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Canada's Ogilvy Renault joins global legal giant

Norm Steinberg, chairman of Ogilvy Renault LLP.

One of Canada's storied law firms, Ogilvy Renault, is taking a page from its clients, merging with a British legal giant to create a "truly global network" as customers grow ever more international in scope.

The Montreal-based firm announced plans Monday to join forces with London-based Norton Rose, which also unveiled a merger with South Africa's Deneys Reitz, creating a firm with 38 offices and 2,500 lawyers to rival the world's biggest firms in size.

The move signals how Canada's law firms are increasingly chasing corporate deals beyond the country's borders.

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"I think it certainly positions them very well with us, in a sense that it offers us a greater amount of services throughout the world," said Gilles Laramée, executive vice-president and chief financial officer at SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., one of Ogilvy's clients. "... For us as a client, I think it's very, very good news."

The merger, which takes effect next summer, will mean the end of a standalone Ogilvy Renault. The firm, long a fixture on the Quebec political and corporate scene, counts former prime minister Brian Mulroney among its senior partners. It had also recently expanded into Toronto and Calgary.

Ogilvy Renault's 450 lawyers will use the Norton Rose name in Canada. The firm says it is making the move to better serve its global clients such as SNC-Lavalin, Bombardier Inc. and Royal Bank of Canada.

"This will make Ogilvy Renault the first Canadian law firm to be part of a truly global network," the firm's national managing partner, John Coleman, told a conference call. "We made this decision because so many of our clients are growing internationally, and more and more global companies and investors are looking to Canada."

Just last week, McMillan LLP announced it was swallowing Lang Michener LLP. Norton Rose had approached other Canadian firms as well, before discussions with Ogilvy Renault got serious over the past six months.

Some observers say globalization and the dwindling corporate legal business in Canada that has followed in the wake of foreign takeovers of Canadian companies could prompt other Canadian law firms to follow Ogilvy's lead.

Robert Granatstein, managing partner of Bay Street heavyweight Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, said he wouldn't be surprised if other firms pursue international mergers.

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"With the global economy the way it is and the practice of law changing, we're not surprised that firms are investigating alternatives to their current platform," he said in an e-mail. "All law firms are reflecting on their strategic positioning in the marketplace. It's hard to predict what will come, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see more mergers."

Norton Rose (which despite recent growth is not considered one of the City of London's prestigious "Magic Circle" law firms), made a dramatic move last year when it merged with Deacons Australia. The deal that brought its total head count to 1,800 with offices in 30 countries. It counts HSBC Holdings PLC and France Télécom SA among its blue-chip clients. The British firm has been expanding its business in Asia in recent years.

Now, with Ogilvy Renault and South Africa's Deneys Reitz, the Norton Rose Group – which says it has $670-million (U.S.) in annual fee income – will bring in more than $1-billion in annual fees, Ogilvy Renault said Monday, dwarfing all other Canadian firms.

"It shows that the world is becoming really global," said Daniel Desjardins, senior vice-president and chief legal officer at Bombardier. "… I think it's the first of more moves to come. Canada is part of the Group of Eight – if you are serious about globalization and you're a large global law firm, having a footprint in Canada is only natural."

Not everyone sees the possibility of more mergers in the offing, however. One senior Bay Street legal observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he didn't think the combination of Ogilvy Renault and Norton Rose would have the leading Toronto firms reconsidering their strategies. But he said the move makes sense for Ogilvy Renault, which has been working to expand its client base outside the slowly declining corporate world of Montreal.

"They figured they had to do something. … You get big and hope that generates some excitement. But is this going to shake up anybody in this city? I don't think so. I don't see it as a game changer," the observer said.

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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