WINDSOR – Two leading southwestern Ontario lawyers, who’ve established something of national reputations and have worked together in the same firm for 15 years, will be going their separate ways by the end of the year.
Litigator Harvey Strosberg will remain where he is at Sutts Strosberg. But Pat Ducharme, known best for his criminal work, will be taking a group of lawyers to a new practice known as Ducharme Fox. With him will be Mary Fox, a leading family law lawyer.
The split is amicable but reflects the fact that the firm has effectively been operating as two entities for some time.
Ducharme and Fox will lead one group of lawyers specializing in criminal and family law. Strosberg and Clifford Sutts specialize in civil and commercial litigation, class actions, significant personal injury and commercial law.
Consequently Strosberg Sutts will drop criminal and family practices and phase out the estate and residential real estate areas.
“It’s not something that happened yesterday,” says Sutts, well known in Windsor outside legal circles, has been retained by the City of Windsor to negotiate major urban development agreements. At present he’s working on a deal for a new downtown arena and entertainment complex. He was called to the bar in 1957 and has been with the firm ever since.
“This is something that has been evolving for a considerable period of time, I’d say four or five years.”
Ducharme, who has represented defendants in high-profile murder and narcotics cases, says opening his own firm was “a dream that I had and I was going to try to live it out if I could.”
He says his practice and Strosberg’s had always been “quite separate and distinct” but “just happened to be working out of the same office structure.”
In the past few years Strosberg’s legal star has climbed on the national stage. His term as treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada ended last year. He represented the federal government in former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s libel suit against Ottawa in the Airbus affair; was key negotiator in the $1.5-billion federal-provincial personal injury compensation package for hepatitis C sufferers; and was government advisor in the 1998 Ontario compensation payout to the surviving Dionne quintuplets.
He is currently among lawyers (including Toronto’s Don Jack of McDonald & Hayden, and Paul Pape) representing shareholders in a class action in the Bre-X stock scandal. He is representing passengers in a class action against Via Rail and Canadian National Railway Co. over a passenger train derailment at Thamesville last year. He is acting with five other southern Ontario firms i lawsuits against local regulatory and provincial authorities arising from the Walkerton E. coli bacteria contamination tragedy.
Like Strosberg, Ducharme – admitted to the bar in 1977 – is a native of Windsor, and although less well known nationally, is no legal lightweight, contributing in legal affairs well beyond his southwestern Ontario perch. In Susan Delacourt’s book Shaughnessy, The Passionate Politics of Shaughnessy Cohen – about the now-deceased former MP and Windsor lawyer – Ducharme is described as “instrumental in helping stretch the legal limits to allow the proliferation of nude-dancing” in the city and, Ducharme told Law Times, to Ontario as a whole.
“I’d like to think that, because of some of the stuff I’ve done, I’ve gotten notoriety well beyond my little southwestern Ontario niche,” he says.
He also handled more than 70 murder cases for clients across Ontario. He was lead counsel in two of Canada’s largest narcotics cases, cited in investigative journalist Victor Malarek’s 1989 book, Merchants of Misery, about Canada’s illegal drug trade. He has obtained court privileges in Michigan, Ohio, Florida and California. He’s currently representing Aseem Dosanjh, son of British Columbia Premier Ujjal Dosanjh and a University of Windsor law student, on charges of assaulting a police officer and causing a disturbance arising from a fight outside a downtown Windsor bar last April.
He represents David Kent, a senior family court judge from Sarnia, charged with sexual assault.
But Ducharme says he’s as comfortable in a civil courtroom as a criminal one. “It does not scare me that the onus of proof is on the balance of probabilities as opposed to proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Generally speaking, I think that those are just words anyway. I think courts decide them on who they think is right.”
Ducharme and Fox will be taking several lawyers with them and will be hiring an additional four or five. Strosberg Sutts will also be hiring.
Ducharme syas it seemed inevitable the firm would separate. “We have gone our separate ways for 15 years. We just happen to be working out of the same structure. I hardly see Harvey and he hardly sees me. And I hardly see Cliff. That’s the nature of the business.”
Says Strosberg: “There’s no synergies between Pat Ducharme’s practice and mine. I don’t need criminal lawyers in my practice. He’s a wonderful guy and I like him personally and there’s no personal animosity here at all. I think that’s important. But they think they can practice in a circumstance which will generate better synergies for them, and there’s some merit in that.”
Strosberg added the class action area, which had increased Sutts Strosberg’s stature in recent years, would only continue to grow, particularly with the renewed focus as result of the firm’s rationalization. “I think that will be a very important practice area in the future.”
Class actions, he says, offer “a huge economy of scale” because generally the same resources are put into representing hundreds of people as representing one. “It’s very important in terms of the efficient use of the judicial process and access to justice.”