Best in the West

Best in the West

It wasn’t long ago that a wave of mergers formed a cluster of large, national law firms and prompted legal industry pundits to declare the death of the regional firm. There is no way they can stand up to the boundless resources of big law, the experts cried. Fast-forward a decade or so, and it’s safe to declare that doomsday scenario, shall we say, a tad premature. “As Mark Twain said, rumours of our demise are greatly exaggerated,” says Edmonton-based Field LLP managing partner James Casey.


Alexander Holburn Beaudin & Lang LLP managing partner David Garner says his Vancouver firm gets a share of clients who view larger firms as a poor fit. “Certainly there’s a place for national firms and international firms that have the multiple offices, but I think there’s also a place for the regional firm that knows this area, or knows an industry,” says Garner. He suggests many clients have taken a few deep breaths and returned to regional firms after the initial enthusiasm that followed the first round of national mergers.

Casey suggests that lawyers also continue to see the advantage of practising in the regional firm context. “Our partners have always said that they value their autonomy and their independence above all else in the practice of law, and we’ve found that we can maintain that through a regional firm structure, doing very challenging and interesting work, making good incomes, and delivering good value to our clients,” he says.

One advantage the regional firm managing partners say they exploit versus the bigger kids on the block are long-standing connections with businesses in the region. “When a national firm enters our market, they cannot match the historical, deep relationships we already have with our clients,” says Casey. “If we can keep our relationships strong, deliver excellent legal services, and provide those services at a lower cost than the national firms, our experience has been that we are growing our market share, rather than losing it.”

Certainly, all of the firms listed in Canadian Lawyer’s ranking of the top regional firms in British Columbia, Alberta, and the North are a testament to the continued viability of the regional platform. The rankings only include full-service firms with offices in those areas of the country. Each has a distinct formula for success, but all face similar challenges when it comes to standing above the crowd.

Retention of top legal talent is one key factor. The economic downturn has put a halt to fierce competition for top legal minds that just a few years ago had firms paying signing bonuses as high as $50,000. That doesn’t mean firms no longer face a battle when it comes to wooing top-notch lawyers. There are simply more good firms around that offer lawyers great resources to ply their trade, notes Bull Housser & Tupper LLP managing partner Herb Isherwood. When he started out in law about 25 years ago, there were four large, independent firms in Vancouver. Now there are 15 firms in the city with a multi-office or national presence. “The competition has changed, the marketplace has changed,” he says.


How we did it

Canadian Lawyer queried lawyers from across the country to weigh in on Western Canada’s top full-service, regional firms. They were asked to rank, in order, 10 firms from a preliminary list, with an opportunity to nominate a firm that was not included in the list. Voters were asked to rank the firms based on regional service coverage, client base, notable mandates, service excellence, and legal expertise. In order to be considered, firms were required to have offices only in Alberta, British Columbia, or the North, and offer a wide range of legal services. The final rankings were determined through a points system, in which firms were rewarded on a sliding scale for the number of first to 10th place votes received. This is the first in a series of law firm rankings that Canadian Lawyer will be featuring in 2010.

Here are the rankings from this year’s survey on the top regional firms in British Columbia, Alberta, and the North.


Total Lawyers: 114 

Offices: 3

Provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Northwest Territories

Lawyers by Office: Vancouver 101; Calgary  9 ; Yellowknife 4

Core Practice Areas: banking; business law (including mergers and acquisitions and finance); litigation and dispute resolution; natural resources and energy; tax

Key Clients: BC Hydro; British Columbia Investment Management Corp.; Canfor Corp.; HSBC Group; Rio Tinto Group; Western Coal Corp.

Notable Mandates: representing the Government of Canada in tobacco products litigation; representing Newmont Mining Corp. on the development of the Hope Bay gold mine in Nunavut; representing Mirabela Nickel Ltd. in a series of three offerings aggregating $177.25 million for funding to complete the construction of its nickel mine in Brazil

Star Alumni: Provincial Court of B.C. Justice Tom Woods; B.C. Supreme Court Justice Gregory Bowden; the late Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of B.C. Hugh Stansfield; the late B.C. Court of Appeal Justice Hugh Legg; and the late Reginald Gibbs.   

Affiliations: World Services Group

The Firm: Firm founder Jimmy Lawson was intimately involved in the industrial development of B.C. and became a specialist in company law. Oscar Lundell joined the firm in 1935, and in the 1940s and 1950s Lawson and Lundell were considered the leading lawyers to the B.C. forest industry and other resource developments. David Lawson and Buchan (Buck) McIntosh came on board in 1947. The firm opened an office in Yellowknife in 1994, and in 2002 merged with Yellowknife firm Gullberg Wiest MacPherson & Kay. The Calgary office opened in 1997.

Managing partner Brian Fulton says Lawson Lundell continues to thrive thanks to a strong foothold in the resource industries, with particular strength in the mining and energy markets. “All of that spins its way down into various practice areas,” he says.


One survey commentator offered the following: “They are responsive, cost-effective, and have a solid understanding of Canadian markets, client needs, and counsel operating in other jurisdictions. Lawson Lundell is always my No. 1 choice when it comes to referring clients to, or working directly with, Western-based firms.”


Total Lawyers: 138

Offices: 1 (Calgary)

Provinces: Alberta


Core Practice Areas: energy; securities and M&A; banking and finance; commercial transactions; employment; regulatory, IP; litigation.

Key Clients: A number of Canada’s largest organizations in the areas of energy, oil and gas, chemical processing, and aviation.

Notable Mandates: Harvest Energy Trust acquisition by Korea National Oil Corp. ($4.1 billion); Athabasca Oil Sands Corp. sale of 60-per-cent interest in MacKay River and Dover oilsand assets to PetroChina International Investment Co. Ltd., with an option to acquire the remaining 40 per cent ($3.9 billion); a significant number of trust conversions to corporations

Star Alumni: Ken Stickland, chief legal officer, TransAlta; Kerry Dyte, executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary, EnCana Corp.; Mike Morin, assistant general counsel, commercial, Imperial Oil Ltd.; Arlene Strom, corporate legal counsel, Suncor Energy Inc.; Associate Chief Justice of Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench John Rooke

Affiliations: none

The Firm: Burnet Duckworth & Palmer traces its roots to 1913, when Frank Burnet established his legal practice in a two-man firm in High River, Alta. There he developed a practice concentrated in agriculture, real estate, and oil and gas. Burnet and his partners formed an office in Calgary to better serve clients in the area, and eventually dropped the High River office. From the 1950s to the 1970s the firm grew rapidly to 50 lawyers from five, settling with its current moniker in the early 1970s.


One survey respondent credited the firm for its “unwavering, outstanding level of service.” The voter went on to remark, “They seem to have a more developed understanding of the needs of their clients than a lot of other firms, including the larger firms. They appreciate and listen to their clients. In addition, their business sense and practicality is second to none.”


Managing partner Gary Bugeaud notes that Burnet Duckworth has been in a gradual expansion path for the last decade, but has no plans to open new offices.


Total Lawyers: 86

Offices: 3

Provinces: British Columbia

Lawyers by Office: Vancouver, 77; Kelowna, 8; Victoria, 1

Core Practice Areas: corporate and commercial; labour and employment; litigation; taxation

Key Clients: BC Lumber Trade Council; JTI–Macdonald Corp.; TELUS Communications Co.; Gateway Program; The Toronto-Dominion Bank; MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.

Notable Mandates: Port Mann/Highway 1 project; Canada/U.S. softwood lumber dispute; Golden Ears Bridge project.

Star Alumni: Queen’s Counsel appointees: Peter Butler, Frank Murphy, Barry Gibson

Affiliations: Lex Mundi

The Firm: Established in 1903 by John Wallace de Beque Farris, Vancouver’s first city prosecutor who went on to act as B.C.’s attorney general and as a senator. Farris made a name for himself as one of the few western Canadians to act for clients at the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the Supreme Court of Canada. His son, John, replaced him during the 1950s and ’60s as the province’s top barrister. At the same time, partner Ernest Bull formed a potent corporate and commercial law practice.

“We work hard at trying to look forward as to what are the strategic needs of our clients and the economic base of this region, which is now caught up not only in a national construct, but in a global construct,” says firm chairman Keith Mitchell.

Voters praised Farris for its “top-notch work” at fair rates, and a firm culture not overly focused on personal billing targets.


Total Lawyers: 98

Offices: 1 (Vancouver)

Provinces: British Columbia

Core Practice Areas: financial services; natural resources; infrastructure/public-private partnerships; energy; real estate; trust and estates/wealth management

Key Clients: London Drugs Ltd.; Royal Bank of Canada; Washington Marine Group/Seaspan International Ltd.; TELUS; Western Forest Products Inc.

Notable Mandates: tobacco litigation; Canada Line, a rapid transit system connecting downtown Vancouver to Vancouver airport

Star Alumni: Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin; B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman; the late Victoria Cross recipient Lt.-Col. Cecil Merritt.

Affiliations: State Capital Group; Lackowicz Shier & Hoffman (Whitehorse, Yukon)

The Firm: Founded in 1890, the firm takes pride in its work for individuals and organizations that have helped shape modern B.C. It was also the first Canadian law firm to set up shop in China.

One voter commended Bull Housser & Tupper for the excellence of its partnership, high profitability, deep client list, and length of tenure in the market. Another said the firm has shown promise by expanding its suite of services, developing new expertise in various areas of the law over the past five years.

The firm has found success by aligning its expertise with the B.C. economy, says managing partner Herb Isherwood. “We’re strong in the areas that the B.C. economy is strong generally. We have an excellent P3 practice, and B.C. has been a leader in P3 projects. That’s part of our energy and infrastructure group, which is also an important part of the economy. We are strong in real estate.”


Total Lawyers: 97

Offices: 3

Provinces: Alberta, Northwest Territories

Lawyers by Office: Edmonton, 55; Calgary, 40; Yellowknife, 2

Core Practice Areas: health; insurance; labour and employment; litigation; business; class actions

Key Clients: University of Alberta; Carma Developers LP.; Alberta Teachers’ Association; Corus Entertainment Inc.; major health-care organizations; several major insurance companies

Notable Mandates: more than 850 plaintiffs in a class action against the federal government and several churches for wrongs within the aboriginal residential school system; over 700 plaintiffs in wrongful sterilization claims against the Alberta government; representing the University of Alberta in its successful age-discrimination claim that went to the Supreme Court of Alberta

Star Alumni: about 20 justices and judges of the courts of Alberta

Affiliations: State Capital Group

The Firm: Field Law’s roots date back to 1915, with its modern era beginning in 1996. That’s when Field & Field Perraton, with offices in Edmonton and Calgary, and Atkinson Milvain of Calgary combined their resources under the new name of Field Atkinson Perraton. In 2001, the firm joined with Williams & Co. in Yellowknife and in 2003 changed its name to Field LLP, supported by the brand name Field Law.

One respondent pointed out Field’s wide range of services, commenting, “Their office covers it all — corporate commercial, bankruptcy, real estate . . . employment and labour law from a unique perspective of both labour and management sides, leading administrative law practitioners in Canada, unique health-law practice, and on and on.”

Managing partner James Casey says the firm aims to stand apart by finding a “competitive sweet spot where we match or exceed the expertise of national firms in selected areas, while providing the services at a more competitive rate for our clients because of a lower cost base.”


Total Lawyers: 106

Offices: 2

Provinces: Alberta

Lawyers by Office: Edmonton, 69; Calgary, 37

Core Practice Areas: aboriginal law; business law; commercial real estate; litigation (commercial/insurance defence); patent and trademark

Key Clients: one of Canada’s largest oil and gas companies; an international mining company; a large property and casualty insurer; a major property developer; a large First Nations band; one of the major grocery retailers in North America

Notable Mandates: helped Samson Cree Nation gain control of its trust fund from the federal government; acted for the Insurance Bureau of Canada as intervener on a successful appeal at the Alberta Court of Appeal on a soft-tissue cap

Star Alumni: prime minister R.B. Bennett; senator James Lougheed; Alberta attorney general John Boyle; Alberta chief justice Bruce Smith; former justice Howard Irving.

Affiliations: World Services Group

The Firm: Sir James Lougheed established the Calgary office in 1883. In 1907, William McLaws joined Lougheed as partner and went on to lead the firm. S.S. Taylor established the Edmonton office in 1886, with H.H. Parlee joining the firm, then called Taylor and Boyle, in 1904. Parlee took charge of the firm when the province of Alberta was formed. The two firms merged in 1986 to form Parlee McLaws.

“Parlee runs a tight but very collegial ship,” said one voter. “Counsel is polite and pragmatic: they are not overtly aggressive, while still advocating strongly for their clients’ interests.”

Managing partner Jerri Cairns credits strong, long-standing relationships with key clients for Parlee McLaws’ continued success. “We have a lot of practitioners who are very highly regarded in their fields, and while lots of firms speak about excellence, we do absolutely believe in it,” she adds.


Total Lawyers: 70

Offices: 3

Provinces: Alberta, Northwest Territories

Lawyers by Office: Edmonton, 48; Calgary, 18; Yellowknife, 4

Core Practice Areas: labour and employment; corporate commercial securities; commercial litigation (including restructuring and insolvency); insurance; energy, environmental, and regulatory

Key Clients: Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.; Canada Safeway Ltd.; Canadian Western Bank Group; The Dominion of Canada General Insurance Co.; Ledcor Group of Companies; TransAlta

Notable Mandates: sale of KMC Mining to a private equity firm; successfully represented Marathon Oil Corp. in an action involving the Canadian subsidiary of the Enron organization; Gregg Distributors Ltd. reorganization and formation of Employee Investor Mutual Fund Trust.

Star Alumni: Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench justices Brian Burrows, Donna Shelley amd Michelle Crighton; Ledcor in-house counsel Rodney Neys, Q.C.; Cover Properties in-house counsel Clay Hamdon; provincial court Justices Brian O’Ferrall, Michael Stevens-Guille and Frederick Day; John Sterk, author of Alberta Conveyancing Law and Practice

Affiliations: Meritas; Canadian Association of Counsel to Employers; The ARC Group Canada Inc.; Employment Law Alliance

The Firm: The firm traces its origins to the Edmonton law practice of G.E. Wallbridge in 1903. After several name amendments, it settled on McLennan Ross in 1982.

Voters singled this firm out for excelling in terms of client relations and delivering strong services on a timely basis.

Managing partner Chuck Russell says McLennan Ross considers itself “a bit of an anomaly in the legal community” due to its heavier presence in litigation and labour law versus corporate-commercial work. “We’re probably two-thirds litigation or labour-related in some respects,” he says. That, quite simply, is due to the nature of the practices of founding members Rod McLennan and Dave Ross, litigation and labour lawyers respectively, who continue to practise. “The firm just grew up around them over the course of the past 30 or 40 years,” says Russell.


Total Lawyers: 73

Offices: 1 (Vancouver)

Provinces: British Columbia

Core Practice Areas: insurance defence; transportation; construction and engineering; commercial litigation; corporate commercial; environmental; insolvency & restructuring; intellectual property

Key Clients: regional, national and international companies, governments and municipalities, and individuals with business interests and legal needs in B.C.

Notable Mandates: represented a slate of candidates that ran for the executive and won in a disputed election at the Guru Sikh Gurdwara society temple, one of the largest Sikh temples in Canada; represented a national accounting firm in a 64-day trial involving complex business valuation issues; represented a public company focusing on education in China which acquired the largest private education provider in British Columbia, and subsequently in its acquisition of a significant private education group in B.C and Ontario.

Star Alumni: withheld

Affiliations: The ARC Group Canada; The Participating Group; Law Firm Alliance

The Firm: The widely accepted view is that this firm was established in 1973 through the merger of Robson Alexander & Guest and McLachlan Holburn & Beaudin, but its roots go back to 1948, when Robson & McDonald was founded. Since the merger, the firm has gone through a pair of name changes, from Alexander Guest Wolfe Holburn & Beaudin LLP to Alexander Holburn Beaudin & Lang LLP.

Survey respondents praised the firm for strong client service and taking an innovative approach to its work. It was also singled out for its work in the health-care, real estate and development, and service industries.

Managing partner David Garner points to the firm’s early days and continued presence, as an insurance law provider, which helped establish a countrywide clientele, as a key strength. “That has kept our eye on a bigger ball,” he says.


Total Lawyers: 79

Offices: 1 (Vancouver)

Provinces: British Columbia

Core Practice Areas: commercial real estate; corporate finance/securities; corporate and commercial; commercial litigation; technology and intellectual property

Key Clients: Vancouver Airport Authority; University of British Columbia; HSBC Bank Canada; Coast Hotels Ltd.; Cressey Development Group; Google Inc.

Notable Mandates: counsel to the Vancouver Airport Authority in connection with the Canada Line rapid transit project; represented the purchaser of Central City, a landmark 1.5-million square-foot retail and office development, at $250 million, the Central City transaction is the second-largest real estate deal for a single asset in B.C. history; counsel for Kodak Graphic Communications Co. of Canada in sale and leaseback of $43 million of real estate

Star Alumni: withheld

Affiliations: none

The Firm: Its roots are traced to 1911, when John Arthur Clark and Alexander Wilson each began practising law in Vancouver. The pair in 1952, after serving together in the Second World War, amalgamated their practices to establish Clark Wilson.

“We think that the basis of our success as a firm is the quality of our people, our emphasis on culture and compatibility, and our businesslike approach,” says managing partner Bill Helgason.

The firm’s real estate group — which one voter called the “dominant” of its kind in the west — and intellectual property group were singled out by respondents. One voter who supported Clark Wilson praised it as “a firm in full stride.”


Total Lawyers: 63

Offices: 2

Provinces: Alberta

Lawyers by Office: Edmonton, 47; Calgary, 16

Core Practice Areas: municipal and administrative law; insurance litigation; commercial real estate and lending; employment and labour law; regulatory matters

Key Clients: municipalities; a senior level of government on litigation, regulatory, and taxation matters; several multinational corporations; a large list of commercial lenders that fund major commercial projects

Notable Mandates: the province of Alberta during its development of the Calgary Courts Centre; lenders involved in the conversion of a large publicly traded company into a real estate investment trust; the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in several major oilsands regulatory proceedings

Star Alumni: former chief justice of Alberta’s provincial court Ernest Walter; Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Peter Costigan; provincial court Justice Paul Sully; provincial court Justice Bruce Garriock; Robert Black, executive vice president, sports and entertainment, Katz Group Canada Ltd.

Affiliations: Canadian Litigation Counsel

The Firm: Founded by the fifth premier of Alberta, John Brownlee, in 1935. Brownlee was considered a populist and provided legal services and advice to many of the province’s grassroots organizations, including municipalities and member-owned producer co-operatives. The firm used its strong base among that clientele to form a presence in various other legal specialties.

One voter enthused that Brownlee offers “a practical approach to client problems going well beyond legal analysis and becoming part of the client’s management team to find practical and proactive solutions.”

Managing partner Ray Purdy says Brownlee has benefited from a strong bond among partners at the firm, which he believes makes an impression on associates. “There’s a sense at the firm of camaraderie and closeness,” he says, suggesting this atmosphere creates stronger, team-oriented service for clients.

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