Local vs. big city debate moot due to increased virtual options

Ship has sailed for firms claiming local offices for Google rankings

Local vs. big city debate moot due to increased virtual options

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Prior to the pandemic, when Darcy Merkur took on a client in Sault St. Marie — or Windsor, or Thunder Bay, or Ottawa — he would pack his bags, fly out, find a place to stay for a day or so and meet with the new client face-to-face.

“We’ve been around for 85 years and we’ve been helping people throughout Ontario for all that time, but that had geographical challenges,” says Merkur, partner at Thomson Rogers Lawyers. “Now that we’re doing everything virtually, it simplifies our ability to help people throughout the province because we’re not missing a beat.”

Traditionally Bay Street, Toronto-based law firms have faced challenges being retained by claimants outside of the Greater Toronto Area due to the local lawyer versus big city lawyer debate, which Merkur notes the firm has always been sensitive to. Some people adhere to the school of thought that Toronto is the biggest city and has the best personnel, so let’s hire that Bay Street firm, while others want to hire the lawyer down the street because they know them and their family and can sit down in person in their office when they need to discuss the case.

The COVID-19 pandemic has evened that playing field, given that it forced a necessary trend of providing virtual services and Toronto-based firms like Thomson Rogers can service clients seamlessly regardless of location. The people who have traditionally opted for a local lawyer are now “more open to the concept of hiring somebody who’s best suited to assist them without relying on the local dynamic because people at large are more acclimated to dealing with things virtually and getting help from people who are not next door,” Merkur notes.

“We think this new virtual landscape has facilitated Toronto-based representation for more people throughout Ontario without facing that debate,” he says. “The clients I represent down the street I don’t meet fact-to-face, I meet them all virtually since COVID began — and that’s going to persist.”

Thomson Rogers purposefully chose an office location near the courthouse where its lawyers regularly attend for trials, but even trials are now being held virtually. On top of being a much more cost-effective option especially when bringing in expert witnesses — “There’s so much savings in terms of time and efficiency that are so advantageous to the pursuit of justice,” Merkur says — it no longer matters to the lawyers or their clients if the trial is held in Toronto or Windsor, and that’s another trend Merkur doesn’t see going anywhere.

“While COVID should subside and things should get back to in-person, it seems like courts will allow Zoom or virtual-type options rather than forcing people to spend time and money travelling.”

The transition to virtual options has another upside: it makes it harder for some personal injury firms, especially many of the mass marketers, to promote themselves as local lawyers for internet ranking purposes. Some list more than 20 satellite or consultation offices, and while it is footnoted because the Law Society of Ontario cracked down on misrepresentation of office space, it’s still a scam that some firms use to claim a local office “even though it’s actually a P.O. box or an office meeting centre they attend for meetings just like any lawyer could at any time,” Merkur says, adding he hopes going forward people will be less susceptible to this online duping and more comfortable “hiring the best-suited persons without consideration for whether their offices are — allegedly — down the street or on Bay Street.”

“For law firms who are preying on people by pretending to have a local presence, that ship has sailed,” Merkur says. “Now that local presence isn’t as important, make sure to hire the best lawyer for the job.”

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