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New insurance litigation boutique pops up in Toronto

|Written By Robert Todd

A new firm will pop up Wednesday in Toronto’s financial district with a decidedly bold goal: become the best shop of its kind in the country.

‘We’re all very optimistic this thing is going to take off,’ says Ian Gold about the new firm.

And while the 12 lawyers - including seven who formerly made up the insurance litigation practice at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP - at Thomas Gold Pettingill LLP are likely feeling the queasiness that comes with breaking out on your own, they’re well positioned to hit their target.

“We’re all very optimistic this thing is going to take off,” says founding partner Ian Gold. “I think it will be one of those things that we’ll of course turn around and say, ‘Why didn’t we do this five years ago?’”

It doesn’t hurt that the seven former Cassels Brock partners - Bruce Thomas, Ian Gold, Alex Pettingill, D’Arcy McGoey, Chris Schnarr, Nadine Nasr, and Tom Donnelly - have amassed a combined 115 years of experience.

They plan to focus their practices on “complex, sophisticated, large exposure matters, including commercial coverage matters, D&O, and E&O issues,” and will be bringing along all their Cassels Brock clients and files, says Gold.

Gold notes that the move is rare in that Cassels Brock has given its blessings to the lawyers’ departure. Since January, when the decision was announced, the group has had the luxury of preparing for the move without sneaking around anyone’s back. They’ve even been able to use the Cassels Brock boardroom and conduct interviews at the firm, says Gold.

“People love to gossip in the legal industry, as I guess they do in any industry,” he says. “So we went out loud and proud with the details . . . We didn’t want there to be any confusion amongst our colleagues or amongst our clients.”

Cassels Brock managing partner Mark Young says it was clear that the insurance litigation group no longer fit into the firm’s strategic plan. He says the firm has gradually exited the field.

“The reality of that practice area is that it’s a narrow kind of band of work,” says Young. “It doesn’t lend itself into a lot of cross-selling into other areas of a full-service law firm.”

Young says he’s happy to see the lawyers “off and running,” and adds that the transition period of the past several months has been smooth. The biggest point of contention, he quips, was whether one lawyer could bring an office plant with them.

“They’re a great group of partners. From a personal perspective, it’s quite sad to see them go, because they’re really nice people to have around,” he says.

Gold - who served on Cassels Brock’s executive committee before the move was announced - says the insurance litigation group had pondered the idea of breaking off for the past two or three years.

“They really want to do corporate transactional work,” says Gold. “I really believe the role of a litigator [at Cassels Brock] will be to serve in a supportive role, in the sense that they will be here to service corporate clients that occasionally have litigation needs.”

The litigation group has generated “99 per cent” of its own clients while at Cassels Brock, rather than internal referrals, says Gold.

“Our strategic plan is to grow that practice,” he says. “Cassels Brock didn’t really want us to grow that practice. They were happy enough to have us maintain it, and we want to be a firm where the strategic plan is to be a top-notch litigation firm, and the pre-eminent insurance firm in the country.

“I don’t want to make it sound adversarial, because it’s not, or too much at odds, but the strategic plans were just different for the group of people that I was leaving with and Cassels’ strategic plan,” says Gold, noting that he expects both firms will swap referrals.

The move also is partially motivated by the spectre of internal conflicts that often arise with corporate clients, he says. Thomas Gold Pettingill expects to draw work from full-service firms that are turned off by the poaching potential of sending clients to competitors for insurance work, says Gold.

While jitters are to be expected, Gold says any consternation regarding the move was settled before it was announced.

“The sleepless nights happened in the months or weeks leading up to the decision to make the move,” he says, adding that all of the departing Cassels Brock partners had been at the firm at least eight years, and Thomas, the most senior, had been there for 30 years.

Gold says the question was, “Do you leave a place that you like, and are very comfortable and well compensated, to start this new venture? . . . Once that decision was made, I can tell you that I slept a lot better.”

The group has since focused its attention on the administrative minutiae of the shift - migrating data to the new firm’s computer system, the office move, finances, personnel, and so on, says Gold.

While the group is confident their new firm will succeed, Gold is aware that changes - he rejects the unsavory term “challenges” - lay ahead. The former Cassels Brock lawyers will have to adjust to life without some of the comforts that come with practising at a major firm, and will have to confront issues that occasionally can be avoided at a larger firm, he says.

Some personnel issues must still be worked out at Thomas Gold Pettingill, which will be located at 150 York St. in Toronto. Two Cassels Brock associates will come along, and three additional lawyers have been hired. Gold says the firm hopes to add at least one senior associate soon and  they hope to grow to about 18 lawyers.

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