St John's: Big-city practice, small town lifestyle

St John's: Big-city practice, small town lifestyle
Lawyers who have not visited St. John’s, NL, in some time will find the view from historic Signal Hill reassuringly familiar. The multi-coloured houses, reminiscent of the painted ladies in San Francisco but distinctively East Coast, continue to dot the landscape. The salt tang from the harbour still lingers in the air, and the pubs that line Duckworth Street, as always, invite you in with infectious laughter.

But visitors to St. John’s will discover something disconcertingly different: prosperity. Arguably once the poorest province in Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador has discovered uptapped wealth in oil fields. St. John’s is home to much of the new-found affluence, and legal practices in the city are thriving — and shifting focus — as a result.

“Oil changes everything,” says Jeffrey Benson, a name partner with Benson Buffett PLC Inc., one of the largest independent law firms in the province. “In addition to exponential growth in local industries that directly service the oil patch and a large influx of similarly minded extra-provincial entities, there have also been increases in well-compensated employees in and around the St. John’s metropolitan area,” he notes. “Consumer-oriented businesses have been booming, the residential and commercial real estate markets have been skyrocketing, and the local population has diversified.”

From 2004 to 2014, Newfoundland and Labrador outperformed the rest of the country and most of the world. The province recorded substantial gains in real household disposable income per capita, a measure of average consumer purchasing power, outpacing all other provinces over the decade. More people are working than ever before and the unemployment rate is lower than any time since 1973. For the first time in more than 40 years, Newfoundland and Labrador no longer has the highest unemployment rate in Canada. Last year, the province was one of only three in the country to earn an A+ rating for economic performance from the Conference Board of Canada.

Although the oil industry has not existed in Newfoundland and Labrador for very long, it is now a key economic driver. From 1997 through 2007, the Hibernia, Terra Nova, and White Rose fields produced 867 million barrels of crude oil, worth about $46 billion, according to Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage. The industry accounted for 35 per cent of the provincial GDP in 2007, up from 13 per cent in 1999 and 24.3 per cent in 2004. According to Statistics Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador experienced greater economic growth in 2007 than any other Canadian province, largely due to its oil and mining industries. “We have seen unprecedented growth,” says Neil Jacobs, regional managing partner in Newfoundland and Labrador with Stewart McKelvey, one of the largest firms on the East Coast. “Newfoundland has gone from a have-not province to a have province. That changes the whole dynamic within the country.”

In addition to contributing directly and significantly to national coffers, the province’s wealth has had a direct impact on the practice of law here. “Thirty years ago to say you were doing work for an oil company was unheard of,” says Steve Marshall, a partner with Roebothan McKay Marshall, one of the province’s largest personal injury firms. “Today everyone has a finger in that oil field. You’d be hard pressed to find a law firm that didn’t have a lawyer doing some work for an oil company and the spinoffs.”

The impact of the oil industry is felt in boardrooms and courtrooms. Law offices have responded by enhancing their skills and building an expertise in offshore oil. The opportunities for lawyers in St. John’s have grown outside the traditional practice areas, with corporate opportunities rising to an ever-greater degree, says Benson, a former president of the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador. “Practice specialization is becoming a bit more common,” he notes. “For instance, my practice is primarily in the business law area, and I am seeing a definite trend away from generalists and towards specialists in this area.”

The nature of the work is also changing. “We’re now servicing larger clients with larger-value deals,” says Jacobs, who was called to the bar of Newfoundland in 1986. “Having the opportunity to work on these world-class projects sets us apart. You need to develop skills that are on the cutting edge. You’re getting experience in Newfoundland now that you used to be able to get only in the larger centres.”

For the bigger firms in the city, which has a population of just over 210,000, the expertise that has been acquired is attracting clients from across the country. “We are competing more and more with larger firms across Canada,” says Jacobs.

It’s a much different reality from what lawyers in the province have traditionally experienced. When Marshall started his career, he joined a new firm established by a young up and comer — Danny Williams, who would go on to become one of the province’s most beloved premiers. Marshall had just graduated with his LLB from the University of New Brunswick (Newfoundland has no law school) and looking to land an articling job back home. Williams had been Marshall’s hockey coach, and the two knew each other on and off the ice, as is often the way in smaller cities and close-knit communities.

Williams’ fledgling enterprise started as a small boutique office with five lawyers and three support staff. Today, there are 65 staff, including 20 lawyers who turn up for work each day in their own six-storey office building. “Our firm has expanded exponentially,” says Marshall. “The legal community has mirrored that growth to some extent.” More work, of course, means a need for more lawyers, and that need is evident in St. John’s. “The Newfoundland legal community is small, but growing,” notes Benson. “In the 10-year period between 2004 and 2014, it has grown by 175, an approximate 20-per-cent increase.”

Younger lawyers are also finding the legal landscape in St. John’s attractive. There is the possibility of work in an exciting and lucrative area, and in a community that has the energy and vibrancy that accompanies prosperity. But the flow of oil money doesn’t mean it is easy street for lawyers. Marshall cautions young lawyers to prepare for a demanding career. “There’s always room for lawyers that are willing to work hard, but if you come in thinking the money will roll in and you’ll golf on Mondays and Fridays, you need to think again.”

He adds that the way of working in St. John’s will also be different. Marshall has 600 clients, and he can run into any one of them at the grocery store. “You’ll have to update them. That’s part of the process.” In addition to increased pressure for new legal talent, the demands on established lawyers are growing. The work day for most is noticeably longer than it has traditionally been. In terms, of work/life balance, notes Jacobs, “we think we have a leg up on the rest of the country, but that may be changing.”

Newfoundlanders have been fiercely protective and understandably proud of that work/life balance. It has historically included a 15-minute drive to work, if you weren’t within walking distance of the office. Weekends were a time to unwind and socialize, not shift the work location from the firm to home. A booming economy has changed that laid-back lifestyle for many. The demands of business are the demands of clients.

And St. John’s is booming. It has always been the largest city in the province and the centre of government, business, and cultural activity. Now it is an economic force to contend with in any region. According to a report published by the city’s Office of Strategy and Engagement, St. John’s accounted for 48 per cent of the provincial GDP in 2013, and 38.3 per cent of the population called the city home in 2011. Incomes in the St. John’s metro region have risen more than 50 per cent since 2005. Higher incomes and increasing consumer confidence have facilitated considerable growth in retail sales, which have jumped by more than $1 billion dollars since 2003.

Despite the growth and energy that comes with being the major city in a robust economy, the city itself and the bar in St. John’s remains small, and Newfoundland hospitality prevails no matter what the economic reality. “There are still less than 1,000 lawyers holding active practice status, which enables each lawyer to still bump into many of his or her colleagues on a regular basis,” says Benson. “The fact that we remain relatively small in size and insular by geography tends to foster and protect the sense of collegiality.”

“As a practice bar, the lawyers in Newfoundland and Labrador are not as easily connected to the rest of Canada,” notes Jacobs. “We’re a little more remote, a little closer to each other.”

Civility and deference are a way of doing business and conducting oneself that are both expected and respected. “Always down here when the trial is over — win, lose, or draw — you walk over and shake hands. Always,” says Marshall. He recalls recently attending a wake for a colleague from another firm. In this city, Marshall notes, “you know one another. Your kids hang around with their kids. There is usually a connection.”

Lawyers in St. John’s appreciate those connections and the lifestyle it enables them and their families to lead — and they will fight to retain that. “We will become a big city practice with a small-city work environment,” says Jacobs. “It is the best of both worlds.”

That world is facing a small upheaval. The drastic decline in oil prices is having an impact on business. “For every $1 drop in oil prices, there is a $30-million drop in provincial coffers,” notes Jacobs. That economic impact has ripples that reach well beyond oil companies to the community at large and the professionals that operate in that community. “At this precise moment, the legal profession, and most other Newfoundland and Labrador business sectors, are attempting to sort out the combined effects of $55-a-barrel oil and the provincial government’s new-found fiscal restraint,” notes Benson. “The latter seems inextricably tied to the former, but the two in concert may have some some short-term but deleterious impacts upon the local economy and business community, which in turn may bear upon the areas in which we lawyers are currently practising.”

Benson says he senses a recent pause within the bar while “those who might hire lawyers and students sort through where matters will fall out in the price-per-barrel debate. This has resulted in some hourly rate sensitivities throughout many industries. However, my personal view is that once things stabilize in the short to medium term, the current trepidation on hiring will abate soon thereafter for both laterals and students.”

One thing is certain: lawyers in St. John’s will weather the storm. This is a city, and a province, all too familiar with hardship — and enjoying life regardless. For Steve Marshall, hockey remains a passion decades after Danny Williams coached him. For Jacobs, community service, including serving as the long-time chair of the Anglican Charitable Foundation for Children, is a passion — and a privilege.

And for all the lawyers in Newfoundland’s largest city, there is the sense of satisfaction that comes from a job well done with colleagues well respected. They’ll even own up to that Friday night at the Duke of Duckworth over a pint or two.

St John's by the Numbers

  • 536 Number of law society members in St. John’s with active practising status
  • 138 Number of law firms in Newfoundland and Labrador (including sole practitioners)
  • 94 Percentage of firms in the province with 10 or fewer lawyers
  • 0 Number of firms with 50 or more lawyers
  • 76 Percentage of members in St. John’s who practise within the city
  • 39 Percentage of lawyers in active practice in Newfoundland and Labrador who are female
  • 31 Percentage of lawyers in private practice who are female
  • 69 Percentage of lawyers in private practice who are male
  • $338,877 Average price of a home in St. John’s (May 2013-May 2014, from stjohnsrealestateonline.com/category/market-trends)
Information from Brenda Grimes, executive director of the Law Society of Newfoundland & Labrador (unless otherwise noted). All statistics are current as of Feb. 17, 2015

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