driven the economy in many areas, in our profession, certainly engineers and construction.”

All of the new and existing business has helped MLT grow to about 150 lawyers and staff in offices across Western Canada including Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, and a recently opened office in Vancouver.

And the economic future continues to look bright with the emerging science and technology industry and Saskatchewan’s agricultural industry. All of this growth compounded with Alberta’s recent economic slowdown due to lower oil prices has slowed Saskatchewan’s brain drain to its western neighbour down to a trickle. “To some degree it’s reversed, we’re seeing a lot of lawyers who are wanting to return to Saskatchewan,” says David Stack, a partner and executive committee member with McKercher LLP. “Particularly those who know Saskatchewan is a great place to have a family and do business.”

Stack says business is good in a variety of areas. “There are a few sectors picking up including insolvency areas and some labour and employment related to layoffs. Those things are picking up to some degree but we also continue to be busy in areas of transactions and corporate law,” he says. “We anticipate that Saskatchewan will see more business and we anticipate that will mean Saskatchewan law firms will be busier. And that will also likely mean more lawyers returning to Saskatchewan or showing an interest in coming to work in Saskatchewan.”

He says the firm plans to hire some recent law school graduates to add to the 60 lawyers already working in its Saskatoon and Regina offices. “We continue to grow as a firm and we’re hiring new young lawyers. We’ve got a great crop of young lawyers who are entrepreneurial minded. We are certainly in our firm expecting to see growth,” says Stack. “I would consider us to have a good component of young lawyers here.” And those young lawyers will be integral in the succession plans of the firm’s cohort of senior counsel approaching retirement.

Many of the 660 lawyers in Saskatoon’s legal community can trace their legal roots back to the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law. The school has graduated a prime minister, two premiers, several members of Parliament, and members of the Saskatchewan Legislature. Each year more than 1,000 people apply for the 126 seats the law school offers in the first year class and approximately 115 graduate annually.

“On average we see 50 to 60 applicants in the firm each year. We just went through a recruitment process. We had a record number of 75 applications,” says Tiffany Paulsen, a partner at Robertson Stromberg since 2008 who chairs the firm’s recruitment and retention committee. She says typically most of the applicants “about 80 per cent” went to the U of S College of Law. “We are seeing more and more students who either want to stay in Saskatchewan or they come here from somewhere else and recognize their job prospects are strong in Saskatchewan and they want to stay.”

Robertson Stromberg can trace its origins back to 1918 when Saskatoon was still very much in its infancy. Many influential lawyers founded the firm including James Wilfred Estey, who went on to be attorney general for Saskatchewan and later a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Paulsen is another lawyer fast becoming influential. She served on Saskatoon City Council since 2000 becoming the youngest person ever elected. Again, when she received the Queen’s Counsel, Paulsen was one of the youngest to receive the distinction in Saskatchewan. And by age 37, she married and soon entered into motherhood. “I didn’t have a plan to be honest with you,” says Paulsen laughing. “Babies came later in life for me. When I was an associate at the firm there wasn’t any partners at the table who had children in recent years,” says the mother of a four-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy. “I had my first child in 2011 and I think that year six babies were born in our firm, it was quite astonishing, actually. And since that time, in the past four years, we probably had over 10 babies and that includes staff,” says Paulsen. “I think it demonstrates that you don’t have to give up private practice if you’re in the right work environment to have a family.” Paulsen gives the partners at Robertson Stromberg a lot of credit for supporting the women of the firm “making sure they have a practice to come back to when they come back from maternity leave.”

In Saskatchewan there are 602 female lawyers of the 1,684 active practitioners. At the Robertson Stromberg partners table the ratio of men to women is getting close to being equal at about a 60/40 split. “Which is really quite remarkable for firms our size,” says Paulsen. “I remember a number of years ago when we were hiring a lot of women associates who started off as articling students and stayed on as associates and then ultimately came on as partners,” says Chris Donald, Robertson Stromberg’s managing partner. “We noted that we were doing very, very well by the women we hired in our firm. It wasn’t anything by design, this was the way it worked out.”

Donald says around the partnership table there are five partners older than 40 while the other five partners are younger. “We do have some older what we call contract lawyers here who, at one point, were partners but left the partnership but they still stay on and practise as lawyers,” says Donald. “And then we got a whole shwack of young associates. I am struck by how young our firm is generally speaking. We just got a whole ton of young people around here.”

Saskatoon continues to expand in every direction with new residential neighbourhoods popping up seemingly overnight — a far cry from the humble beginnings along the river more than 100 years ago. But as Alberta’s once mighty economy proves there is always the possibility of a downturn. Donald is quick to point out that Saskatchewan has not seen that yet. “We have a portfolio of clients that have different needs. So I think on balance we will probably come out okay even if there is a downturn,” says Donald. “There are the family law files, the real estate files, there’s on-going litigation needs, on-going corporate commercial needs. Those are the kind of things that come in, day in and day out. They drive the firm.”

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