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Legal market overview

The increasingly fractious international trade environment has dominated the national agenda. As inconceivable as it would have seemed two years ago, in the summer of 2018 Canada found itself gearing up for a trade war with its most important trading partner, after US President Donald Trump imposed 25% steel tariffs and 10% aluminium tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the EU. Canada took retaliatory measures, which included a 25% tariff on assorted US metals products, before the situation de-escalated following its involvement in talks to revamp the 24-year old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA was formerly replaced with the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in October 2018.

In other trade news, Canada began to feel the benefit of the long-awaited EU-Canada trade agreement (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA), which was finally enacted in September 2017. Now — a year after its implementation — at the Port of Montreal alone, Canada has recorded a 20% rise in the traffic of goods headed towards Europe.

The jittery start to the year has not had much of an effect on Canada’s solid economy, with its 3% GDP growth in 2017 expected to be followed by 2.1% growth in 2018. The Bank of Canada responded to the more optimistic investor mood post-USMCA by rising interest rates by a quarter point, the fifth such increase since summer 2017, which brings the benchmark interest rate up to 1.75%, the highest it’s been since December 2008.

If the international trade situation has been a boon for regulatory lawyers, the liberalization of the cannabis sector has been keeping corporate finance lawyers busy. As of October 17, 2018, the recreational use of cannabis is no longer a crime in Canada. The market has seen an influx of new industry players, and a surge in corporate financings, as the cannabis industry primes itself for the new climate — that said, cannabis stocks remain volatile.

Canada is home to a significant number of global law firms: Baker McKenzie, DLA Piper (Canada) LLP, Dentons, Gowling WLG and Norton Rose Fulbright all have full-service offerings in the country. However, with few exceptions, the highest-profile corporate and finance mandates continue to flow to Canada’s so-called ‘Seven Sisters’ – most of which have at least one international office - namely: Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, Goodmans, McCarthy Tétrault, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, Stikeman Elliott LLP and Torys LLP.

That said, several other Canadian firms dominate in specific sectors or regions. Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP and FASKEN are top-choice firms for mining deals. Bennett Jones LLP is a leader in oil and gas transactions – and in Western Canada generally. Borden Ladner Gervais LLP is highly regarded for power-related work. Calgary’s Burnet Duckworth & Palmer LLP is a regional heavyweight and is considered a leading business law firm in Alberta.

The jurisdictional nature of Canada’s legal environment cannot be overstated. Public and private law are separated, with responsibilities for the former exercised by Parliament and the latter overseen by the provinces. The largest legal centre is Toronto in the province of Ontario, which remains the key base for corporate deals. Alberta is synonymous with Canada’s oil and gas industry and notably houses the Athabasca oil sands; therefore Calgary is a hub for energy work. British Columbia is also a major province for resources matters, with forestry and mining key economic sectors. French-speaking Quebec – which retains a civil code for private law separate from the rest of Canada’s common law system – is a very distinct legal market.

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