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Firms' hiring reflects cautious optimism

|Written By Michael McKiernan

Canadian law firms are recruiting experienced heads as they accelerate out of the downturn, according to a market expert.

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John Ohnjec, division director at Robert Half Legal, says lateral moves are popular and demand is highest for experienced associates. Firms want a safe pair of hands with demonstrated expertise, a reflection of cautious optimism in the economy, according to Ohnjec.

“It was a case of either thinning the ranks during the downturn or at least maintaining the status quo,” he says.

“And now that they’re looking to get out, it isn’t an all-out flood of people back in. It’s measured and calculated in terms of bringing on board individuals that can add immediately to the firm with existing books of business or strong contacts as opposed to some juniors who don’t have that.

Maybe strategically it doesn’t make sense to do that immediately.”

The demand for experience is also making firms nervous, according to the survey, as 48 per cent of respondents said they were concerned about losing their best performers to competitors.

“They have to look internally at keeping their people happy,” Ohnjec says, suggesting firms should think about compensation and partnership policies to retain top talent. “Equally, some of the lawyers think that given things are a little bit better, maybe it is a good time to make a move.”

Law Times’ annual “Largest law firms in Canada” feature, published last month, reveals a wide variation in the way some firms have fared in recent years according to the number of lawyers they employ.

“I don’t know if anybody is targeting growth for growth’s sake anymore. We want to make sure we have quality growth and profitable growth,” says Sean Weir, national managing partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.

His firm topped this year’s list with 781 lawyers, 28 more than last year and 87 more than in 2008 when it had 694 lawyers.

“It’s much more competitive now, and we look very hard before we hire anybody.”

According to Weir, BLG’s broad practice and strong client base have allowed it to weather the economic storm and make it an attractive proposition for practitioners looking for a safe port to anchor their business.

He notes BLG has made a big investment in Calgary and is anticipating further expansion in the mining and energy sectors.

Other big growth numbers came at Heenan Blaikie LLP. With 534 lawyers, it has added 101 practitioners since 2007 for a rise of 23 per cent. Bennett Jones LLP jumped 10 per cent in the last year to 362 lawyers from 330.

Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP has also grown by more than 10 per cent since 2007. It now has 686 lawyers.

European offices with a focus on corporate law in Paris and London, England, have been the sites of intense growth, according to David Corbett, Faskens’ managing partner.  

That’s a common scenario, according to the Robert Half Legal survey in which 41 per cent

identified corporate law as the sector that will see the most growth in the next three months. Litigation was the second, while intellectual property was third.

“What’s important is that when we add capacity, that we add strategic capacity,” says Corbett. He notes Calgary has been a big growth area for the firm with four partners recently hired to boost its securities, mergers-and-acquisitions, and restructuring practices.

Joining that trend is Torys LLP, which has also targeted Calgary in a move that could see the firm grow for the first time in at least four years.

The firm has shrunk every year since 2007, when there were 278 lawyers there. This year’s tally was 249, a drop of more than 10 per cent, but managing partner Les Viner says size isn’t everything.

“We believe that we can deliver the best value to clients by being tightly knit and focused.

This enhances our depth and our collaborative capability to ensure we deliver on our promise that every client will get the best resources and experience the firm has to offer,” he says.

The announcement of the firm’s third office in Calgary brings seven new lawyers and a plan to take that total to 20 or 30 in the near future. The office will focus on energy, securities, infrastructure, mergers and acquisitions, and commercial transactions.

“We have thought for quite a while about the importance of being in Calgary,” Viner says. “We have focused on building our international network and presence, primarily in China, India, the Gulf, and New York, and Calgary is a natural piece of the puzzle.”

At McCarthy Tétrault LLP, a small rise in the number of lawyers this year ended a consistent fall since 2007 when there were 669 of them at the firm. Now there are 609 lawyers.

But Paul Boniferro, the firm’s national leader of practices and people, isn’t scared of shrinking even further if it matches clients’ needs. “The reality is 2010 was the most successful year in the history of the firm,” he says.

“Productivity is up, revenue is up, profits are up. We’re smaller but we’re actually achieving more with fewer people.”

Boniferro monitors issues such as productivity and client demands to decide which practice groups need to grow or shrink. At the moment, he says resource-focused sectors like energy and mining are at the top of his list for expansion. It’s an approach that Boniferro says has kept McCarthys ahead of the game.

“Growth in Canada in the next 10 years or so will be in Western Canada. That’s why you see some firms going out there now that didn’t go 30 years ago when we did.”

Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP also shrank last year. It reported 512 lawyers in this year’s survey, 53 fewer than in 2008, while Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP dropped 10 lawyers in the last year to 240. But Shawn McReynolds, managing partner at Davies’ Toronto office, isn’t too worried about the decrease.

“It doesn’t matter much to me at all, quite frankly,” he says. “We’ve never pursued growth as a strategy. Some years are up years and some are down years, but the long-term trend is that we grow slowly and largely organically.”

In 2009, the firm reported 269 lawyers when it included 19 lawyers at Paris affiliate Reinhart Marville Torre. The affiliation has since ended, but McReynolds says the move has actually boosted referrals from French firms.

“If you affiliate with a firm, basically everyone else stops sending you work because you’re now affiliated with their competitor. It was probably the right thing to do in the 1990s when it was established but it was also the right thing to do in 2009 to go our separate ways.”


For more on this story, see "Largest law firms in Canada."

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