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Farewell to the Firm


Amicable divorce splitting powerhouse legal team

Through their office doors have walked kings of government, captains of industry, outlaws of the sporting world and average working stiffs aspiring to right a wrong.

When they play the game of law, under the same roof for 15 years but never in tandem, the stakes tend to be high and the arena bathed in a bright spotlight: Tainted water victims in Walkerton; train crash survivors in Thamesville; disgruntled shareholders in the failed Bre-X Minerals Ltd.; heart patients with defective pacemakers; and hepatitis C sufferers seeking compensation from the federal and provincial governments for tainted blood.

When the premier of British Columbia needed someone to defend his son on an assault charge, he entrusted the task to their firm.

Their clients and cases have read like a who's who of the justice system. They have worked on cases involving the likes of pro hockey player Bob Probert, porn star turned exotic dancer Marilyn Chambers, Ollie Mastronardi, a Leamington businessman convicted of manslaughter in Ohio, Donna Gamble, a former city councillor now charged with theft, Derek Alchimowicz, who unsuccessfully sued the city after being paralyse while driving from a municipal dock, and Jordan Dube, a three-year-old left paralyse and quadriplegic from an anesthetic overdose.

Harvey Strosberg and Pat Ducharme have built their fame in the sixth-floor offices of Sutts, Strosberg. But now, as if to say, "This place ain't big enough for the two of us," the two courtroom titans are going their separate ways in a split that will alter the landscape of Windsor's legal community.

Ducharme is leading a break-away group of lawyers into a new, independent firm, leaving Strosberg to steer the 75-year-old Sutts, Strosberg (formerly known as Gignac, Sutts), through the most dramatic change in its history.

When Ducharme and his team depart 251 Goyeau St. at the end of the year, Sutts, Strosberg, one of Windsor's oldest and largest firms, will no longer offer the traditional range of legal services.

"I've been there, done that," says Strosberg, who joined the firm 28 years ago. Sutts, Strosberg will focus on commercial transactions and litigation, major personal injury lawsuits and class actions - an area where Strosberg has established himself among the leaders in the country.

In contrast, Ducharme and his new partners are shaping a business that will offer what their old firm once did - a broad range of legal services.

The split had been gradual, perhaps inevitable, and without animosity, says those involved.

"I think there's no doubt that my vision about the law firm is different than (Ducharme's), but that is perfectly understandable given that his interests and very considerable skills are different than mine," Strosberg says.

While it is the normal course for lawyers to move around, the magnitude of the change and the high-profile personalities involved make this parting stand out. "You don't usually see these big moves happening," says Elizabeth Essex, president of the local lawyers' association. "It's an established firm. It was certainly somewhat of a shock, but it's not uncommon."

Strosberg and Ducharme have always been at the opposite extremities of the firm. Ducharme's small and elegant office in the southeast corner of the building overlooks City Hall Square. Strosberg's more cluttered quarters face northwest to a view of the Detroit River.

'Drifted apart'

"He was literally at one end of the office and I was at the other," Strosberg says. "His practice is so different from mine...So we had very little to do with each other and drifted apart."

Strosberg has also spend much of his enormous energy in the last five years on the Law Society of Upper Canada, the governing body for Ontario's lawyers. As an elected member of the board, or "bencher," he earned their respect and gratitude for a tough, no-nonsense plan that eliminated a $154-million deficit in the lawyers' liability insurance fund. He took the same action-oriented approach when he was elected to head the society for a two-year term, which ended in June 1999.

Now he has turned his full attention back to the law firm and his growing involvement in class actions - which allow large groups of people with modest means to pool their resources to sue large companies or governments.

In August, Strosberg was involved in negotiations in Toronto that resulted in a $79-million settlement by the Red Cross Society for those infected by tainted blood before 1986 and after 1990. He was also a key player in a class action that led to a $1.5 billion federal-provincial compensation plan announced two years ago. In that case Strosberg led a team of lawyers representing those infected with hepatitis C in Canada, except Quebec and B.C., from 1986 to 1990.

On Sept. 1, his 56th birthday, he was in a Windsor court trying to push ahead a class action against Via Rail and the Canadian National Railway on behalf of passengers in a crash near Thamesville last year.

Strosberg, dressed in his black court robe, was focused as he leaned forward on the lectern making his pitch to the judge. Afterwards, he sat casually slouched behind his desk littered with files, legal texts and messages. The walls are lined with photos that reflect his two all-consuming loves - the law and his family.

Lying sleepily nearby was Isaiah, the Strosberg family's 12-year-old Labrador retriever who doubles as the office mascot. Stacked near the door were three boxes of files on a trademark dispute between The Business Depot Ltd. and The Canadian Office Depot Inc. Strosberg, one of the lawyers for The Business Depot, would spend the Labour Day weekend poring over them in preparation for an appearance before the Federal Court of Appeal on Tuesday.

His son, Jay, a third-year University of Windsor law student, listened as his father was interviewed. Strosberg's two daughters are also pursuing legal careers. His son-in-law, David Robbins, recently joined Sutts, Strosberg.

Strosberg says he is recruiting, but "being my child is not a ticket to admission to this law firm."

He has scored a coup on that front by luring William Sasso, who was a senior litigator and partner in the 150-lawyer Toronto firm McMillan Binch for 18 years. It is rare for lawyers of Sasso's stature and experience to move from a legal mecca like Toronto to Windsor. He won't be the last, Strosberg says.

Clifford Sutts, a partner in the firm for more than 40 years, keeps close tabs on the bottom line. He expects the more specialized firm will have 15 to 20 lawyers to start. "It's exciting. It's new. It's challenging. It's an opportunity, and I enjoy what I do," Sutts said when asked why he's embracing such a major change at this stage in his career.

"There is a financial risk, and that's what I'm attempting to manage. The risks are great and so are the rewards," he said.

"The issue is most individuals could not afford to take on these cases," Strosberg said when asked how the firm is financing a growing number of class actions that can sometimes take years to resolve.

Strosberg spent $800,000 preparing the class action on behalf of 1,050 heart patients affected by a defective pacemaker made by Telectronics Proprietary (Canada) Ltd. He got court approval to allow investors to cover $350,000 of that. If Strosberg won, the investors would be first in line to get their money back plus 20-per-cent interest. If he lost, so did they. Strosberg won a $24.2-million settlement in 1997. The court-approved legal fee was $6 million.

"The point is that class actions can be very expensive," he says. "You don't get paid multipliers of usual hourly rates without taking substantial risks. And, as one judge said of a case I was involved in, this was a bet-your-law-firm kind of case. Some people don't to have their law firm bet on a class action. That's fair."

Ducharme and other lawyers leaving the firm say the financing of class actions plays no role in their departure.

"I really believe this is a decision by a group of lawyers, all around my age. We're all experienced now and we've decided to try to do it our way," says Ducharme, 50. He gave up his partnership in Sutts, Strosberg two years ago to prepare for the move.

Joining Ducharme are litigators William Chapman and Don Gordon, and family lawyer Mary Fox - all former Sutts, Strosberg partners whose offices are next door to Ducharme's. Like Ducharme, they practised on their own before joining Sutts, Strosberg.

They have purchased a 1,300-square-metre building at 800 University Ave. W. where they are aiming to open for business in January. The firm, called Ducharme Fox, is to have roughly 15 lawyers, making it one of the larger ones in Windsor.

"I think it gives us all a little more control over the day-to-day operation of the firm, but I think mostly it was just time for a change," says Chapman.

Six partners

Also a partner in the new firm is Pat's older brother, Edward, a labour and employment specialist, who has been at Sutts, Strosberg since 1986. There is a sixth partner they won't reveal until he is prepared to go public.

Pat Ducharme, tall, athletic and always impeccably dressed in a dark suit, is a familiar face in courtrooms across Southwestern Ontario. He has a reputation for taking high-profile and difficult cases, pushing the limits of the law on issues such as exotic dancing and the admissibility of breathalyser samples in drunk driving cases.

His brother recalls Ducharme showing his courtroom flourish at the tender age of 16, when he successfully fought a parking ticket armed with Polaroid snapshots and a litany of reasons he shouldn't be fined.

Ducharme has applied his advocacy skills to one of his other passions - hockey. He is an agent for six NHL players - including Probert - and has another half dozen who have been drafted. But that is a hobby, a sideline, Ducharme says. When it comes to his legal practice, he wants to expand his horizons by taking on more lawsuits.

His current files include a complex, $23.5 billion-dollar claim by his good friend Windsor industrialist Tony Toldo against some of the biggest auto parts makers in the world. It alleges they were involved in breaching a Toldo company's licence for the exclusive right to airbag technology in North America. The claim, since amended and increased, was initiated by Strosberg in 1997.

"I wish him well with that piece of litigation and every piece of litigation, unless it's against me," Strosberg said. "Then it's the best man wins, or maybe it's the best case wins."

"I'd pay to watch that," said Edward Ducharme, who is as close to Strosberg as he is to his brother. " Both are skilled legal tacticians and courtroom orators, who have carefully crafted their public images "to stand for nothing but success," he said.

"I think they have a good, respectful professional relationship. They are great admirers of each other."

POWER PLAYERS

Harvey Strosberg:

  • Succeeded in getting a settlement from those involved when Jordan Dube, 3, was left a spastic quadriplegic by an anesthetic overdose during a hernia operation.
  • One of the lawyers involved in a proposed class action law suit on behalf of those affected by E. coli bacteria contaminated water in Walkerton.
  • Represented Derek Alchimowicz, who was paralyzed in 1992 after he jumped from a Windsor dock in a drunken state. His lawsuit against his friends and the city was dismissed.
  • Was called by Ontario Premier Mike Harris's government in 1998 for legal advice and assistance in a deal that gave the three surviving Dionne quintuplets $4 million.
  • Advised lawyers hired by the federal Liberal government to defend it against former prime minister Brian Mulroney's libel suit over the Airbus controversy. The case was settled out of court.

Patrick Ducharme:

  • Represents Asseem Dosanjh, son of the B.C. premier, on charges of assaulting a police officer and causing a disturbance.
  • Represents Donald Hugh Auld, charged this year in 10-year-old double murder of Tammy Jefferson and Douglas Gage.
  • Is the lawyer for Edward Buksar, charged with first-degree murder in a New Year's Eve crash on Highway 401 that killed OPP St. Const. James McFadden.
  • Represents former city councillor Donna Gamble, charged with theft and breaching gaming licence conditions.
  • Represented Ollie Mastronardi, convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 1995 for a boating mishap in Ohio that killed Scott Brabander.
  • Represented the teenaged mother of a baby found floating in the Detroit River in July 1990. The shocking case drew hordes of media from Detroit. Raymond Laroche, 19, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the baby's death. The mother was put on probation for misleading police.
  • Was the lawyer for porn-movie queen and stripper Marilyn Chambers, acquitted or participating in an indecent performance at a Windsor strip club in 1986.
  • Succeeded in getting former Windsor Spitfires coach Wayne Maxner acquitted of drunk driving charges in 1987.
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