By Michael Petro  |  Buffalo Business First  |  4/11/16

Firms finding ways into Canadian market

Tom Keable joined Gross Shuman Brizdle & Gilfillan 11 years ago and with his help, the Buffalo-based law firm opened a Canadian office in Burlington, Ontario.

Over the years, Keable — a corporate attorney specializing in cross-border law — had learned the importance of being able to practice U.S. law for Canadian clients.

He gained much of that knowledge from a pioneer of the practice at a law firm that was the first from Buffalo to set up a Canadian office in Toronto.

He spent 22 years at Kavinoky Cook under the leadership of Lauren Rachlin, who recently died at age 88 but not before helping to solidify the international law practice at Barclay Damon LLP in Buffalo.

Keable, who considered Rachlin a mentor, said he was a cross-border guru who recognized not only the importance of the Canadian market but helped other area law firms open offices across the border and deal with trade issues.

One of the firms Rachlin assisted, Hodgson Russ, now has the biggest office in Canada of any local firm, Keable said. The Toronto office is home to 58 international attorneys, according to the most recent Business First list of international law firms.

Law Firms-International lawyers

Toronto and surrounding cities have been growing and are a mecca for the best and the brightest, he said. Once a Canadian business can offer sufficient products, competitively priced services and a solid workforce, it seems a natural fit to bring what it does across the border.

“The U.S. market is too big and attractive for Canadians to ignore,” Keable said. “Our two countries are among the two closest and friendliest on the planet. I would say that here in Western New York, we have more in common and more affinity with our Canadian friends across the border than we do with, for instance, New York City or a state like Texas.”

Christian Henrich, who runs the Buffalo office of Woods Oviatt Gilman, said it has become necessary for an Upstate firm to have a presence in the Buffalo area, not only because of the region’s improving economy but to connect with the Canadian market. Canadian business is now a significant component of his practice.

The Canadian market is underserved by U.S. law firms, Henrich said. The firm doesn’t have an office in Canada but still has the luxury of telling a client in Toronto that its lawyers can be there in two hours. Also, Buffalo firms don’t charge the higher rates seen in New York City, for example, and businesses across the border are more price sensitive with the declining rate of the Canadian dollar, he said.

“Buffalo is the most dynamic Upstate market right now,” Henrich said. “The Buffalo renaissance is definitely here and the growth is not going to stop happening, but there’s also the proximity to a huge marketplace in Ontario and Toronto.”

Since the mid-1970s, Gross Shuman has represented Canadian businesses looking south to form new branches, offices, warehouses and subsidiaries, according to David Alexander. He is part of the law firm’s leadership and practices in both New York and Florida.

He said Buffalo continues to be a gateway city to Canada and a good place for businesses to gain a foothold into the U.S. market.

There is a steady stream of Canadian companies, large and small, coming stateside, Keable said. It may start by them maintaining goods in a warehouse, then a business may feel it needs an office and sales representative before deciding to do some assembly here. At some point, it may make more sense for the business to manufacture here because it can be a natural hedging against currency fluctuations, he added.

Another side of this work is in helping individual Canadians manage their wealth and their exposure to U.S. taxes, said Alexander, also an estate planner. He said since the increase in the cost of oil had a positive impact on the Canadian economy and people’s wealth, more of them maintain multiple vacation homes in the United States, especially in Florida and skiing hot spots such as Ellicottville.

Phillips Lytle has an office in Kitchener, Ontario, which is known as a technology center that describes itself as the Silicon Valley of Canada. International law attorney Jon Yormick has been up to the office a few times since joining the firm nearly a year ago and partners such as Doug Dmitroff of Buffalo have regular client meetings up there.

It continues to be an active office, as well as a busy region. In addition to tech-related activity, the region is also the “bread basket of Canada,” according to Yormick.

Food processors and farmers and growers face increased U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. Yormick said he expects to speak with some of those companies, especially those that import foods into the U.S. or have customers in the country, to make sure they are compliant and goods aren’t seized, turned away or delayed.

Gross Shuman is located between Burlington and Oakville in an office park right off the highway, with the Greater Toronto area making up the majority of its Canadian client base. The location is convenient to the local train line, which is only a 45-minute trip to Toronto. From Buffalo, it takes about an hour and 10 minutes to get to the office if traffic is running smoothly.

Having the office is not just about holding meetings there; it’s also helpful to attorneys looking to be productive out of meetings, Keable said.

“When picking the location for the office, we didn’t have the foresight of putting a map of Ontario up on the wall with pins for a client here and a client there. Had we done that, though, I think we would find our office is roughly in the center of where all of those little pins would be,” he said.

That point was accentuated a few years later when UPS opened an $80 million distribution facility, it’s second largest in North America, near the law office. Keable said he realized from experience that the firm didn’t need to be in downtown Toronto. Employees could travel to clients easily from a place such as Burlington.

“I thought it was a huge endorsement of the decision for us to be where we were that UPS opened in our backyard,” he said.

Alexander, meanwhile, said Canadian clients like that his firm has an office in Canada and that it is centrally located. He can also work wireless on Canadian matters, whether it is in Buffalo, Florida and elsewhere.

Much of Barclay Damon’s strategy in Canada was centered around the work of Rachlin. He joined the firm in 2014 and in little more than two years built a team of 10 attorneys with an increased presence in Canada. Barclay Damon, which has an office in Toronto, is now actively engaged in the Canadian marketplace under a program that Rachlin developed with the firm.

Thanks to his work, it’s not just an international corporate practice but is entrenched in matters such as immigration, cross-border, tax, trusts and estates, and commercial litigation, according to James Domagalski, comanaging partner in Buffalo.

“Lauren worked tirelessly to do that, and loved it,” Domagalski said. “He loved being a lawyer and loved the interplay between the U.S. and Canadian markets and was passionate about building something with us. We’ll be forever grateful.”

Rachlin worked in international law for more than 40 years. He took notice early on of the relationship between the two countries and said crossborder business was key to the strength of each economy, Domagalski said.

“There’s never been a better lawyer, in all of that time, in putting together deals and finding common ground for people to do business than Lauren Rachlin,” he said.

These days, there are many more Buffalo attorneys carrying on similar work and following in his footsteps.