Bennett Jones makes an impressive showing in the 2020 Top 50 Trial Lawyers sweepstakes, with a full 10% of the list consisting of lawyers from the firm’s Calgary and Toronto offices. In Calgary, Munaf Mohamed, a no-nonsense “bruiser in court” and “someone who does not suffer fools gladly, or at all, really,” has a niche area in fraud investigations and litigation. Mohamed is co-counsel to Wood Group Canada in a claim involving an underground high-temperature-produced bitumen emulsion pipeline and boiler water feed pipeline constructed and operated by the plaintiff in connection with building its new satellite facility in the Athabasca oil sands region of Northern Alberta. Work is still ongoing. “Munaf is a blunt object,” extols a peer hyperbolically. “He’s an animal! He’s one of those guys that allows you to face the other side with ‘If you don’t play nice, I’m going to get you Munaf to deal with.’” Blair Yorke-Slader is an equally vaunted figure among peers. “Blair is youthful and vibrant, constantly working,” marvels one impressed contemporary. Last year, Yorke-Slader was responsible for scoring a landmark $1.3 billion judgment on behalf of Dow Chemical in its contentious, headline-grabbing dispute with NOVA.
The firm’s Toronto office is equally brimming with trial talent. An “unflinching warrior” of the securities world, Robert Staley acted for Sino-Forest Corporation, the victim of a multibillion-dollar fraud orchestrated by its former co-founder and CEO. The company claimed that its primary business model was purchasing and selling forestry plantations in China. However, the business was fictitious. In March 2018, a US$2.6 billion fraud judgment was found against the CEO, the largest of its kind in Canadian history. The CEO commenced an appeal of the judgment, which was heard in January 2019 and dismissed. Richard Swan is lauded for his calm, assured presence in commercial and securities disputes. “If there’s a bondholder that has a grievance, Bennett Jones will be there. Robert Staley is everywhere and Richard Swan too,” attests a peer. “Robert is more of the ‘cowboy,’ Richard is the diplomat.” Jeffrey Leon, a revered figure not only in the Toronto community but throughout all of Canada, continues to enjoy a robust following on the strength of his multifaceted practice that spans several practice areas and also crosses borders. Leon was named President of the American College of Trial Lawyers in September 2018. This high honor is amplified further by the fact that he is only the second Canadian to hold this title in the College’s history. “Jeff has that gravitas! Judges intently listen to him and address him, ‘Yes, Mr. Leon?’”
IMK, a Montréal litigation boutique, is known for “growing and grooming some of the best and brightest in Québec, as well as some of the youngest.” While the firm’s reputation continues to be on the ascent due to its deepening bench, firm figurehead and last remaining name partner of the former Irving Mitchell Kalichman trio Doug Mitchell is still revered as “one of the top pleaders in the province.” Mitchell’s vision of fostering litigation talent at the next-generation level has certainly paid off, but Mitchell himself remains busy on a number of files. “Doug was just at the Supreme Court last week,” testified a peer in the fall of 2019. “He also was lead counsel on an important human rights case concerning genetic testing.”
Lawson Lundell, already considered one of the top litigation shops in British Columbia, further solidified its stronghold in Western Canada through a strategic push into Calgary, which included luring nine partners from another local firm and officially staking its claim as a powerhouse in that city’s legal community. In particular, Grant Vogeli is identified as a versatile standout for his deep expertise that spans a wide range of practice areas. One client goes so far as to assert, “Grant Vogeli is one of the best litigators in Calgary.” While at his former firm, Vogeli was in fact a mentor to Tammy Coates, Lawson Lundell initial partner in Calgary, and is credited with having done over 100 trials. Vogeli 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 recently conducted an appeal for the University of Calgary relating to the construction of a hotel there. Vogeli was trial counsel and also successful on appeal. In the firm’s flagship Vancouver office, Craig Ferris has long been championed as a key player and also one with courtroom experience with a diverse range of commercial, insolvency and professional liability matters. “Craig can handle anything,” declares a peer. “He has been doing this [for] a long time, he has a lot of experience with the phenomena that drives Vancouver’s business world, and [he] has an unflappable quality to him, which plays to his advantage in court. He holds steady and keeps it together even in some of the most unnerving situations.”
Lax O’Sullivan Lisus Gottlieb has long been one of Toronto’s most venerated litigation shops, revered for its approach to the practice to the point where its name is often inserted into conversations with other litigators who aspire to a similar model. “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. Firm figurehead Jonathan Lisus, an all-purpose commercial litigator, is revered on a near-unanimous basis as “a real dynamo, who can pretty much try anything. He’s a trial lawyer!” One peer marvels, “I once saw Jonathan appear on a case that I would have thought was well below his pay grade! But, there he was, and he did a great job, every bit as good as he would have on a much larger case.” In an example of a matter qualifying for the “much larger case” descriptor, Lisus is representing a well known judge, Warren Winkler, in his capacity as the Court Appointed Mediator in the Imperial Tobacco Limited, JTIMacDonald, and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges CCAA proceedings. In his capacity, Winkler has been mandated to facilitate negotiation of a global settlement of the Tobacco Claims in the three CCAA proceedings. Lisus is also counsel to the Sackler Families in the Purdue Pharma CCAA proceeding and a proposed a proposed national class action. The CCAA matter is a Canadian recognition proceeding related to the US Chapter 11 insolvency proceeding for Purdue Pharma and related entities, which manufacture, sell, or distribute, among other products, opioid pain medications, including OxyContin. Matthew Gottlieb, another commercial trial lawyer with a particular acumen in insolvency files, saw his bankruptcy prowess called into service when he was appointed litigation investigator by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to investigate potential claims on behalf of Sears Canada and its creditors to increase assets within the estate and to review payments made to Sears Canada shareholders while the company's pension fund had a nearly $300 million shortfall. Gottlieb was later appointed counsel to the litigation trustee pursuing certain claims brought on behalf of Sears Canada against certain former directors and shareholders of the company. 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 is scheduled to begin in May 2020.
Coming into being just over two years ago, McEwan Partners generated immediate buzz upon its formation, 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 of Hunter Litigation Chambers (itself a dispute-resolution powerhouse) and cherry-picking some of the city’s other prized practitioners to bolster the bench. Those included Robert Cooper, who himself left McCarthy Tétrault in 2013 to form his own boutique) and Craig Dennis, who left his post at Dentons to join. Two years on, McEwan Partners is still viewed by peers as “’the place to be’ in Vancouver right now. Those guys were in the right place at the right time and they really made the most of 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!" McEwan is lead counsel to Granite Creek in a dispute involving two mining companies who entered into a confidentiality and standstill agreement in contemplation of a potential plan of arrangement, which was subsequently terminated. McEwan is also defending Keltic in an ongoing action brought by the plaintiff, who alleges it entered into a purchase and sale agreement with Keltic for undefined units of the commercial space in a development in Richmond, BC, and filed a certificate of pending litigation against the entire commercial property. 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 is 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."
McMillan’s Ontario litigation bench, 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.”
One of Vancouver’s premier litigation boutiques, Nathanson Schachter & Thompson maintains its coveted dominance in the city’s dispute resolution community. While the younger talent is at the firm is swelling in headcount and clearly proving themselves worthy of taking the baton, the more senior statesmen within the firm, Irwin Nathanson and Stephen Schachter still elicit no shortage of praise. A peer muses, “Irwin and Stephen are still some of the busiest litigators in town and they’re just still keeping on and having fun!” A client insists, “Irwin Nathanson is the best litigator I have ever seen. [He is] Brilliant with the law, an incredibly quick study on complex technical and factual questions, and has a keen sense of what judges want to hear.” Another peer offers in summation, “If you have a client whose butt is really on the line, they are coming to Irwin for help, first call.” About Schachter, a peer and former opponent quips, “I pride myself on being able to employ certain wily tactics to outdo a lot of other litigators in town, but when I found myself against Steve Schachter I got caught in my own trap! I thought, ‘Oh man, he’s using my same trick on ME!’”
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. “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 figurehead Chris Paliare elicits unanimous support. Indeed, Paliare is often name-dropped by peers in discussions of qualities that litigators should and do aspire to. 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 partner Linda Rothstein is also considered a paragon of litigation excellence. “She is brilliant, has the ear of the bench and the bar,” raves a peer, “and she is both high-minded and tough when she needs to be.” In addition to her nomination as one of the country’s top 100 trial lawyers, she is also considered to be among the top 25 female litigators in Canada.
Calgary boutique Peacock Linder Halt & Mack attracts a great deal of referral work due to its niche – “sophisticated oil and gas litigation.” Firm figurehead Peter Linder is well 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.” His partner, Perry Mack, is unanimously championed in the Calgary community. “He has a more even-tempered approach, and he is also doing a lot more neutral arbitrator work these days,” confirms a peer, “but don’t let that fool you. As a courtroom guy, he is not to be underestimated.”
Toronto boutique Polley Faith has achieved extraordinary success in carving out a niche for itself among some much larger players on Bay Street in a short period of time. Name partner Andrew Faith leads the defense of an action by the Monitor and other parties to the Sears Canada insolvency against ESL and other parties for the recovery of a $500 million dividend payment, made while the embattled retailer was experiencing financial distress. “Andrew always does great work, and is exceptionally good at finding the appropriate solution that accurately reflects the result sought, not just the current problem occurring,” extols a client. “We rely on him heavily for not just legal expertise but strategic advice vis a vis the governance structure in place at the regulatory body.”
Celebrating five years in business as of March 2020, 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 is 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 is 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. 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 is engaged in a matter concerning an oral agreement regarding a purchase of Burger King Canada. Roy is also leading an ongoing plaintiff class action involving the collapse of a shopping mall in Elliot Lake, Ontario. He also is acting for the principal beneficiaries and the companies an alleged oppression and breach-of-trust action arising out of a contested estate matter and, more recently, is handling a significant appeal on behalf of a prospector for royalties concerning diamonds.
In the Ottawa office of Canada’s deepest and largest intellectual property specialist shop Smart & Biggar, Steve Garland is arguably the firm’s most visible and active trial lawyer as of late, boasting several landmark wins to his credit. Garland represented Cenovus when a plaintiff commenced an action for patent infringement against the client in 2013 in relation to a water treatment process for use in steam-assisted gravity drainage oil extraction. In November 2019, the court dismissed the action as a result of delays incurred by the client. Garland is also representing popular social media app Snapchat in a patent dispute.
Vancouver litigation boutique Shapray Cramer Fitterman & Lamer is considered by many local peers to be responsible for “breaking the mold” in the model 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.” Shapray’s multi-faceted litigation basket is as diverse as it is premium. In the commercial litigation space, he is acting for a plaintiff company in a multimillion-dollar dispute against former officers and directors in a claim alleging breach of fiduciary duty and fraud. He is also leading an action to recover $18 million of stolen funds allegedly disposed of in a complex money laundering conspiracy. In the municipal law category, Shapray is representing a developer in a Judicial Review Proceeding of the City of Vancouver’s controversial administrative decision in relation to the issuance of a development permit for a large project in the city’s Chinatown district. In the estate litigation space, Shapray is leading an action to set aside a will of an elderly testator, allegedly procured by undue influence, which made dramatic changes to the administration and disposition of a large estate for the benefit of the testator’s caregivers, their children and grandchildren.
Since its formation in 1979, the Stockwoods barrister’s 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.’” 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. Firm mainstays Brian Gover and Paul LeVay still command plaudits from several levels of the legal community. Gover is co-lead counsel for an air ambulance entity in a high-profile inquest into the death of an indigenous artist in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He 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 representing Toronto-Dominion Bank in defense of two competition/antitrust class actions, one concerning alleged manipulation of the Foreign Exchange market and the other concerning alleged manipulation of the sub-sovereign debt market, both using the once-popular Bloomberg Chat service. 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.”
A Vancouver litigation boutique that is composed of “some of the most nicest court fighters you will ever meet,” Sugden McFee & Roos is routinely revered as a firm housing litigators whose “combined IQ has got to be in the high quadruple digits” and who are “civil and ethical beyond reproach.” The respectful approach displayed by the firm’s partners apparently is frequently reciprocated. “They command respect from all their peers and the judges.” The firm is also unique in its balance of criminal and civil work, taking on a diverse and novel basket of cases ranging from commercial disputes to personal injury claims. Robin McFee remains one of the firm’s figureheads as well as a trusted trial advocate. “Robin often gets politically sensitive cases that don’t use in-house counsel,” states a peer. “And no one has more credibility in these types of cases than he does. He is a true gentleman of the legal community, and everyone gives him instant respect to his arguments, no matter how much they might disagree with his position.” McFee is also involved in a case dealing with public access rights over private land, and has also succeeded on a family trust case the transfer of ownership of an apple orchard in the Okanagan region of BC.
John Kingman Phillips at the relatively new maverick Toronto boutique Waddell Phillips is addressed by the community 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 even asserts, “Patrick is basically running Woods to an extent.” Within the last year, Ouellet had two class actions dismissed at certification level, and he has led two trials on the merits, with one of these, a matter dealing with abusive proceedings between two real estate entities, being brought to Ouellet from another firm specifically when the case looked likely to proceed to trial.
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 second annual placement among both the top 50 trial lawyers in Canada and the top 25 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.”
Last updated April 2020