Torys, Denton lawyers defect to Mintz Levin as US law giant invades Bay Street

Pictured left to right: Lee Johnson, Mitch Frazer, Cheryl Reicin, Eric Foster, Michael Akkawi. Boston-based Mintz Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo is establishing a Toronto office with three partners who are leaving Torys LLP’s Toronto office.Matthew Bennett

A giant US law firm is making a splash on Bay Street, poaching five high-profile partners from three firms to establish a Canadian foothold.

Boston-based Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo PC will stock a new Toronto office with three partners who are leaving Torys LLP – Michael Akkawi, Mitch Frazer and Cheryl Reicin – as well as Dentons Canada LLP partners Eric Foster and Lee Johnson, a Canadian who works in San Diego as a partner with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati PC. Mr. Frazer will be managing partner in Toronto.

The five, who will join Mintz in the coming days and weeks, know each other well (Mr. Foster previously worked at Torys). They decided to break away as a group, and a source said they saw Mintz as the ideal partner to provide cross-border legal services to clients, without starting a firm from scratch. More are expected to join as Mintz aims to increase its presence in Canada. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

“This incredibly impressive team aligns perfectly with our strategic plan,” Mintz managing member Bob Bodian said in a statement. “Our core areas of life sciences, private equity, energy and sustainability and technology all benefit from this expansion.”

Mintz has more than 500 lawyers at seven offices in cities including Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington. An eighth is slated for Miami this year. The firm, founded in 1933, has been repeatedly recognized as one of the best US law firms by US News and World Report. It had revenue of US$617-million and net income of US$212-million last year.

Each of the five coming Mintz partners is a leader in their specialty. Ms. Reicin is one of Canada’s top biotechnology lawyers and has appeared on WXN’s Canada’s 100 Most Powerful women list four times. The American Harvard Law School alumnus joined Torys 19 years ago after co-chairing the life sciences group at McDermott Will & Emery in New York. She will become international chair of Mintz’s life sciences practice.

“You can count on one hand the legal advisers in Canada with global expertise in biotechnology,” said Brian Bloom, chief executive of Toronto life sciences investment bank Bloom Burton. “Cheryl is definitely one of those. Partnering with Mintz to enter Canada is good for our ecosystem.”

Mr. Akkawi is one of the leading lawyers in the formation of venture capital and private equity funds. His clients include John Ruffolo’s Maverix Private EquityDragons’ Den star Arlene Dickinson’s District Ventures Capital and Amplitude Ventures.

“Mike and his team have been stellar to work with and it was important that we have his skills working for us through 2023’s challenging fundraising environment,” Ms. Dickinson said. “In a difficult market it will be hard to replace him and he will leave a significant hole at the Torys. These are very specialized areas of practice where experience, finesse and connections matter absolutely.”

Dr. Johnson is an intellectual property specialist in health sciences, agriculture technology and food technology, while Mr. Frazer is an authority on pension law in Canada who has served as an expert witness before legislative committees and has consulted pension regulators.

Mr. Foster, meanwhile, has extensive experience advising on capital markets transactions in Canada and the United States. He has been recognized as one of the top lawyers in the cannabis sector and also specializes in life sciences, mining and technology.

“Canadian companies and investors are increasingly looking to the US and we are excited to be plugging into a platform and business network that will be beneficial to our clients,” Mr. Frazer said in a statement.

Other global law firms have also set up shops or expanded their presence in Canada. Last November, Britain-based DWF Group entered Canada by acquiring Vancouver law firm Whitelaw Twining. Cozen O’Connor, a Philadelphia-based firm that has been expanding in Canada since 2021, added lawyers this year in Toronto and opened a Vancouver office.

International law firms are expanding in Canada because that’s what their corporate clients are doing, said Dal Bhathal, managing director with legal recruiting firm The Counsel Network. “Everyone is looking more globally and particularly the flow of trading and work north and south,” she said.

Law firms around the world are also being more strategic in building their businesses, she said, relying less on existing local client relationships and targeting areas where they can grow. “International firms, just by the nature of the work they do, have better resources or the ability to implement resources and look at things in a way more local firms are not able to do, like technology and AI [artificial intelligence],” she said.

US law firms have long targeted Canadian firms for talent. Dentons and Norton Rose Fulbright came to Canada in the early 2010s by merging with Canadian firms. The trend picked up in 2021 as corporate deal-making soared even as firms on both sides of the border grappled with a shortage of lawyers. At the time US firms primarily poached junior lawyers, luring them with the promise of big pay increases. Canadian firms countered with pandemic bonuses to associates.

The trend is continuing, even if not at the same pace. In its 2023 salary guide for Canada, global staffing firm Robert Half said demand from the US continues to put pressure on firms here to increase pay.

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