Friend of the court

An annual tournament brings out the legal profession’s best basketball players. Lawyers who’ve got game score big points with their firms
An annual tournament brings out the legal profession’s best basketball players. Lawyers who’ve got game score big points with their firms

Jeff Raphael, Bay Street hoops star

When I was in law school, one of my professors pulled me aside to ask about an old friend of mine who was applying for admission.

“What’s he like?” he asked.

I rambled off my friend’s various virtues — hard working, ambitious, good grades — but my professor, who was also my coach on the school’s basketball team, shook his head: “Yeah, but how’s his jump shot and can he play the point?”

Some things never change. Like law school, Bay Street is a competitive place, and that’s true both inside and outside the office. It’s only natural that Type A lawyers in a court of law would also be competitive on the basketball court.

The annual Bay Street Hoops charity tournament, held in March, is one event where these worlds collide; and while the goal is to have fun and raise some money for charity, it’s another opportunity for competitive firms to one-up each other.

Bay Street Hoops has raised over $1.6- million for various children’s charities since it started in 1995. More than 800 men and women compete, each person playing as many as five games in a three-day blitz. In 2007, 65 teams raised almost $200,000 for charity. This year the tournament runs from March 27 – 29.

“Lawyers come out because of the great basketball, the charity aspect, and to have the opportunity to network,” says Tim Costigan, formerly of Torys LLP, now vice-president of business development with travel agency TTI and chair of the tournament’s organizing committee. But Bay Street lawyers will be Bay Street lawyers, and the competitive streak that got everyone into big-firm law in the first place is definitely on display. They play to win.

The firms that sponsor teams like to win too, which means that associates and partners with experience on the court find themselves becoming even more popular when competition time rolls around.

I’ve always harboured suspicions that though it wasn’t the main reason I got my first job offers from Blake, Cassels and Graydon LLP and Goodmans LLP in 1998 (I went with Goodmans), the fact that I stand 6’5”, had practised with a pro team overseas, and could have filled a gap in both firms’ lineups definitely didn’t hurt my chances. But a knee injury before my first day of work meant I never played, to some of my colleagues’ dismay.

Jeff Raphael of Raphael Partners played four years of university basketball at York University, and also practised with a professional team overseas. He’s been on the winning team in Bay Street Hoops’ top tier men’s division twice, including last year, and has won the tournament’s three-point shooting contest six times. He says that finding the right players to represent the firm — even if they’re not actually firm employees — is the secret.

“These days it’s all about recruiting,” Raphael says. “Only about half of the players in the elite division have a direct link to the sponsoring firm, and maybe 80 percent have any link at all to Bay Street. A firm puts up the $3,000 entry fee, then tries to field the best team possible.” Raphael’s 2007 winning team included former Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP lawyer Alex Brainis, an all-star at the University of Guelph who has played professionally in Israel.

Of the law firms that submit their own teams, Goodmans and Blakes have the best squads in the top tier men’s division, and there’s a clear rivalry between the two. Goodmans partner Grant McGlaughlin, former captain of the top-ranked University of Regina men’s basketball team, has organized his firm’s team for the past seven years, with fellow partner and former University of Western Ontario basketball star Mike Partridge. McGlaughlin laments never having won the tournament, despite generally making it to the finals or semis.

“Like everyone else, I want to win one before my day is done,” McGlaughlin says. “We’ve all heard the rumours of Blakes flying players across the country just to play. But all the teams bring in some ringers. Recruiting is just part of the game in the top divisions.”

Blakes’ ringers have included associates Jeff Kott (who is 6’9”), Nate Aryev (who used to play pro overseas), and “friend of the firm” Greg Francis (formerly of the Canadian National Team), each of whom was coincidentally always needed in the Toronto office around tournament time.

“Of course we invite players to be in Toronto for BSH,” Rob Collins says, laughing. Collins coaches and plays with the Blakes team, who have won nearly half of the tournaments so far. “They fly in on their own dime, though. It’s more a firm bonding thing than anything else.”

Photography by Finn O’Hara