Vancouver law firms come in many different forms, but the main objective factors that can be used to distinguish between them are size, practice areas, and practice structure. Other factors that are very important in choosing a law firm, but which don't lend themselves to easy measurement or comparison, are individual lawyers' availability and responsiveness, as well as whether or not you "click" with the individual lawyer(s) with whom you would be working. These latter issues are discussed on our "Vancouver Lawyers" page.
Vancouver law firms range in size from a single lawyer (a "sole practitioner", or "solo" lawyer) through to firms with over 100 lawyers. Further, firms can have multi-city or multi-province coverage, in the form of satellite offices elsewhere or, in the case of "national" law firms, multiple offices in cities throughout Canada, with totals of over 500 lawyers.
Generally speaking, except as it affects issues discussed below, a law firm's size is the least relevant, though most visible, distinguishing characteristic.
A firm's "practice areas" are the types of legal matters with which the firm is experienced and which it characteristically takes on. "Boutique" law firms, ranging in size from one to many lawyers, practice in limited areas, devoting all of their time to (and therefore building a great deal of specific experience in) those limited areas of the law. This is common in criminal defence law and family law, for instance, though those are by no means the only areas practiced in boutiques. Intellectual property law, securities law, and taxation law boutiques also exist among Vancouver law firms.
Generally, larger firms tend to be "full service" firms which provide coverage of almost all areas of B.C. and Canadian law (though in many cases they specifically exclude criminal and family law). However, the opposite is not necessarily true; while some small firms do cover only narrow areas of the law, other small firms and solo practitioners, can offer legal services covering wide varieties of legal issues. For more on this, see the discussion regarding "practice structure", below, and our "BC Lawyers" page.
Obviously, any client needs a law firm that practices in the areas concerning that client; businesses and business people need a firm that can deal with corporate, commercial, employment, income and other tax, and related areas of the law, while a wealthy retiree is more likely to require a firm that can advise on wills and trusts, income tax, etc.
"Practice Structure" refers to the degree of "specialization" of each individual lawyer within the law firm. (See the BC Lawyers page for more on "specialization" of lawyers in British Columbia.)
The majority of (but not all) larger Vancouver law firms work on the basis of bringing together a large number of lawyers each of whom practices in a relatively narrow and specialized field. The logic behind this structure is that the firm can then serve most or all of a client's legal needs through the assistance of a number of lawyers, each of whom brings to the client's file their own detailed knowledge of their area of the law. The potential advantage of this system is that the detailed and specialized knowledge of particular legal fields can result in more complete legal services being rendered. The potential disadvantage lies in the necessity of dealing with multiple lawyers to accomplish a single legal goal, such that any one lawyer may not have a grasp of all the relevant issues. There is a resultant possibility of greater legal fees being incurred as a result of multiple individual lawyers expending time becoming familiar with the issues.
As already mentioned above, smaller Vancouver law firms may or may not have lawyers who "specialize." The result of specialization in firms with few lawyers is, of course, that the firm only covers a limited range of legal practice areas, and any legal concerns outside those areas must be referred to other counsel. This may or may not be problematic for the client, depending on the circumstances and upon the client's relationship with his or her lawyer(s).
Please see our BC Lawyers and Vancouver Lawyers pages for further information on the legal environment in British Columbia.