On the record Fall 2017

How to grow a law firm during a recession

Two Bay Street firms give us their secret formula for doing just that
Two Bay Street firms give us their secret formula for doing just that

Over the past decade, competition in the legal marketplace has been ferocious. The reason is simple enough: after the financial crisis of 2008, cash-strapped corporate clients cut their legal budgets, forcing law firms to scramble for their piece of a shrinking pie.

Most firms, as a result, had little reason to add lawyers to their rank-and-file. But we’ve had our eye on two firms that have, indeed, grown. Since the recession, Miller Thomson LLP, a national firm, has surged from 407 lawyers to 537, a 32-percent spike. And the Toronto-based Torkin Manes LLP has grown by 23 percent, having gone from 73 lawyers to 90. We spoke to the managing partners at both firms to get their secret formula for growing a law firm.

1. Identify industries that are about to take off

If business is drying up in traditional markets — say, banking and insurance — firms can only grow if they target under-the-radar industries set to catch fire.

Ten years ago, at Torkin Manes, the firm could see that the baby boomers were entering old age. At the time, the firm employed two lawyers with expertise in estates and trusts, as well as in serving the business-law needs of nursing homes and long-term-care facilities. Today, it has eight. “This is a huge area,” says Jeffrey Cohen, the managing partner. “And it will continue to be over the next 20 years.”

Meanwhile, Miller Thomson has pinpointed industries that are rife with fast-growing companies. “We’ve gained clients in many technology areas, such as agriculture, financial technology and cybersecurity,” says Peter Auvinen, the firm’s GTA managing partner. “So we’ve had to add lawyers in all of these areas.”

2. Poach third-tier partners from other firms

When staffing up, neither Torkin Manes nor Miller Thomson prioritize elite partners with long client rosters. Instead, they look for partners at other firms who aren’t living up to their potential. “Often, they’re third or fourth in the chain of command of a practice group,” says Auvinen. “But it’s clear they could achieve more if their career wasn’t blocked by a hierarchy.”

Cohen, over at Torkin Manes, employs a similar tactic. “We want lawyers with the skills needed to generate business,” he explains, “and we’ll help them take it to the next level.”

3. Open an office in the suburbs

In the past year, Miller Thomson has hired two-dozen lawyers to work at its brand-new office in Vaughan. “There’s all sorts of economic activity there,” says Auvinen. “Real estate development. Manufacturing. Everything you could imagine.”

Couldn’t the firm land that business from Toronto? Well, maybe. But as the only national firm in Vaughan, Miller Thomson has an advantage. “Most clients from outside Toronto hate driving into the city — it takes half a day,” says Auvinen. “I meet with potential clients who want a full-service firm, but don’t want to sit through Toronto traffic to see their lawyer.”

Fall 2017 CoverThis story is from our 10th anniversary issue, published in Fall 2017.




Illustration by Alina Skyson