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Lawyer Davina Shivratan at her home in Oakville on Feb. 24. After spending two years as an associate at White & Case LLP, she took an in-house role with League, a Toronto-based tech firm, last summer.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

Lucas Kilravey wasn’t looking to leave his job as a lawyer at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Toronto. He enjoyed his work as an associate with the commercial real estate group and envisioned himself becoming a BLG partner one day.

But in October, 2021, a LinkedIn message from a U.S.-based law recruiter landed in his inbox: “Do you want to come to New York?”

It was something Mr. Kilravey had never seriously considered, but by December the then-37-year-old had accepted an offer from Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. Just three years out of law school, he would be making a base salary of US$250,000 – roughly double his Bay Street compensation – plus a bonus of around US$57,500.

“I had no plans to leave BLG … but this opportunity came along with a place that’s doing what I do at the pinnacle,” he said. “Everyone I told about the money was like: Go do it.”

Mr. Kilravey was part of a wave of Canadian lawyers who were lured south by massive paycheques between late 2020 and early 2022. This period marked a historic time for deal activity on Wall Street. American law firms couldn’t keep up with the work and looked abroad for talent. Although there are no official data on how many left, law recruiters told The Globe and Mail that anywhere between 100 and 150 lawyers – primarily from Bay Street and mostly at the junior level – made the jump.

This southern exodus created a domino effect of vacancies on this side of the border, with American firms raiding Tier 1 Canadian shops, and those firms turning to Tier 2 Canadian firms to fill their own vacancies and so on.

Two years later, even with the threat of recession and potential layoffs looming, it appears most of those who left are staying State-side.

Neda Canario, a vice-president of legal recruitment with BJRC Recruiting in Toronto, has been hearing from some Canadians who are interested in returning, but they’re facing sticker shock at the compensation.

“There are certain firms in New York that are paying second-year associates more than most income partners make in Toronto,” she said. “Our salaries are not comparable to what people are making in the States.”

Still, Ms. Canario said, some are starting to trickle back. A handful moved to pay off student loans and have decided to return to be closer to family or maintain a better work-life balance, as the New York workload is notoriously grinding.

Davina Shivratan, 29, is among this group. After spending two years as an associate at White & Case LLP, she took an in-house role with League, a Toronto-based tech firm, last summer.

“Eventually, I always wanted to come back to Toronto,” she said. “Although I moved back sooner than I thought I would, because the right opportunity came up.”

While she’s happy to be home, Ms. Shivratan said her years in New York were invaluable: “I was given a lot of responsibility because there was so much to get done. … There were a few deals where our senior associate left so I, as a baby lawyer, was thrown into it.”

Matt Rosenberg, the legal recruiter who messaged Mr. Kilravey, is a Canadian who moved to New York around nine years ago. When 2021 hit, he already had an overflowing Rolodex of Canadian candidates. Mr. Rosenberg says he personally moved dozens of Canadian lawyers during that period, primarily to New York and California. All together, he estimates between 100 and 150 lawyers left Canada.

Among that group, Mr. Rosenberg says the majority are still working in the States, although some have been let go.

Firms that had done a ton of hiring – over-hiring – definitely had layoffs,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

The Canadians who were most vulnerable were the ones fresh out of law school or with minimal experience. Because there is no articling year in the U.S., new lawyers were jumping right into life as a first-, second- or third-year associate.

“Look, overall, I think it was a great move for a lot of people. I think a lot of people gained invaluable experience, made a lot of money and opened new doors that wouldn’t have been opened in Canada.”

Christopher Sweeney, chief executive officer of ZSA Legal Recruitment, has a message to those who left and who want to come back: The longer you wait, the harder it will be.

Mr. Sweeney recently had this conversation with a fifth-year Canadian associate in New York, who is hoping to stay another two years. This would make the candidate a seventh-year associate upon return, when firms typically start considering associates for partner. Bay Street firms don’t always count the years abroad, Mr. Sweeney warned, particularly if the work being done is highly specialized, which is common at large American shops. Another consideration is the time lost building a Canadian book of business.

“Most of the firms will look to their own associates, lawyers who have been there since Day 1, rather than someone who is out having fun in New York,” said Mr. Sweeney, who estimates around 125 Canadian lawyers left during the 2021 deal frenzy.

And yet: That fifth-year associate in New York who Mr. Sweeney was advising is making the equivalent of about $540,000 a year, not including bonuses. In Toronto, he would be looking at around $250,000.

“And so he’s saying – and there’s a few of them – ‘I’m going to try and push this out a bit,’” Mr. Sweeney said.

Mr. Kilravey is one of those lawyers who sees himself back in Canada one day – but not yet.

“I’m back and forth constantly,” said Mr. Kilravey, who is the president of the Canadian Association of LGBTQ2S+ Lawyers. “Look, New York is New York. You have to walk through walls for clients. But Toronto has a high-end demanding legal environment as well … so it’s the same or better work for much more money.”

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