After almost a decade of publishing comprehensive talent-ranking guides and a national vanity magazine for Canadian lawyers, John Alexander Black enjoys a rare position as a key confidant of the top managers of the country's major law firms.
So when Mr. Black speaks, the profession listens. And they are not going to like what he has to say as he prepares to leave publishing for a new career as a legal recruiter.
"There are simply too many lawyers chasing the high-end legal work," says the consulting editor and founder of Lexpert magazine. "The bottom line is, there will be fallout."
Mr. Black, who in two weeks will bid adieu to Lexpert, predicts at least one national firm could implode before long, the casualty of a withering domestic marketplace increasingly marginalized into doing the Canadian portion of U.S.-dominated acquisitions and financings.
"There's a hollowing out of Corporate Canada, a contracting of the corporate client base," he says from behind the thick plume of a Cuban cigarette and cluttered desk in his Bay Street office. "Within a short time, a law firm's position in a market like this can alter significantly."
Mr. Black declines to venture which firm that will be. What he will say is it won't be Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP or Stikeman Elliott LLP, the leading cross-border transaction titans. It's an unsettling prediction, but betting against Mr. Black has never been prudent.
Over the past decade, the 55-year-old former litigator has become the unofficial chief custodian of some of the legal scene's most privileged intelligence. An assiduous miner of gossip, he oversees, in addition to Lexpert magazine, a collection of authoritative annual directories that rank corporate legal talent, a sort of Racing Form for pinstriped thoroughbreds.
"He has replaced the Canadian Bar Association as the major conduit between major national firms," says Keith Mitchell, managing partner of Farris, a leading Vancouver-based firm. "He is our association. He understands how we operate."
Much of that wisdom has come through informal channels. When he's not assigning articles or poring over profiles for Lexpert directories, Mr. Black can be found holding court -- and a trademark gin and tonic -- in the company of law firm managers such as Mr. Mitchell, James Riley of Ogilvy Renault LLP and Dale Lastman of Goodmans LLP at such Toronto haunts as Bardi's Steak House and the Turf Lounge.
A voracious reader with a personal library of 3,000 titles (and no computer on his desk), Mr. Black coined the oft-cited term Seven Sisters to denote Bay Street's top-tier corporate firms, which in addition to Osler and Stikemans includes Torys LLP, Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, McCarthy Tétrault LLP, Goodmans and Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP. As he prepares to hand the editorial reins to former legal consultant Wayne Bigby and the firm to new owner Thomson Carswell -- the giant U.S.-based legal publisher that bought him out two years ago for an undisclosed sum rumoured to be about $6-million -- he concedes the moniker may have run its course and that some people argue the Seven have shrunk to two or possibly three.
The north-south dynamics rocking the legal world have also had their impact on Lexpert, which through Thomson recently began co-publishing special directories with American Lawyer focusing on cross-border specialists. "I was seriously concerned about Lexpert becoming slowly marginalized because it could not offer the kind of access to the U.S. market that I knew these firms wanted," Mr. Black says.
He copied the idea for the ranking service from British counterpart Chambers and Partners in the 1990s while working at the London subsidiary of The Canadian Institute, a law-conference company he co-founded years earlier after a short legal career with his own Toronto litigation boutique. "You did not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if you put a similar publication together for Canada, it should be successful," he says.
He cashed out of the conference business in 1995 and published the first Lexpert directory in 1997. Based on confidential peer-review questionnaires distributed to thousands of practitioners, the directories were profitable from the start, despite early attempts in some quarters to undermine the project.
"We were banned in Saskatchewan," Mr. Black says with a smile, referring to the provincial law society's ruling that peer rankings were unbecoming. The ruling was reversed about a year later, by which time the first directory had become the standard reference for corporations and foreign law firms scouting for local legal help, and its rankings soon were quoted liberally in law firm advertisements.
In 1999, the directory business spawned Lexpert magazine, which -- in another shrewd copycat move -- was modelled after Legal Business magazine in Britain and American Lawyer in the U.S. Defying the reality of most new periodicals in Canada, it earned money from Day 1, thanks largely to what Mr. Black believes is a unique distribution model. Instead of relying on single-subscription sales, he offered major firms bulk discounts, ensuring wide distribution to all partners and associates and reducing costly mailing expenses. "All my best business ideas come to me late in the evening when I'm about two-thirds of the way through a very good bottle of gin, and that's when it came to me," Mr. Black says.
Its glossy pages teeming with triumphs of top business lawyers, Lexpert, published 10 times a year, soon became a magnet for vanity ads from major firms as well as career notices from recruiters and corporations looking to fill in-house legal positions.
Notwithstanding his disquieting take on the future of corporate law in Canada, Mr. Black remains an admirer of most partners who run top firms, notably Mr. Lastman at Goodmans, Mr. Riley at Ogilvy Renault, Ed Waitzer at Stikemans and Jim Christie at Blake Cassels, some of whom reciprocate the praise.
"I think he's a genius because he really took something that didn't exist and turned it into something significant," Mr. Lastman says.
The accolades are short of unanimous, however. Some anonymously disparage Lexpert for soft content aimed at flattering big advertisers, and for its Bay Street focus.
"There's a fair amount of sour grapes in some quarters with regard to the magazine because they feel that it pays too much attention to various firms, but it's hard not to write about what is happening in a city like Toronto in the legal market without constantly going back to a firm like Osler. It's hard not to write about McCarthys," Mr. Black says.
Personal: Married, with three daughters (15, and 13-year-old twins).
Recent reading: The Photograph, Penelope Lively; Kafka on the Shore, Murakami Haruki; Blink, Malcolm Gladwell.
Drinks: Tanqueray gin; Highland Park scotch.
Car: Porsche 911 Carrera, black (of course).Success in business in my view is always a combination of a lot of hard work and luck. People who say luck doesn't play a very significant role are either naive or stupid.'