New York Fashion Week, a semi-annual sea of runways under tents in that city's Bryant Park, is one of the last places you'd expect to see lawyers from a Bay Street firm. Yet that's exactly where Len Glickman and his team from Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP make a point of mingling with the world's fashion heavyweights.
In 2008, networking at the glitzy shows proved particularly productive. Mr. Glickman gave a seminar about how to protect fashion brands from counterfeiters. Within months, global powerhouse Chanel, whose in-house lawyer had been in the audience, hired Cassels Brock to represent it in Canada.
"We're keeping an eye on their brand here," said Mr. Glickman, clad in a dark pinstriped suit, his purple tie providing a hint of his fashion file. "There are constant battles being fought by them and a number of other luxury brands."
Mr. Glickman and a few of his associates are intent on bringing legal savvy to the runways. The law firm, better known for its corporate litigation and mining law expertise, has become the first in Canada to set up a fashion practice. It's striving to gain an edge in an increasingly competitive law profession, borrowing a page from a handful of U.S. and European firms that developed their own fashion specialty.
To drum up business, Cassels Brock is dispatching its specialist lawyers to fashion shows and other industry events in Canada and beyond. It is tapping into its own expertise in the entertainment law field, finding that many of the same legal issues of copyright, trademark and licensing protection cross over into the fashion world. Its clients in the entertainment sector, among them Canadian singer Avril Lavigne, are increasingly stepping into the fashion world with their own apparel labels.
"There is a certain legal expertise - a certain manner of doing things - that is very useful to the fashion industry," said Elliot Lifson, vice-chairman of Peerless Clothing Inc. in Montreal and president of the Canadian Apparel Federation. Issues range from licensing intellectual property to fighting counterfeits, and ironing out cross-border leasing and employment spats.
Still, Cassels Brock enters the fashion field at a precarious time. The industry has been squeezed by the recession as cautious consumers scale back on discretionary purchases.
The firm will have to pry apparel manufacturers and retailers away from their existing network of legal experts, said Mr. Lifson, a lawyer by profession. "In professional services, it's the individual who usually is the brand. But there are exceptions, where the firm has become the brand because it is such a force in an area."
Now, Cassels Brock and other firms outside Canada are focusing on becoming a force in fashion. In New York, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP set up a fashion law practice a few years ago, combining experts in disciplines ranging from insolvency to trademark law. It runs a fashion blog on its website to help tout its name and gives seminars at New York Fashion Week in February and September. Its clients include designers Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan.
"Law firms are becoming much more sensitive, in terms of marketing and in terms of servicing clients and selling knowledge," said Ted Max, a partner with the firm of about 550 lawyers, roughly 25 of whom specialize in fashion. "You can be a good lawyer but part of it is how you connect. … Sheppard Mullin wanted to do something that was different from others."
And while the recession has the fashion industry labouring under a dark cloud, it's also given the law firms a silver lining. Their insolvency divisions have been busy representing struggling companies. Last year, Cassels Brock even set up a "credit response team" to advise fashion and other clients on the credit crunch.
Firms are negotiating more licensing agreements on behalf of clients. In a cautious business environment, these deals allow companies to cash in on a brand's name without having to incur all of the costs - and risks - of making and marketing its own products, Mr. Glickman said. "It is a simpler and less expensive route than producing and selling the line."
Cassels Brock closed a licensing deal for a clothing line called "Abbey Dawn by Avril Lavigne," which was launched last month at the 2009 New York Fashion Week. In Los Angeles, Sheppard Mullin recently negotiated a technology licence on behalf of Donna Karan International for an Apple iPhone application.
Cassels Brock already had an array of fashion clients that it served through its specialties in such areas as cross-border tax, leasing and trademark law. Apparel clients included Roots, Jones New York and Skechers shoes. More recently, the firm added Quiksilver and Chanel to the roster.
The firm hasn't let tight times curb its fashion enthusiasm, Mr. Glickman said. Its commitment to fashion has been bolstered by the growing debate in legal circles about whether fashion designers need to be legally shielded from knockoffs, said Casey Chisick, another partner at the firm.
The issue of widespread imitation is critical in the Internet age, he said. Catwalk styles can be viewed online almost instantaneously. Cheap-chic chains such as H&M constantly take their inspiration from the runways, quickly mass producing their own affordable versions of high-profile styles.
Cassels Brock has represented Los Angeles jewellery designer Jennifer Meyer, wife of Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire, in battles over alleged copycats and "taken steps to enforce Roots' rights against imitators," Mr. Glickman said.
The controversy over knockoffs picked up at about the same time that Cassels Brock was urging its lawyers to develop business plans in a bid to trumpet the firm, added Laurie LaPalme, the third partner in the fashion practice.
"We like to think of ourselves as being on the frontier of this in Canada," Mr. Chisick said.