Top Canadian firm Bennett Jones has opened an office in Washington, D.C., after rehiring antitrust partner Melanie Aitken following her three-year stint as head of Canada’s Competition Bureau.

Calgary-based Bennett Jones, which is known for its energy and natural resources expertise, announced Monday that Aitken would manage the new office and cochair the firm’s antitrust and competition practice.
 
The move makes Bennett Jones the first major Canadian firm to open an office in the U.S. capital, says Aitken, who spoke Tuesday with The Am Law Daily by phone from Toronto Pearson International Airport while waiting to board a flight to D.C.
 
Aitken, a 46-year-old Toronto native, left the firm’s Toronto office in 2005 to join the Competition Bureau in Ottawa, where she spent the next three years as the regulatory agency’s senior deputy commissioner for merger review.
 
In 2009, Aitken was named commissioner of the Competition Bureau as Canada was in the process of revamping its antitrust regulations. The regulatory overhaul saw the country’s government pass sweeping changes to federal antitrust and foreign investment laws that put in place “ second request” provisions aimed at giving the Competition Bureau greater power to probe allegedly anticompetitive practices by companies under review.
 
Though she cut short her five-year term as commissioner by stepping down two years ahead of schedule in September, Aitken nonetheless worked closely with her U.S. antitrust colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice in overseeing several key merger reviews during her three-year run in the top job at the Competition Bureau. 
 
While many of those investigations never became public knowledge, Aitken says that some notable matters handled on her watch include the agency’s approval of Suncor Energy’s $15.5 billion buy of Petro-Canada in 2009 and the Maple Group’s proposed $3.8 billion acquisition of Canadian stock exchange operator TMX Group, which was approved last August.
 
Other major M&A deals announced out of Canada in recent years—such as Australian mining giant BHP Billiton’s ill-fated $38.6 billion offer for The Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and the China National Offshore Oil Corp.’s $15.1 billion bid for Canadian oil company Nexen—did not fall entirely under the guise of Competition Bureau scrutiny and instead required review under Canada’s Investment Act. That process, which is similar to a CFIUS proceeding in the U.S., factors in political concerns and the national interest when considering M&A deals involving critical Canadian natural resources. ( Canada nixed the Potash sale; Nexen’s proposed acquisition by China’s CNOOC is still being reviewed.)
 
The surge in natural resource and energy deals north of the border— particularly in the country’s booming oil sands, which have been fruitful territory for large firms—is one reason Aitken says she and Bennett Jones decided to head to D.C. “The cross-border component of these deals allows us to provide another range of services to our clients,” Aitken says. “We want to give them strategic solutions for investing in Canada.”
 
The strength of the Canadian economy—the current exchange rate with the U.S. dollar is about one to one—and the ongoing stability of the country’s banking sector amid volatile times in global capital markets further explains why international companies continue to seek out the services of the country’s large law firms, says Aitken. (She jokingly adds that Bennett Jones will pay her in U.S. dollars now that she’ll be based in D.C.)
 
Aitken says she always considered a return to Bennett an attractive proposition. After being a partner at rival Canadian firm Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg, she left private practice in 2001 to become senior counsel with Canada’s Department of Justice, a post she held until 2003, when she joined Bennett Jones in her hometown of Toronto.
 
The Am Law Daily reported last year on Bennett Jones’s key roles on a string of billion-dollar energy M&A deals. One of those transactions saw Donald Greenfield, cochair of the firm’s energy practice, named a Dealmaker of the Week in connection with his representation of Calgary-based Flint Energy Services on its $1.25 billion sale to engineering and construction company URS.
 
Aitken says the firm’s connections to U.S. business and political interests are likely to benefit its new outpost in D.C. She notes that two former Canadian ambassadors to the country— Allan Gotlieb and Michael Kergin—serve as senior advisers to the firm.
 
For now, Aitken will be the only Bennett Jones lawyer stationed in D.C., although the firm may soon send others down to assist her. Aitken will also work closely with Sheridan Scott, her predecessor as head of Canada’s Competition Bureau and cochair of the firm’s competition practice, and fellow antitrust cochair Randal Hughes, who joined the firm in a high-profile lateral move two years ago from Canadian rival McCarthy Tétrault. (That firm scored a high-profile lateral hire of its own last week by bringing on former Quebec premier Jean Charest as a corporate and public policy partner in Montreal.)
 
With its entry into the D.C. market, Bennett Jones is following the lead of top British firms Linklaters and Allen & Overy, both of which have opened offices in the city within the past two years. Magic Circle rivals Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer already have offices in Washington, D.C.