Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Portage, Winnipeg law firms join forces

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BARNEY Christianson hadn't had much luck convincing young lawyers to move to Portage la Prairie, so he turned his attention to an entire firm instead.

The managing partner of Christianson Law Corp. found a willing merger partner with Don Douglas, his former law school classmate at the University of Manitoba and counterpart at Thompson Dorfman Sweatman.

Christianson was increasingly facing the prospect of turning away business, because he and the other two lawyers in his firm were up to their eyeballs in work and their increasingly sophisticated clients were demanding services that were outside of their areas of expertise.

"Occasionally, you have to admit you're not Superman and can't get to something so you say 'no' instead of disappointing someone," he said.

"The law is constantly getting more complex and time-consuming. What might have taken us five lawyer hours 15 years ago might easily take us 10 hours or more now."

Christianson also has one-day-a-week offices in MacGregor and Gladstone that are covered off by his team.

The never-ending challenge for rural firms in Manitoba is convincing big-city lawyers to move outside the Perimeter Highway. When Christianson graduated from law school in the early 1970s, 15 per cent of the province's lawyers worked outside of Winnipeg. Today, that figure has dropped to 12 per cent.

Christianson said many of his clients have been with the firm for 30 years and while they might have started out as a farm employee, now they own farming operations of their own. Along the way, their legal needs have morphed from a simple will to a family trust, holding corporations and a share structure that will allow them to pass it on to their children who may or may not want to continue in the family business.

"Instead of just doing a land transfer, we're doing transactions involving millions of dollars of land and equipment," he said.

Having access to the bench strength of TDS will enable his office, now called Christianson TDS, to provide the necessary services to his clients. (The Winnipeg office will continue under its original name.)

Douglas said he had been thinking for a couple of years TDS didn't have much of a presence in communities such as Steinbach, Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Thompson.

With a number of rural lawyers nearing retirement, Douglas thought he could offer them an exit strategy that would ensure their clients continue to receive good service.

"We thought (a merger) was the way to do it. Do we want to go into the community with an ally or as (Christianson's) competitor? It seems the latter is a high-risk endeavour. You've got to rent space and dedicate resources to it, but you don't know how long it will take to build a practice that makes sense from an economic perspective," he said.

Douglas said he's hoping to continue expanding into other parts of rural Manitoba.

"We'll be pursuing discussions with other lawyers in other communities immediately," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2013 B4

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