Here’s something I’m envious of as a Canadian lawyer. The United States is filled with celebrity lawyers: Robert Shapiro, Gerry Spence, Harvey Levin (thank you, TMZ), Judge Wapner, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Lance Ito.
Bobby and Teddy—lawyers. John, Jr., a prosecutor. Bill and Hillary and the current POTUS and FLOTUS, lawyers all.
And, of course, the most celebrated American lawyer, Geraldo Rivera (you forgot that, didn’t you?).
The U.S. loves to gawk at its lawyers, making them famous for defending ex-Hertz pitchmen, or for screaming at people on crappy daytime television where they make all judges look like arrogant cork smokers.
What about celebrity lawyers in Canada?
Let’s see, maybe the Greenspan brothers, Brian and Eddie? I’d be interested to know if anybody outside of Toronto has heard of them. Clayton Ruby, perhaps?
I guess our most famous lawyer is the guy that really brought Broadway to Canada: Garth Drabinsky, who graduated from University of Toronto Law and was admitted to practice in 1975. He ran a company called Livent that produced Phantom of the Opera (starring the incomparable Colm Wilkinson), Show Boat, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, amongst others.
He took some of his plays to Broadway and became a big shot where the neon lights shine brightest. At one point it was believed Livent generated around twenty-five per cent of all North American theatre revenue.
He was awarded the Order of Canada, our country’s highest civilian award. Our Garth, someone for Canada to be proud of, for sure. Star lawyer; a star even Americans gawked at.
Except… there was a small problem.
In 2009, Garth was convicted of fraud and sentenced to five years in jail. An Ontario court found that Garth and his Livent partner, Myron Gottlieb, systematically produced cooked financial statements for many years. They used those financial statements to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fuel their conquest of North American theatre.
It seems they had two sets of books. One for Livent’s public stockholders filled with Lord of the Rings numbers showing Frodo living happily in the Shire. The other set, the real books, they kept hidden under a jumble of papers at the back of a locked drawer (and guarded by a dragon—just kidding). Guess what the real books said? Livent was in serious trouble.
Garth’s best performance by far was convincing people he was the king of North American theatre while hiding from all eyes that his company was having more difficulties than Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.
It all came crashing down in 1998 when Livent applied for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. and Canada. Garth had entered into a deal with Hollywood superstar Michael Ovitz to make an investment in Livent and to provide management support so Garth could spend his time exclusively on creative endeavours (I guess cooking the books takes a lot of time and effort).
Shortly after Ovitz arrived, his accountants started asking pesky questions. Several of Livent’s longstanding employees that knew about the fraud saw the theatre lights dimming. They slew the dragon and dug the real books out of the locked drawer. Dragon dead and books in hand, they sprinted to Ovitz’s team to save the day. Ovitz’s team immediately locked Garth and Myron out of the building. Next they called the Ontario Securities Commission and the SEC.
The case played out in the newspapers over the following ten years, culminating with Garth and Myron finding out why orange is the new black.
Now released from jail, Garth has worked hard over the last few years to rehabilitate his image. You can imagine this type of trouble changes a man, hopefully for the better.
Still, in 2013 Garth was stripped of his Order of Canada. I can’t imagine that was a fun day.
Just recently, he was disbarred from practicing law by the Law Society of Upper Canada. A three-member discipline panel sat front row as he pleaded that his ability to practice law was one of the few things he had left to help pull himself out of the pit of despair he fell into fifteen years ago.
The panel was unmoved, noting the seriousness of Garth’s crimes mandated disbarment. Effective immediately.
And, with that, our most famous lawyer was no longer a lawyer.
The Greeks popularized the story of Icarus. Garth Drabinsky is just latest of many with wings of feather and wax.
I do feel some sympathy for Garth. He remains in my mind a Canadian who took on the world and for a long time seemed to be winning. I admired him.
He went to jail for his crimes. Both Canadian and U.S. society claim that once we pay for our crimes society should welcome us back. So we should with Garth. Still, I agree with the disbarment. Lawyers both know better and are held to a higher standard. It is a privilege to practice, not a right. As lawyers, we must never forget that.
But I hope he makes a triumphant come back. We all love a riches to rags to riches story.
Maybe one day Garth will get back on the horse and produce his own life story. I propose he calls it Icarus: The Musical (songs by Stephen Sondheim). But this Icarus story has a twist ending. Instead of drowning in the sea, Garth survives the fall and, humbled, rises to true greatness.
Can you picture Garth (played by the fabulous Nathan Lane) standing on the front of the stage as his world collapses around him? It’s his darkest moment—his empire in crumbles. He turns to the audience and belts out the climatic tune, I’m Garth!
I cooked the books and Ovitz caught me.
The cops are closing all around me.
I don’t know if I’ll make my bail,
I sure can’t produce my shows from jail.
I’m Garth! King of Broadway!
Garth, doin’ it my way.
Garth, the whole world loves me,
Bringing you Phantom and Joseph and Fosse.
That has Tony for Best Musical written all over it, don’t you think?
There’s the View from Up North. Have a great week.
P.S. Canada would rather have Garth than Judge Judy. Just sayin’.
Steve Dykstra is a Canadian-trained lawyer and legal recruiter. He is the President of Keybridge Legal Recruiting, a boutique recruitment firm that places lawyers in law firms and in-house roles throughout North America. You can contact Steve at email@example.com. You can also read his blog at stevendykstra.wordpress.com, follow him on Twitter (@IMRecruitR), or connect on LinkedIn (ca.linkedin.com/in/stevedykstra/).