BABIN BESSNER SPRY
A Toronto litigation boutique, Babin Bessner Spry is viewed favorably by all Bay Street peers familiar with it, notably several at much larger firms. “Babin Bessner is a different type of firm but very effective,” observes one peer. “We have referred them cases and would again.” Senior partner Edward Babin, a noted “lifer” who was previously with two of Toronto’s top brand names is regarded as a true trial lawyer. “Ed is almost a ‘throwback.’ You don’t see many these days with his trial experience.”
Across its multiple offices in Canada, particularly in its Alberta and Ontario twin pillars, Bennett Jones has amassed a formidable collection of trial lawyers that have been at the helm of some of the most high-stakes matters in the country as of late. The firm notches an impressive 10% share of the top trial lawyers in Canada, the highest concentration of any firm. In the firm's native Calgary, where it holds a dominant position, Blair Yorke-Slader continues to enjoy a profile in the market that is unanimously considered “very marquis” by peers. Yorke-Slader provides lead trial counsel for 801 Seventh, which owns a 37-story building in downtown Calgary. The tenant leased virtually all of the building under a lease that ran until 2031. After reducing its workforce, the tenant sought to reduce its lease burden by pointing to the presence of trace amounts of asbestos in the fireproofing. Though extensive testing showed the building had been and remained safe, in May 2019 the tenant fled the building, terminated the lease, left a building in downtown Calgary virtually vacant, and sued for $70 million. 801 has countersued both the tenant, and its Chinese parent company and guarantor for $500 million. Yorke-Slader continues to play a role acting for Dow Chemical in the client’s long-running billion-dollar dispute with NOVA, for which Yorke-Slader scored a trial win in 2018 that made headlines even in the US and netted him several wins at the Benchmark 2019 awards ceremony in Toronto. Munaf Mohamed has etched an equally prominent profile in the Calgary market for his no-nonsense courtroom demeanor and his acumen with cases involving sensitive issues related to fraud. “Munaf is always on my very large mandates,” confirms a peer. “He seems to have very strong market presence.” Mohamed represents a Swiss bank in relation to a claim advanced by SNC-Lavalin for $147 million arising out of a fraud perpetrated by two SNC executives relating to bribes and a kickback scheme involving government contracts in Libya. Mohamed launched jurisdictional challenges to the claim, succeeding before the Québec Superior Court, which declined jurisdiction in favor of the Swiss courts. This decision was upheld by the Québec Court of Appeal in June 2020. Another local peer quips on Mohamed's approach: "Munaf is a blunt instrument in court. He's an animal!" The firm's Toronto office has also produced a high concentration of trial talent. The perennially revered Jeff Leon has historically enjoyed a diverse practice that has allowed him to bring his finesse to a wide portfolio of cases, keeping a loyal fan base among fellow members of the bar as well as the bench. Fresh off of his stint as only the second Canadian to head the American College of Trial Lawyers, acts as Canadian national counsel to A.O. Smith Companies, a US-based commercial and residential water heater and boiler entity that has been exposed to product liability matters in several provinces ranging from small claim matters up to higher levels of property damage. Richard Swan is another universally respected figure who boasts a fluency with a spectrum of practice areas. "Richard is one of those people who can just dismantle all the details in a case, analyze them methodically, and reassemble them in a way that is scrupulously prepared for an argument, AND he delivers the argument at trial," confirms a peer. "That combination is rare, as is Richard's personality, which is unflappable." Robert Staley, a securities leader, acts for Algonquin and its affiliates in defending an arbitration commenced by Algonquin’s former joint-venture partner, with allegations including claims damages for oppression, conspiracy and breach of contract related to the client’s alleged failure to pay the partner royalties for wind projects that it claims it jointly developed with Algonquin. "Robert Staley is a guy you can trust to take an unflinching approach to some very thorny and messy cases," testifies a peer. "He's very different from Richard Swan. Not that he's a hothead necessarily but he certainly doesn't hold back."
BORDEN LADNER GERVAIS
National firm Borden Ladner Gervais displays particular pockets of strength in all of its offices across Canada. The firm’s Montréal office hosts a variety of litigators spanning class actions, investigations, banking and securities. This office also is home to what is arguably the firm’s biggest concentration of labor and employment lawyers. Arguably the most prominent figure in Montréal, Mathieu Piché-Messier attends to a practice that balances commercial work with specialty cases of a more novel nature. Piché-Messier, a recent entrant into the American College of Trial Lawyers and one of the youngest partners to become one, is championed by peers on a near-unanimous basis. “Mathieu just continues to kill it,” marvels a peer. “All eyes are on him in Montréal.” Piché-Messier represented Pratt & Whitney Canada, who sued for misappropriation and unlawful use of its proprietary data in the design of four flight simulators. The case, valued at CAD $2.5 million, was settled in 2020. Over the course of the past several years, Piché-Messier has also been a go-to for several prominent public figures who have found themselves in high-profile imbroglios that have made national news, a notable achievement for someone of his vintage. "Mathieu is one of the best litigators in Montréal, by a LOT," extols one peer. "For what he does, he is #1, 2 and 3!"
A venerated Montréal litigation boutique, IMK (formerly Irving Mitchell Kalichman) was initially a vehicle for its three senior name partners, one of whom is since deceased and the other who went to the bench. Doug Mitchell, reverently addressed as "one of the top pleaders in Montréal," remains the firm’s talisman partner, responsible for cultivating a thriving team at the “next-generation” level while also remaining remarkably active himself. “Doug Mitchell is everywhere,” declares a peer. “He’s an arbitrator, he’s a litigator, and he’s constantly in demand for both..”
Lawson Lundell has for decades enjoyed a status as one of Western Canada’s most respected regional legal shops, and that status has only seemed to grow with each passing year. “They are going from strength to strength,” sums up a peer, elaborating, “They have a sweet spot in the market. They are expanding quickly but at the same staying independent and focused on the Western Canadian economy. That allows them to build their client base, which features a lot of energy and resource players, but still be able to service them better than they would if they were a big international firm.” Already dominant in British Columbia, with a head office in Vancouver and another Kelowna, Lawson Lundell has recently risen to the forefront in the Alberta market as well. In its Calgary office, Grant Vogeli is identified as a versatile standout for his deep expertise that spans a wide range of practice areas. Vogeli, who is credited with having done over 100 trials, is unique in Calgary in that he is one of the few partners whose work does not hinge exclusively on the oil-and-gas sector, but rather general commercial disputes and real estate development. Vogeli is a peer and client favorite. One client confirms, “Grant had to manage a VERY difficult client group and did so with diplomacy, skill, wisdom, knowledge and a great deal of patience. He is an excellent strategic thinker and open to alternate dispute resolution. He is an excellent communicator and very skilled litigator. He should not keep working during his vacation time!” In Vancouver, Craig Ferris has a longstanding position as one of the firm's senior leaders and mentors. An all-purpose commercial trial lawyer and perennial favorite, Ferris is championed by peers as a “a laid-back and understated guy who is not to be underestimated – he is very tough and very litigious.” Ferris has over the years managed a particularly diverse basket of cases that have touched on various sectors of the local economy. Most recently, he represents BC Hydro in a construction issue relating to the building of the Big Bend substation in Burnaby.
LAX O'SULLIVAN LISUS GOTTLIEB
Lax O’Sullivan Lisus Gottlieb has fashioned itself as a “premier litigation boutique,” with peer and client review uniformly supporting this lofty claim. “Lax takes on whatever they want, and they take every case just as seriously,” assesses a peer. “They get the work that would make you go ‘wow,’ but they also take these weird one-off files that you wouldn’t even expect, and they are superb with all of it.” One thing the firm does not do is commoditized, routine work. An independent-minded shop with no steady revenue stream, the firm relies on files that require a high-minded and novel approach to litigation, be it dispute resolution or trial. It is also noted that “Lax is definitely in building mode,” according to a peer, who goes on to confide, “They actually poached a few of our associates!” The firm boasts multiple examples of this novel-but-high-stakes work. Jonathan Lisus, an all-purpose trial lawyer, is routinely referred to as one of Toronto’s most committed and versatile litigators. “Jonathan Lisus is just everywhere at once,” observes a peer. “He never lets this versatility get the better of him, though. He’s always on top of his game, and he keeps his chops up by remaining busy all the time, often on stuff that is a bit ‘off the beaten path.’” In one such example, Lisus is counsel to a group of standardbred horse breeders who brought a claim against the provincial government and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation in connection with the termination of revenue sharing under the “Slots at Racetrack Program” in 2012. This termination allegedly caused the breeders to suffer significant losses. The lawsuit was brought in 2014 and a summary judgment motion was heard in 2018 and 2019. The Superior Court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor against the government of Ontario on liability in June 2020. Lisus also represents Zydus Pharma in a class action against the world’s leading generic drug makers alleging anti-competitive behavior, including participating in a price-fixing cartel. Matthew Gottlieb, who has earned himself a considerable reputation at his relatively young age, manages a commercial practice that has historically encompassed elements of insolvency, with a lead role in several of the country's largest contentious bankruptcy proceedings. Canadian counsel for a defendant in a number of high-profile class action claims in the US and Canada which arise from the client’s involvement as the former CFO of CannTrust Holdings, a Canadian marijuana producer. The plaintiffs alleged that the client, amongst others, was directly involved in making a number of misrepresentations relating to CannTrust’s compliance with health and safety regulations in its share offering documentation. In particular, it is alleged that CannTrust was operating several illegal grow operations at two of its facilities. Gottlieb is also counsel to the litigation trustee in the Sears bankruptcy, who was authorized by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to bring claims against certain defendants to increase assets of this insolvent company. A trial of the action seeking $509 million was scheduled to begin in May 2020 but wound up settling in September. Crawford Smith attends to a commercial practice with a particular focus on the energy and utility industries. Smith is primary counsel to the Competitive Network Operators of Canada in a series of appeals brought by some of Canada’s largest incumbent telecommunication companies from a decision of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regarding the provision of wholesale high-speed internet services.
McEwan Partners generated immediate buzz upon its formation three years ago, and not without justification. The firm, whose official title is McEwan Cooper Dennis, is composed of some of the most venerated litigation talent in BC. Ken McEwan, a Vancouver trial veteran, forged the firm’s identity upon splitting off from his former shop and cherry-picking some of the city’s other prized practitioners to bolster the bench. Those included Robert Cooper and Craig Dennis. “McEwan very much continues to be the commercial litigation powerhouse in town,” insists one peer, summing up a broadly held consensus. “All three of the lead guys are obviously very capable counsel and I’ve got a lot of time for each one of them. They have, if not the leading practice in town then certainly close to it.” The firm’s status as a litigation-specific boutique allows it the freedom to pivot between plaintiff and defense work, with cases that are often fairly novel in nature. “We send a huge amount of files to McEwan,” confirms a peer, “because they are fearless and will take on things that the rest of us just don’t, or won’t, do!” Ken McEwan continues to be “just a huge turbine of work,” according to local peers, one of whom marvels, “I don’t even know how he handles it all! He’s going to need to clone himself pretty soon!” McEwan is counsel to an individual in an ongoing regulatory proceeding involving Bridgemark Financial before the British Columbia Securities Commission involving 65 respondents. A peer notes, “This the biggest securities case in BC right now! And of course, one of the people who is pretty central to this case went to Ken for counsel.” Illustrating the firm’s versatility and the novelty of the cases it attends to, McEwan is also working in the plaintiff capacity (along with co-counsel from Koskie Minsky in Toronto) on a class proceeding on behalf of certain groups of prisoners who have been held in solitary confinement in the BC correctional system between 2005 and 2015. The Notice of Civil Claim alleges that British Columbia’s overuse of solitary confinement is negligent and constitutes a number of breaches of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The certification hearing was set for May 2020. Dennis meanwhile acted on behalf of The Advocates’ Society as an intervenor in a petition to challenge the validity of Rule 11-8 of the BC Supreme Court Civil Rules, which purported to limit the number of experts that a party could tender at trial on the issues of damages arising from personal injury or death. “I am increasingly a fan of Craig Dennis,” offers a peer, “and I think he is really hitting that ‘sweet spot’ of his career in the market. He is a great mind and a gentleman.” Dennis is also Canadian counsel to Yahoo! in a data breach-related matter, which was settled on a nationwide basis.
McMillan’s Ontario litigation team, distributed among its offices in Toronto and Ottawa, attends to a diverse variety of litigation matters and covers a broad range of practice areas. Toronto, the firm’s largest office, houses some of the firm’s marquis partners. David Kent commands unanimous acclaim for his antitrust and competition acumen from peers all throughout Toronto and beyond. “David has been involved in every single competition class action in Canada,” testifies a peer. “No one is smarter, and no one is better versed than him in the competition area.”
NATHANSON SCHACHTER & THOMPSON
One of Vancouver’s premier litigation boutiques, Nathanson Schachter & Thompson maintains its coveted dominance in the city’s dispute resolution community, a position it has held for decades thanks to the individual and collective vision of name partners Irwin Nathanson and Stephen Schachter. Both of these partners, despite their senior status, continue apace with a robust litigation schedule and remain in demand by clients. “The big energy at Nathanson still seems to be Irwin and Stephen,” observes a peer. But they have done well in growing the firm as well. They have a very strong team coming up right after them. "
PALIARE ROLAND ROSENBERG ROTHSTEIN
Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein earns a pride of place amongst Toronto firms for its litigation pedigree. Peers (throughout Toronto and beyond) are nearly unanimous in their praise and appreciation of its practitioners. “Paliare Roland has excellent senior litigators as well as a strong young team,” sums up one. Another confides, “If a lawyer from Paliare is on a case, you can almost feel the advantage they have in court,” concedes one peer. “Judges seem to trust them implicitly, and they earn praise even when they lose.” Firm namesake and founder Chris Paliare is a universally beloved figure among all Canadian peers familiar with him, with decades' worth of first-chair trial experience on precedent-setting cases to his credit. Recently Paliare successfully represented client the Building Industry and Land Development Association in responding to an appeal in the Divisional Court brought by the City of Toronto. The City sought to overturn a decision of the OMB (now LPAT) regarding the City’s new Development Permit System. Fellow name partner Linda Rothstein is also widely cheered and is similarly fluent with an expansive range of trials and inquiries involving high-level appointments across several highly regulated industries.
PEACOCK LINDER HALT & MACK
Calgary boutique Peacock Linder Halt & Mack operates in a unique space in the market, carving itself a coveted position as a recipient of “premium” work. “Peacock Linder is always busy, and the size of the disputes they’re handling seem bigger and they seem more fractious and difficult to resolve than the work some other firms deal with,” offers a peer. Another affirms, “Peacock Linder is in the SWEET SPOT! In the Alberta economy, everyone is in the restructuring business, dealing with restructuring commitments, contracts, etc. They have become a necessary adjunct to this with litigation – the demand for their business has skyrocketed. With all of the consolidation going on in the legal field, bigger firms are being conflicted more than they ever were, and so the work is coming to firms like Peacock. They have a specialty – sophisticated oil-and-gas litigation.” Peter Linder is known in the Calgary community as “a pit bull,” with one peer and former opponent going on to elaborate, “If you’re up against him, you’d better be ready and you’d better be energized. He’s going to put you through the paces, you have to struggle to keep up.” Perry Mack is universally beloved by the Alberta litigation community for what is called "a more measured approach" that has found enough favor in the market to see Mack in consistent demand for his services as a neutral arbitrator. "Perry has become one of the premier arbitration counsel and arbitrators in Calgary because he is known for being steady, fair and thoughtful," testifies one peer, "but make no mistake, he can try, and has tried, cases with the best of them."
Celebrating six years in business as of March 2021, Renno Vathilakis is another Montréal litigation boutique but one that follows a decidedly unconventional model. “This is not the cookie-cutter type of firm doing the routine, boring work,” notes a peer. “These guys take on whatever they want.” “Whatever they want” includes a vibrant mix of high-risk/high-reward litigation cases that range from class actions (often in the plaintiff capacity) to contentious family law cases for high-net-worth individuals. Karim Renno, a “maverick” trial lawyer who held posts at Stikeman Elliott and IMK before forging this firm, is called “very good at getting out there and getting his name around town,” by a peer. Renno’s assertive promotion is supported by his aggression in the courtroom. A peer concedes, “If you’re looking to ‘do the dance,’ you’re going to hate going against him because you’re going to get hurt. If you try to dance around him, he will sink his teeth into your legs. You literally can’t go on autopilot for a minute – Karim will always be watching you and waiting for an opening to exploit a weakness.” Renno was lead counsel representing Corporatek in a major securities case in which the opposing party is alleged to have participated in a massive Ponzi scheme and committed fraud. He was also lead counsel for Eurobank in an appeal in a $10 million case against Bombardier regarding the enforcement of international letters of credit.
Toronto boutique Roy O’Connor has, since its genesis in 2004, etched itself a position as an independent player in the market, free to straddle a mix of plaintiff and defense capacities. Firm founder Peter Roy continues to generate plaudits for his work in commercial and D&O work. “Peter Roy is a true trial lawyer,” voices a competitor. “He has made a name for himself as someone who attracts clients who are not afraid to roll the dice and take matters all the way if they feel they are suffering an injustice.” Roy recently triumphed in a significant appeal on behalf of a prospector for royalties concerning diamonds.
SHAPRAY CRAMER FITTERMAN & LAMER
Vancouver litigation boutique Shapray Cramer Fitterman & Lamer is considered by many local peers to be responsible for “breaking the mold” that has become a lot more commonplace since. “Shapray Cramer set the standard, they were way ahead of the curve,” testifies a peer. “From the very beginning, [firm figurehead] Howard Shapray has led the charge in building a team that serves one purpose only: to be fighters for clients who need them and be ready to bloody the nose of the other side when needed.” Shapray’s vision has indeed paid dividends in the work driven his way. “Don’t come to Howard looking for bargains,” advises a peer. “You go to this firm with the cream only, the high-stakes do-or-die work.” Much of Shapray’s practice over the past year has been devoted to administrative law issues dealing with judicial review of municipal decisions. In one case, Shapray represents several property owners and developers who were the target of a municipal bylaw that prohibited the owner’s condominium units from being used as anything other than rental properties. In a second matter involving judicial review, a developer client who was refused a development permit from the City of Vancouver under circumstances indicative of bad faith is applying to have a trial of its claims with its procedural advantages rather than a summary proceeding. The issue is now before the Court of Appeal. Shapray’s practice is also dedicated to civil prosecution of fraudulent activities. Shapray acts for an enterprise involved in the internet gaming business that was the victim of an alleged multi-party conspiracy to steal and launder over $30 million of profits belonging to the enterprise. The matter is proceeding to a trial in 2022. Shapray is also representing a company that owns and operates shopping centers that is suing Canada’s oldest operating company, the Hudson’s Bay Company to recover rent owed, for which payments had ceased during the COVID pandemic.
SMART & BIGGAR
Canada’s deepest and most renowned intellectual property-based legal entity, Smart & Biggar has etched itself a dominant position in the country’s IP community, most notably in the capacity as true trial lawyers. One peer notes, “More often than not, these cases actually go to court! And Smart & Biggar has a pretty stellar record of winning at trial." The firm is revered for its range of experience covering patents, trademarks and copyrights, each being areas in which the firm has secured some landmark wins. Its celebrated patent practice leans heavily on the pharmaceutical industry, but is far from limited to this area, with a diverse portfolio of patent victories concerning everything from polymers to hockey helmets. Its trademark practice meanwhile has attracted a list of clients that reads like a “who’s who” of household names. Ottawa's Steve Garland has emerged as Smart & Biggar's most prominent and active trial lawyer as of late, scoring wins in both the "hard" and "soft" IP capacities. Garland was one of the team members behind the biggest trademark dispute handled by the firm within the past year, the successful defense of a trademark infringement action brought by Loblaws in relation to Pampered Chef’s use of its “PC” logo. The case wound its way to the Federal Court of Appeal, where Smart & Biggar triumphed in February 2021. Garland also scored at the Federal Court of Appeal when that court affirmed the Federal Court’s decision awarding Dow $650 million in a patent infringement matter brought against Nova Chemical, bringing this long-running matter to a close.
Since its formation in 1979, the Stockwoods barristers boutique has concentrated exclusively on litigation, and in this capacity has won rapturous acclaim from peers even outside Ontario. “The whole ‘litigation boutique’ model that is becoming all the rage now, but Stockwoods pioneered it,” confirms a peer. Another extols, “It’s a pretty deep team over there now, and they’re all across-the-board superb. There’s not a single lawyer there who I would call just ‘average.’ They are all regarded as the ‘super brainiacs on the street.’” The firm is unique amongst Toronto firms (even among its boutiques) in the portfolio it attends to, which encompasses white-collar crime, public and administrative law, securities, and a niche in tribunal advisory work as well. The firm is also noted for its growing commercial law practice. At the more senior level, firm mainstays Brian Gover and Paul LeVay still command plaudits from several levels of the legal community. Gover is championed as someone who “brings a high level of credibility to any matter,” according to a peer. “When Brian is on a case, judges and tribunals lend weight to his arguments.” LeVay is still considered “a leader in the securities area,” according to peers. “While Stockwoods as an outfit handles a pretty mixed bag, when you think of securities litigation, you think of Paul.”
Waddell Phillips is a relatively new addition to Toronto’s legal community, a purely litigation-centric boutique free to take on a diverse spectrum of work in either the plaintiff or defense capacities.. Seasoned barrister John Kingman Phillips is addressed as "a true dyed-in-the-wool barrister, with a lot of strength and heart. He does a lot of the First Nation work, which are big, long, complicated cases, and you often have to wait a while to get paid on them.” Phillips also recently settled a case with Transport Canada on behalf of an employee client who claimed sexual harassment as well as hostile workplace allegations in the wake of the distribution of a music file that was altered with racially offensive lyrics.
Montréal boutique Woods is revered not only as one of the strongest boutiques in the city but one of the strongest litigation groups of any firm in Québec. Patrick Ouellet, addressed by peers as “a usual suspect and for a very good reason,” remains as active as ever. One peer testifies, “I see him everywhere, even during the pandemic I’m hearing about him, and he continues to just kill it.” Another quips bluntly, “If I need a lawyer, and I can afford him, that’s where I am going!” Ouellet represented a client in a case valued at $18 million against The Canada Life Assurance Company, who alleges claims that defendants, including Ouellet’s client, made false representations to induce it to participate in a group insurance program that was in deficit. The client maintains that he has no contractual relationship with the plaintiff and has made no representations that would engage its liability. Ouellet also acted for National Bank in a novel live/virtual hybrid trial in late 2020 concerning issues around the qualification of a wire transfer, in which the individual who made the transfer filed for compensation from his insurer, who denied coverage, rebutting that the financial institution had to assume the loss on the basis that the funds belonged to the bank and that the transfer was similar to a bill of exchange. The Court of Appeal rejected the argument that the bank was liable, and, in December 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the appeal. Ouellet also acts in representing an executive in a matter valued at $300 million in which plaintiffs filed an application for authorization to institute a class action on behalf of any person who acquired one or more securities of the Laurentian Bank of Canada between a window of dates spanning 2017 and 2018 for the purpose of obtaining compensation for the loss in value of their shares allegedly resulting from the defendants’ breached their of their duty of care.
Toronto’s Wright Temelini takes “litigation boutique” to a new level. There are only two partners at the firm after six years. “They have an interesting little niche,” observes a peer. “They do white-collar crime and securities, and they thrive on high-stakes litigation.” The firm is also noted for “not wanting to be so wrapped up in the billable hour that they are not able to take cases involving issues of justice. They’ve got quite a few insider trading cases, and these are coming because of expertise. A lot of industry referrals are coming along with the standard client conflict referrals.” Another highly touted boutique in the Toronto market notes, “They are definitely worth your consideration. They are fantastic people, very solid, our go-to referral in this [securities] area when we want someone who knows their stuff and is not going to take the client to the cleaners financially. They take the client relationship very seriously too, it’s not commoditized services, which is sometimes a real risk.” Enjoying her third annual placement among both of Benchmark’s Top 50 Trial Lawyers in Canada and the Top 50 Female litigators in the country, Janice Wright is a favorite of peers. “She does quite a few insider trading cases. If I had a white-collar case, she would be my first call.” Wright’s reputation extends to the bench as well; “Janice is old-school, and she has enough credibility with judges to get away with her no-bullshit demeanor.”