A time of transition - Part 1

Significant changes have hit the legal economy in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and out-of-province interest is not abating. A lot has changed since Canadian Lawyer last surveyed top Prairie firms in 2013. This time around, the historical definition of what constitutes a regional firm in the Prairies was updated to allow the inclusion of MLT Aikins LLP and Miller Thomson LLP, both of which have offices in more than one province in Canada.

A time of transition - Part 1
Significant changes have hit the legal economy in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and out-of-province interest is not abating.

A lot has changed since Canadian Lawyer last surveyed top Prairie firms in 2013. This time around, the historical definition of what constitutes a regional firm in the Prairies was updated to allow the inclusion of MLT Aikins LLP and Miller Thomson LLP, both of which have offices in more than one province in Canada. Much as the survey has been updated to keep up with the times, so has the region on which it’s reporting. The Prairies have seen: a significant merger, with MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman LLP and Aikins MacAulay & Thorvaldson LLP joining forces at the beginning of the year; a pick-up in infrastructure spend; rising competition from alternative service providers; and — especially in Saskatchewan — strong population growth.

“Our market has remained very stable — work is solid,” says Glen Peters, managing partner at Fillmore Riley LLP in Winnipeg. “We’re quite isolated geographically, but it’s a fairly diversified economy.”

Don Wilson, managing partner of MLT Aikins, says it’s no secret these are not the strongest of times in the Prairie provinces, but he adds that commodities are by definition cyclical.

While there’s been “a bit of a dip” from a legal services perspective, newer areas such as intellectual property, IT, privacy, working with first nations and insolvency have seen a rapid expansion.

“These are a lot of specialties that traditionally might have been serviced in the Prairies from outside of the Prairies, but we have tremendous capability in these areas that we’ve grown over the years. We’re much more recession-proof than we used to be — these are part of the reasons why, because of branching into some of these other areas,” Wilson says.

Jeff Grubb, Miller Thomson’s office managing partner in Saskatchewan, says that despite the fact resource prices have been down for the last few years, the “fundamentals in Saskatchewan are still very strong.”

Along with a growth in infrastructure, general construction and the health sector work, more businesses are getting into the supply and processing areas of agriculture, Grubb says.

“Even on the oil and gas side, we’re starting to see companies increasing their capital spend and so it looks like that’s turning the corner as well,” he adds.

McKercher LLP partner David Stack says there’s been an upswing in commercial litigation for his firm, which usually occurs when the economy softens a bit, and an increase in immigration work as the population keeps growing. McKercher is also finding strength in its environmental law and there’s a bit of a buzz around renewable energy lately as well, he adds.  

“The economy is the major challenge — maybe it’s affecting the quantity of commercial and corporate transactions but not necessarily the quality,” he says. “Saskatchewan is very much open for business and our commercial and corporate lawyers are attracting some very significant work.”

Stack adds that, unlike other regions, “we’re not really feeling the pressure to reduce our complement of lawyers. To the contrary, one of our challenges continues to be that we would love to attract a few strong mid-range associates. It’s been one of our continual struggles over the last few years.”

Grubb echoes this, saying “everybody is busy and we’re growing, and finding lawyers to serve that growth is a challenge. We have been fortunate to have some lawyers come back to Saskatchewan from other provinces, but it still remains a challenge.”

Keith LaBossiere, CEO and managing partner of Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP, says a growing trend he’s noticed is out-of-province clients.

“With technology these days and how much we do online, over the phone or otherwise, it doesn’t matter where you’re located,” he says. “If you can do the same kind of product or better product at a much cheaper price, it makes a lot of sense to people to do it that way.”

LaBossiere also notes that downtown Winnipeg is undergoing “a renaissance” with new builds and renovations, and his firm will be moving into True North Square next year: It’s a $400-million-plus project he calls a “once-in-a-generation-type development.” As founding partner in the office tower, TDS will be taking the top three floors.

“It’s a significant move because many of the larger law firms have been situated at the corner of Portage and Main for many, many years and this is a move away from that. Really what it’s doing is it’s strengthening downtown in its entirety,” he says.

But for the Prairies overall, the MLT Aikins merger has been an important milestone.

“This is the first time there’s a multijurisdictional firm of any size operating in the province, so it will start to change the local dynamics a little bit,” says Peters.

“As a firm goes into another jurisdiction, that will impact prior referral agency and affiliation relationships and it can create both legal and business conflicts. There will most certainly be some shaking out of some of those relationships now, and it’s started already.”

Despite the challenges it might pose, Peters says, more importantly, it also creates some “significant opportunities,” calling the aftermath of the merger an exciting time for everybody.

Every firm has had to weigh the pros and cons of national versus regional, and while Fillmore Riley hasn’t headed down the national road yet, “we always have to evaluate what’s best for our client base and for our own firm profitability and culture,” says Peters.

Kent Davidson, chair of Miller Thomson LLP, says his firm has been “decidedly” pan-Canadian and it hasn’t developed any “manifest destiny” to expand to other jurisdictions. The MLT Aikins merger “validates to some degree the approach we’ve always taken to our own growth and plans,” he says.

“I think it’s certainly an attractive movement for anyone who is serving the large national clients. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an enhanced interest in the market insofar as national firms are concerned.”

LaBossiere agrees, saying the merger is “an indication there’s a lot going on in the Prairie provinces and, ultimately, I think it’s going to be good for all of us in this region.”

How we did it
Canadian Lawyer asked lawyers, in-house counsel and clients from across Canada to vote on the top full-service regional firms in the Prairies. They were asked to rank their top 5 firms in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan from a preliminary list, with a chance to nominate a firm that was not included on the list. Respondents’ rankings were based on firms’ regional service coverage, client base, notable mandates, service excellence and legal expertise. To be considered in the vote, firms were required to have at least one office based in the Prairies and offer a wide range of legal services. The final lists were determined through a points system, with the top 5 firms for Manitoba and the top 5 firms for Saskatchewan listed alphabetically.


Fillmore Riley LLP (Winnipeg)

Total lawyers: 70

Offices (with # of lawyers): Winnipeg (70)

Core practice areas: banking and finance, business law, insurance, litigation, real estate and commercial development and tax and wealth management

Key clients: Royal Bank of Canada, Public Utilities Board of Manitoba, Richardson International Limited, MacDon Industries, The Great-West Life Assurance Company, 24-7 Intouch Inc. and lead Manitoba counsel for multiple major insurance companies

Notable mandates: acted as counsel for Fresh Hemp Foods Ltd. (Manitoba Harvest) and its shareholders in connection with its sale to Compass Diversified Holdings for a total purchase price of $132.5 million; acted as counsel for Slate Asset Management with respect to the sale of its retail and industrial portfolios, representing some 25 commercial properties located throughout Manitoba including regional shopping centres, strip malls, business centres and single-use tenant premises; counsel for 24-7 Intouch Inc. in connection with the acquisition of a minority interest in 24-7 Intouch by Trilantic Capital Management L.P.; assisted as Manitoba counsel to TRG Capital Corp., the private capital division of British Columbia-based The Regency Group, in the acquisition of Manitoba-based Melet Plastics Inc. (a leading provider of engineered plastics solutions) and North Dakota-based Ambutech Inc. (a business engaged in the design, manufacture and distribution of mobility canes for the visually impaired around the world); acted for the vendors in the sale of 100 per cent of the shares of Knifeless Technologies to 3M Canada

Star alumni: Madam Justice Shelley C. Fitzpatrick, Supreme Court of British Columbia; Justice David Kroft, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench; Master Shayne Berthaudin, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench; retired justice Susan Devine, Provincial Court of Manitoba; retired Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench justices Gerald Jewers and George Lockwood; retired Manitoba Court of Appeal Justice Alan Philp; Steven Kroft, CEO, Conviron; Jean-Marc Ruest, vice president, corporate affairs and general counsel, Richardson International

Affiliations: TAGLaw and the Risk Management Counsel of Canada

The firm: established in 1883 as Richards & Coutlee, the firm is now named after two long-time members of the Manitoba bar, W.P. Fillmore and H.J. Riley. Originally founded on the core practice areas of banking, financial and insurance law, the firm has grown to full-service status, with expertise in areas of law relevant to its local and international client base.
One respondent mentioned that the firm provides “full service in more practice areas than other firms, ISO certification for better quality customer service, high volunteerism in legal profession [and an] innovative brand.” Another said that they “enjoy working with their lawyers. Very competent, very fair with cost, very professional.”

MLT Aikins LLP (formerly Aikins MacAulay & Thorvaldson LLP) (Winnipeg)

Total lawyers: More than 235

Offices (with # of lawyers): Winnipeg (95), Regina (45), Saskatoon (41), Calgary (25), Edmonton (19), Vancouver (12)

Core practice areas: corporate and commercial, litigation, labour and employment, securities, intellectual property and taxation; key sectors include transportation, science and technology, agribusiness, energy, mining, real estate, infrastructure, aboriginal, banking and insurance

Key clients: Canadian Medical Protective Association, Exchange Income Corp., Artis REIT, Parrish and Heimbecker, Ltd., Manitoba Hydro, ARxIUM Inc., HyLife Ltd., Lanesborough Reit, Manitoba Telecom Services Inc., WGI Westman Group Inc., True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd., Harvard Developments Inc., Greystone Managed Investments Inc., Cameco Corp., AREVA Resources Canada Inc., The Mosaic Co., Saskatchewan Power Corp.

Notable mandates: Aikins (legacy): lead counsel to Artis REIT in connection with the purchase and sale of more than $600 million worth of property in Canada and the U.S. in 2016. Currently co-lead counsel, alongside Stikeman Elliott LLP, to Manitoba Telecom Services Inc. in its acquisition by BCE Inc. (transaction valued at $3.9 billion). Lead counsel to the Canadian Wheat Board in connection with its $500-million “commercialization” transaction. Acted as external counsel for Tundra Energy Marketing Ltd. in the acquisition of the Enbridge South Prairie Region Pipeline System from Enbridge Income Fund for $ 1.075 billion.

MLT (legacy): successfully fended off a class action certification motion against Canadian National Railway over alleged overcharging for grain carriage; acted for Federated Co-operatives Ltd. in its $138-million acquisition of oil company Triwest Exploration Inc.; Saskatchewan counsel to Wal-Mart Canada Realty Inc. and SmartCentres Realty Inc. on the $200-million sale of shopping centres to Great-West Life Assurance Co. and London Life Insurance Co.; represented Northern Property REIT in $70-million purchase of Nunavut properties; advised Saskatchewan Power Corp. on its $1.24-billion Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Demonstration Project.

Star alumni: Sir James Aikins, founder and first president of the Canadian Bar Association, Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba; Murdoch A. MacPherson, Q.C., member of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan; G.S. Thorvaldson, Q.C., senator, member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba; Brian Dickson, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada; Marshall Rothstein, Justice of the SCC; Eleanor Dawson, Federal Court of Appeal Justice; Donald K. MacPherson, Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Saskatchewan; John Klebuc, Chief Justice of Saskatchewan; Robert Richards, Chief Justice of Saskatchewan; Georgina Jackson, Justice of the Court of Appeal of Saskatchewan

Affiliations:  None

The firm: MLT Aikins LLP is a full-service law firm with a presence across Western Canada. Based out of six key centres across the four western provinces, it’s the only law firm to have offices in Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. As one of the 30 largest law firms in Canada, it is the result of the merger of MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman LLP (MLT) and Aikins MacAulay & Thorvaldson LLP (Aikins), whose histories date back to 1920 and 1879, respectively.

“Superb lawyers, top quality service, competitive price, Western Canadian reach,” said one respondent, with another citing its “depth of expertise in all areas of practice.”

Pitblado LLP (Winnipeg)

Total lawyers: 62

Offices (with # of lawyers): Two offices in Manitoba: Winnipeg (62) and one rural office

Core practice areas: corporate and commercial, litigation, labour and employment, taxation, banking, aboriginal law, commercial real estate and leasing/commercial leasing 

Representative clients: Pitblado enjoys the confidence of major banks, credit unions, insurers, financial service providers, pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers, contractors, health authorities, and boards

Star alumni: Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Candace Grammond; Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Robert Dewar; Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Associate Chief Justice Marianne Rivoalen; Former Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Ted Glowacki; Former Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice R.D. Guy; Former Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice John Scollin; Former Manitoba Court of Appeal Justice and Premier of Manitoba Sterling Lyon; Former Manitoba Court of Appeal Justice Kerr Twaddle; Former Senator Duncan Jessiman; His Worship Mayor Brian Bowman, City of Winnipeg; Assistant Deputy Minister, Manitoba Health, Seniors, and Active Living, Beth Beaupre; Chairman of the board and President and CEO of Onex Corp., Gerald Schwartz; Former Chairman of the board of the Global Media Network and visionary of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Israel Asper; Former General Counsel and Senior Vice President of Canwest Global Communications Corp., Richard Leipsic

Affiliations: Meritas

Notable mandates: Recently obtained $10.7 million trial judgment on behalf of vendors of insurance brokerage. This complex commercial litigation concerned the rectification of a share purchase agreement and attracted 'Case of the Year' recognition from Benchmark Canada; Provided advice on matters related to the law of Manitoba with respect to the City of Winnipeg's Southwest Rapid Transitway and Pembina Highway Underpass, a $467 million Public-Private Partnership project; Acted on behalf of Manitoba Blue Cross (MBC) on an $80 million dollar project creating a shared, SAP-based, claims processing solution serving MBC and a government medical payment system. Representation entailed negotiating a series of agreements with the government, system-builder, consultants, and service providers from conception through blueprint, build, and sustainment.
Pro bono: Pitblado Law is committed to supporting the community. It is proudly involved with the United Way Winnipeg, Legal Help Centre, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and several other outstanding not-for-profit organizations.

The firm: Pitblado Law is a full-service business law firm based in Winnipeg and serving local, national, and international clients. Operating for more than 130 years, it has 62 lawyers and a total team size of 130. Pitblado is the result of the amalgamation of several firms, and dates back as far as 1882. In the 1950s it became counsel for the International Nickel Co. in its multi-million dollar investment at Thompson. In 1971, Pitblado Hoskin & Co. amalgamated with Johnston Jessiman Gardner & Twaddle to form Pitblado & Hoskin, and moved to the corner of downtown Winnipeg's iconic Portage and Main intersection. In 1998, Pitblado & Hoskin merged with Buchwald Asper Gallagher Henteleff and assumed the firm's current name, Pitblado, in 2002. Since then, Pitblado has expanded its Aboriginal law, immigration, technology and privacy practices.

One respondent cites the firm's "service ethos," adding "Pitblado has a reputation for creativity and focusing on client needs. They also have a wide breadth of expertise." Another describes it as "forward thinking, innovative, authentic."

Taylor McCaffrey LLP (Winnipeg)

Total lawyers: 64

Offices (with # of lawyers): Winnipeg (64)

Core practice areas:  corporate & commercial, civil litigation, labour & employment, taxation, family law

Key clients: the City of Winnipeg, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Business Development Bank of Canada, the Royal Canadian Mint, Royal Bank of Canada, the University of Manitoba, CAA Manitoba, Forks North Portage Partnership, Brandon University, Loblaws, Caisse Financial Group, the Northwest Company, University of Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Airport Authority

Notable mandates: negotiated and completed the merger of CAA Manitoba and CAA South Central Ontario to form CAA Club Group, an organization with more than two million members; acted as local counsel for BCE Inc. in connection with the acquisition of MTS pursuant to Manitoba’s largest Plan of Arrangement; represented the City of Winnipeg in interest arbitration with paramedics, fire and police; lead negotiator for the University of Brandon in talks with its faculty association; negotiated first labour agreement for the Canadian Human Rights Museum; Manitoba counsel on a number of P3 deals, including the Pan/Parapan American Games Athletes’ Village Project; S.L.A.K v A.S H 2016 MBQB 141 represented same-sex couple in contested adoption trial, and obtained order of adoption for 2-year-old boy with reliance on attachment theory and research; successfully argued at the Supreme Court that lien bond has no effect on the existence and application of trust remedies under the Manitoba Builders’ Lien Act in Stuart Olson Dominion Construction Ltd. v. Structural Heavy Steel.

Star alumni: Manitoba Court of Appeal Justice Jennifer Pfuetzner; Manitoba Court of Appeal Justice Charles Huband; Federal Tax Court Justice Joe Hershfield; British Columbia Court of Appeal Justice Nicole Garson; chairman of Manitoba Hydro Sanford Riley; chief legal officer and executive vice president of Ceridian Inc. Scott Kitching

Affiliations: SCG Legal, Employment Law Alliance

The firm: Taylor McCaffrey LLP focuses on business and local entrepreneurs in Manitoba, tracing its roots back over 50 years. The firm was founded as a result of the merger of the firms of Reeh Taylor and D’Arcy McCaffrey. As a full-service firm, Taylor McCaffrey has a team of more than 60 lawyers practising in every area of law. Service is available in French and Italian, and the firm maintains rural offices in Gimli, Steinbach, La Broquerie, Riverton and Winnipeg Beach.

One respondent said: “Although they are a large firm, they really take the time to get to know their clients and provide a personalized approach one may not expect of a large firm. They are also very community minded, and that relates in the way they treat their clients.”

Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP (Winnipeg, Brandon, Portage la Prairie)

Total lawyers:  87

Offices (# of lawyers): 10 offices, Winnipeg (78), Brandon (6), Portage la Prairie (3), Boissevain (1), Carberry (1), Gladstone (1), MacGregor (1), Morden (1), Steinbach (1), Winkler (1)

Core practice areas: corporate commercial, litigation and dispute resolution, government and regulatory, financial services, indigenous law, environmental law, natural resources and energy, property and development, taxation and labour and employment

Key clients: True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd. (Winnipeg Jets), Manitoba Hydro, Hudbay Minerals Inc., Boyd Group Income Fund, The Toronto-Dominion Bank, Province of Manitoba, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, Winnipeg Police Association, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corp.

Notable mandates: Partner Glen Agar, along with associate Danny Spencer, acted as lead counsel for True Temper Sports Inc. based in Memphis, Tenn. and Lincolnshire Management based in New York in the November 2016 acquisition of VH Footwear Inc., a Winnipeg-based custom skates manufacturer for elite hockey players in the NHL and worldwide; Partner Leilani Kagan, along with associate Stephen Porco, acted for Hopewell Development to purchase a nine-building industrial complex with 31 tenants located in the Sherwin Industrial Park; Kagan and Porco acted for Hopewell Development to purchase the former Canadian Wheat Board building; the purchase of the Medical Arts Building for $7.9 million. Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corp. purchased this property, and was represented by Lisa Stiver and Lewis Allen. The firm worked with Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corp. on the request for proposals to select this property for its new head office; acted for Glasshouse, a condominium development; acted for SkyCity, a condominium development; acts for Manitoba Power Industrial Power Users Group in rate hearings before the Public Utilities Board; acted for a farmer whose land and buildings were expropriated resulting in compensation for them, and additional compensation of more than $1.8 million in consequential damages; acting on behalf of the Urban Development Institute in a court application challenging the ability of the City of Winnipeg to impose growth fees on new developments.

Star alumni: former Manitoba chief justice Richard Scott, former Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Associate Chief and current member of the Manitoba Court of Appeal Justice William Burnett, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Associate Justice Shane Perlmutter, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Colleen Suche, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice James Edmond, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Karen Simonsen, Chief Judge of the Manitoba Provincial Court Margaret Wiebe, former Manitoba Minister of Family Services and Consumer Affairs Gord Mackintosh, former Manitoba Minister of Justice Andrew Swan, former leader of the PC Party of Manitoba, Hugh McFadyen

Affiliations: Lex Mundi, Acumen Corporate Development Inc.

The firm: TDS is a Manitoba-based law firm, providing legal services to its clients locally, nationally and internationally. The full-service firm of close to 90 lawyers provides services in more than 25 areas of the law and delivers corporate development services through its strategic partner Acumen. It has 10 full-time and part-time offices in the province.

One respondent cited “the people, their expertise and their professionalism,” while another said the firm provides “excellent service, great client base, provides practical advice.”

Click here to read Part 2:  A Time of Transition - Saskatchewan Law Firms

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