Ed. note: Please welcome Steve Dykstra, our newest columnist, who will be covering the Canadian legal market.

I am a Canadian-trained lawyer and legal recruiter. I recruit throughout North America so I really get to study the legal systems on both sides of the border. I thought it would be fun and interesting to highlight some of the differences between the American and Canadian systems — hence the column’s title, “The View From Up North”.

As this is my first column, I want to provide a bit of an overview. In coming weeks, I’ll focus more narrowly on specific topics.

Sound good?

Let’s get rolling with a question: Did you know that Canada and the United States share the longest undefended border in the world?

That’s right, when General Martin Dempsey, Chair of the Joint Chiefs, looks north, he says, “Nah, we don’t need to send any tanks up there. The Canadians got our back.”

Canadians would put tanks on our side of the border, but we have only six for the whole country. Four of those are used for parts to keep the other two running. That’s what happens when you spend all your taxes on health care.

Every year, droves of elderly Canadians flee the roof-high snow of Canada to warm themselves in the Florida sun. Canadians Tivo Mad Men just like Americans, only we call it a PVR (Personal Video Recorder).

We binge-watch House of Cards on Netflix and dream of changing our prime minister into a president to encourage a Frank Underwood-like politician to bring some life to our boring politics. For those of you who just said, a-ha, what about Mayor Rob Ford, we don’t acknowledge him.

We gather in large groups to gamble on watch the Super Bowl.

And, we’ve adopted the single most important holiday in the United States: Black Friday.

Yes, America and Canada share close borders and an even closer culture.

Yet, despite the proximity of our borders and the tightness of our cultures, the U.S. and Canadian legal markets diverge in several respects:

Number of Large Firms: This is one obvious difference between the two countries. Canada has only ten or so firms that have four hundred or more lawyers. Borden Ladner Gervais is often touted as the largest law firm in Canada with nearly eight hundred lawyers. Top firms in Canada do not compare with large U.S. firms in terms of headcount, revenue per lawyer, profits per partner, etc. There is nothing in Canada like Quinn Emanuel — essentially a litigation “boutique” with almost seven hundred lawyers and nearly a billion in revenue in 2013. Not to mention reported profits per partner of nearly $4.4 million.

Transparency: I add a caveat when I say that top Canadian firms do not compare to U.S. firms in profit per partner, etc. Why? Canadians don’t share information the same way Americans do. We don’t have the equivalent of the Am Law 200 where financial information is disclosed for all to see (provided you pay Am Law’s subscription fee). Thus, most information is gathered anecdotally for Canadian law firms.

For example, many lawyers on both sides of the border followed the recent demise of Canadian law firm Heenan Blaikie. It was reported for 2013 Heenan had revenues of $225 million and profits of $75 million to split amongst its two hundred or so partners. That’s a profit per partner of approximately $375,000. Heenan was a large, very well respected law firm. Yet, its reported profits per partner wouldn’t even blip on the Am Law 100 radar.

Despite the lack of open reporting, the anecdotal evidence I hear is that even the most profitable firms in Canada would fit much closer to the bottom of the Am Law 200 than to the top.

Importance of Pedigree: Canadians don’t have a Harvard or a Yale. There are twenty law schools in Canada. I spoke to the head of recruiting for a major Canadian law firm who confirmed what I suspected: The top students from pretty much every law school in Canada can get jobs in our premier firms. Imagine if that were true in the United States? Canadian students have to attain good grades, of course, but if they work hard, they will earn the right to go to Bay Street and bill insane hours.

I recently spent time in a charming town in a state with a passion for NASCAR racing. This town had a picturesque law school. I met some of its students and they were lovely and bright. You will not find this law school on any Top 150 list. I pretty much guarantee that the top student in that school, with a 4.0 and Order of the Coif, is not applying to Wachtell.

The Unites States seems a lot more formal. Almost computer-like. Top 25 law school? Check? Summa cum laude, Order of the Coif? Check. Junior managing editor of notes on the third page of the Journal of Law and Forestry? Check? Dresses appropriately? Check. Speaks in full sentences during on campus interviews? Check. Your offer is in the mail.

By the way, Canadian schools don’t elect students to the Order of the Coif. My law school didn’t publish rankings or award so much as a magna cum laude. In Canada, get a bunch of A’s, avoid the C’s and you can get a job on Bay Street.

Prestige of Government Positions. In Canada, it’s hard to escape the government once you accept a position. Government lawyers have a difficult time returning to private practice, for example. On the other hand, many U.S. lawyers use government service as a bottle rocket for their careers. Government service is seen as a legitimate and career-enhancing option.

You know those fat bonuses firms use to pry SCOTUS clerks away from Justice Alito’s clutches? Doesn’t happen in Canada. Sure it’s prestigious to get a clerkship with the Supreme Court of Canada, but nobody pulls up to the courthouse in a new Ferrari to tempt you to join their law firm.

In the U.S. you can clerk for the inferior court of property tax re-assessments and proudly put that on your résumé (okay, not quite). In Canada, well, if they don’t care about Supreme Court clerks, they sure don’t care about lower-level clerks.

Yes, we share a cozy border and the same love of Red Lobster, but our legal markets have substantial differences. In future columns I will explore other interesting differences and try to delve deeper into the reasons why the legal game changes once you cross the 49th parallel.

In the meantime, that’s The View From Up North. Have a great week.


Steve Dykstra is a Canadian-trained lawyer and legal recruiter. He is the President of Keybridge Legal Recruiting, a boutique recruitment firm that places lawyers in law firms and in-house roles throughout North America. You can contact Steve at steve@keybridgerecruiting.com. You can also read his blog at stevendykstra.wordpress.com, follow him on Twitter (@IMRecruitR), or connect on LinkedIn (ca.linkedin.com/in/stevedykstra/).


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