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Dickinson Wright lures lawyers seeking cross-border work

|Written By Yamri Taddese

Nearly three years after merging with Aylesworth LLP, Dickinson Wright LLP’s mid-market and cross-border focus is luring lawyers who like to have a foot on each side of the Canada-U.S. border.

Cross-border opportunities were a big factor in Cherie Brant’s move to Dickinson Wright LLP.

With half a dozen new hires, it’s been a summer of expansion at the firm’s Toronto office. It’s the only office the mostly U.S.-based firm has in Canada, but the new lawyers say they saw unique opportunities in Dickinson Wright’s link to the south.

Before he received a call about joining Dickinson Wright, Ned Levitt admits he didn’t know much about the firm. Content with his job at Aird & Berlis LLP, the franchise lawyer says he wasn’t looking to move. But the offer, he says, eventually drew him in.

“We all know about the international firms . . . but this was a little bit different. What I started to understand is that they’re proudly mid-market,” he says, adding that as a franchise and distribution lawyer, that sounded like a good place for him.

“The strategy was to seek out those lawyers practising in areas that are compatible with where they see themselves, so cross-border,” he says.

“The Canadian experience has been good for them and they wanted to grow the Toronto office in the right way and in a good way. So they saw franchising as a beautiful fit for their strategy.”

What piqued his interest, says Levitt, was the fact he wouldn’t simply be taking his practice elsewhere.

“They want my assistance to grow the same kind of practice in the U.S.,” he says. “For me, it was a very unique opportunity.”

For Cherie Brant, who provides strategic advice to investors seeking to work with First Nations communities, the business prospects of a cross-border practice quickly became clear.

“What I’ve been noticing is there are increasingly opportunities to work with tribes in the U.S.,” she says.

“Clients are doing transactions in the U.S. and it instantly became an opportunity in my mind. That’s what crystallized it in my mind.”

Looking at the trade volumes between Canada and the United States, there’s logic to a U.S. law firm having a footprint in Toronto, says Jamie Spence, managing partner of the Toronto office.

“It is a very interesting platform because there’s a lot of work going back and forth,” he says.

“We have our U.S. partners involved in our files and they’re involving us in their files. It’s so far worked out very well.”

Dickinson Wright has several offices in Michigan where it originated as a two-lawyer firm. It also has offices in Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.

As Levitt was quick to notice, the firm isn’t going for the “mega deals.”

“They’re not establishing big offices in New York and Chicago and going for the mega deals. They’re going for a much bigger volume of many different kinds of clients, different sizes, and needs. Here’s a firm that says there’s so much work in the mid-market and so much of it is between the U.S. and Canada. Why don’t we be a U.S./Canadian law firm?”

It’s a strategy Levitt has confidence in.

“Law firms come in all shapes and sizes and they go through their evolutions, but to hear a law firm and come to understand that they have a really solid strategy and are executing that strategy really got my attention.”

Once recruited to the Toronto office, Dickinson Wright lawyers get to meet their U.S. counterparts, says Spence. The firm encourages lawyers on each side of the border who practise in similar areas to work together.

“We’re always looking for very good people with practices that match with the other practices in the office and the U.S. side of the firm,” says Spence. “People like the idea of a cross-border firm.”

It’s no wonder why, says Levitt, who notes “the borders are disappearing in many ways.”

For Brant, the small-office feel of the 40-lawyer team in Toronto is great. “But then you’ve got bench strength through the cross-border opportunities. That’s what really attracted me.”

Spence isn’t keen on speculating on the chances of expanding Dickinson Wright’s Canadian presence even further, saying only that “as a business, you look at every option that comes to you and if an opportunity comes to us, the firm has a duty to its partners to look at it.”

For Levitt, there’s a potential for growth at Dickinson Wright that he describes as being “ambitious but not for ambition’s sake.”

Since opening up shop in Toronto, business has been good and the firm is meeting its targets, according to Spence. “There has been a slow period here in Toronto, but we’re pretty well on target,” he says.

“The busy time is to come. We pretty well made it through summer, which is slow. Our ability to pick up new clients is improving.”

A few weeks into his new job, Levitt says the energy he sees around him has been impressive. “They picked very wisely. Every person I’m running into here has a different background, different experiences, but what seems to be the common thread is . . . high energy,” he adds.

He describes the firm’s culture as young and modern but one that still has room for someone like him. “I am fairly close to heaven,” he says. “But I’m one of those oddballs that I don’t want to retire. It’s kind of interesting that this firm valued someone like me. That was really important. It seems to be a place that they don’t judge you on age or colour. They judge on what you can do as a lawyer.”

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