His mystery novel, Bay Street, is billed as a story of "money, sex, madness" and "murder," set at a fictionalized top Toronto law firm where the backdrop includes scheming senior partners, insider trading and a blockbuster corporate takeover.
But author Philip Slayton, a former law dean at the University of Western Ontario who spent 17 years as a partner at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP in the 1980s and 1990s, says his book is too close a rendering of Bay Street's elite legal scene to be considered a caricature. Indeed, at points, the book describes some of the granular details of life inside Bay Street's most prestigious firms – with a dash of murder added in.
"I think in some respects it's quite realistic and in others it's not," Mr. Slayton, 70, says. "It's not usual that people get murdered in Bay Street law firms. So I would say it's an exaggeration, rather than a caricature."
The book, which came out earlier this year and has sold only about 1,000 copies – many at Ben McNally Books, right on Bay Street itself – is meant only as a "bit of fun," Mr. Slayton says, unlike his 2007 non-fiction work Lawyers Gone Bad, which created a bizarrely outsized storm in Canada's cloistered legal world.
That book detailed a series of scandals from years past about lawyers stealing money and having sex with clients, and argued for government oversight of what critics say is a poorly regulated "self-regulating" profession. But Mr. Slayton, perhaps partly because of a Maclean's magazine cover headline about his book that declared all lawyers "rats," found himself persona non grata in legal circles. He was even officially condemned by the heads of the Ontario and Canadian bar associations, an experience he describes as akin to being "excommunicated."
But the kerfuffle did turn the book into a bestseller.
"People went crazy," Mr. Slayton said. "I was literally called Public Enemy No.1."
His latest work returns to many of the same themes, but in a fictional law firm with fictional lawyers gone bad.
A Bay Street law firm may be the perfect murder-mystery setting: A place rife with races for power and money, and more recently, a growing sense of unease about what the future holds. Earlier this year, Heenan Blaikie LLP, a once respected firm home to former prime ministers, closed up shop after internal feuds saw a stream of its partners jump ship, despite being profitable. The collapse raised questions about the viability of some business law firms in a new era when competition increasingly comes from international legal giants. In September, an Ontario Securities Commission hearing began for former Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP partner Mitchell Finkelstein, who is alleged to have tipped a frat buddy about impending corporate mergers and received stacks of cash in return.
To discuss his law-firm thriller, Mr. Slayton suggests we meet for lunch at Turf Lounge on Bay Street, a deal-maker's haunt that features not just seafood on wooden platters, but offtrack betting. Its dimly lit booths feature TV screens showing horse racing. The lunch crowd is thin, with the markets in the tank.
Mr. Slayton, whose longish wispy grey hair, grey beard, distinctive horn-rimmed glasses and subtle English accent typecast him as the perfect lunchtime raconteur, has eclectic interests that go far beyond pinching the legal profession's collective nose. He's the president of writer's group PEN Canada, he reviews movies with his daughter on YouTube, and he and his wife, writer Cynthia Wine, founded a small literary festival in Nova Scotia.
Turf Lounge doesn't make an appearance in Bay Street. But Mr. Slayton says it and other joints like it were the inspiration for Mario's, a "sleazy restaurant across the street" where the managing partner at the book's fictional law firm, Dibbet & Dibbet, often slides his hand onto the thigh of the book's main character, the young, beautiful female partner Piper Fantouche, whom he lures to martini-soaked lunches.
The light and fluffy thriller is peppered with inside jokes for real Bay Streeters, and goes to satirical extremes at some points. A thinly disguised Canoe, one of the city's top restaurants perched atop the TD Bank tower, is renamed "Flotsam." In describing the law firm boss's establishment household, Mr. Slayton makes a throwaway reference to the character's two children, Tory and Blake. Tory, 14, attends Havergal, the prominent Toronto private school for girls, while Blake, 11, "was a problem; he had a learning disability and went to a remedial institution that Watt did not like to talk about."
Almost every lawyer in the book is unhappy, and appearing desperately either to climb up in, or escape from, the firm. Mr. Slayton, looking over his plate of cod covered in colourful vegetables, says this is only natural. Despite pay that can shoot from six figures to past $1-million, many lawyers in big business law firms are unhappy, he says. Studies show lawyers have much higher rates of depression and suicide than other professions, he points out. And high pressure for profits and the notoriously long hours are part of it. But so is boredom.
"A lot of the law is, and, particularly the law done on this street where we are sitting having lunch right now, is tediously boring," Mr. Slayton says. "[It] consists of sitting at a desk and moving around stacks of paper. And the stacks of paper are not inherently interesting. … And you have to do a lot of it. So if you spend hour after hour after hour, day after day after day, doing what is essentially boring and tedious work, after a while you get a bad headache, right? You may start wondering, am I in the right place?"
Plus, he adds, some lawyers who went to law school thinking they would right wrongs or help free the wrongly convicted but instead ended up on Bay Street begin to question their role as handmaidens to the powerful.
"I do think that family physicians, for example, can go home at night and console themselves with the idea that probably some people are a bit better off for what they did that day, and that in some way they are contributing to the world's welfare," he said. "I don't think certainly business lawyers, as they like to be called, can really say that. I mean, their job is essentially to make the rich a little bit richer. And in the process of making the rich a little bit richer, maybe get a little rich themselves."
That feeling led Mr. Slayton to abandon his practice in 2000, mystifying his partners at Blakes with his departure after a 17-year career that included work on some of the biggest insolvency cases of the time, including the demise of Robert Campeau's real estate empire. He had arrived at Blakes fresh from academia at the age of 39 in 1983, after a stint as law dean at Western that he found miserable, he says, because his job was to listen to complaints without any power to fix them.
He says it is wrong to assume that he didn't enjoy being a partner at one of the country's pre-eminent law firms, where many of the people are fiercely smart.
"You do a lot of travelling, you go to New York, you go to London, you go to Chicago, sometimes in your client's private plane," he said. "And you are making a lot of money. … And so it seems wonderful. And in some ways it is wonderful. But I think the basic underlying truth of your circumstances becomes more prominent, undeniable and depressing."
At 55, he bewildered his colleagues by walking away from Blakes: "I had enough money that I could survive. I wanted to do something else. And I ended up writing books."
Mr. Slayton followed up his bestselling Lawyers Gone Bad with Mighty Judgment: How the Supreme Court of Canada Runs Your Life in 2011, a book that takes a look at the state of the top court, where Mr. Slayton himself was a clerk in the late 1960s to Justice Wilfred Judson, whom he describes as "one of the less historically distinguished judges" and "a very dour Scot who never said anything."
His decision to write a thriller set in a Bay Street firm came as many debate the very future of these institutions. Some say the economics of the legal profession is changing in ways that mean we will need vastly fewer lawyers at high-end firms, with routine work either outsourced to India or handled more efficiently with new technology. Some have predicted that much of Canada's legal elite is destined to be swallowed up by mergers with new global mega-firms.
And many observers believe these trends could soon spell the demise of other mid-tier law firms, such as Heenan Blaikie, which was squeezed both by a new breed of low-cost law firm and by the top firms, who are increasingly seeking out mid-sized clients.
But Mr. Slayton observes that some have also been predicting the demise of Bay Street's so-called Seven Sisters elite firms for 20 years, and they are all very much still around, despite the changing landscape.
"Used to be, the only way to find a case, was to go into a lawyer's office. You'd go into the library in the firm. There was a mystique about it. You had to go to the temple. And only the priests could tell you the truth. Now all you need is a computer, you can look it up for yourself," Mr. Slayton says. " … It surprises me that there haven't been more Heenan Blaikies."
These days, Mr. Slayton, who divides his time between Toronto and Port Medway, N.S., and writes a column for Canadian Lawyer magazine, is working on another non-fiction book. Like his other two non-fiction books, it will be published by Penguin. Called Mayors of Canada, it attempts to explain not just Toronto's Rob Ford phenomenon, but nearby Mississauga's outgoing nonagenarian Hazel McCallion and other colourful mayors across the country.
His decision to write fiction was sparked by a conversation with British mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and other novels, at a dinner party in Toronto. "I discovered from talking to him that he writes four books a year, and they are hugely successful," Mr. Slayton said. "So I thought to myself – I was mistaken, it was hubris on my part – I can do that."
Writing Bay Street took him 18 months, and the independently published book has not exactly lit up the bestseller charts. Regardless, he is now planning a sequel, in which young partner Piper Fantouche, who has left her elite law firm to become the executive legal officer of the Supreme Court of Canada, finds the top court "to be a place of intrigue and bitterness," Mr. Slayton says. "And yes, Jeff, people will die."
Philip Slayton was born in England, but his businessman father moved the family to Winnipeg in 1954 when he was 10. After attending the University of Manitoba, he went to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, studying political science then switching to law. He clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada in 1969-70.
Why lawyers go bad
"There are a number of things about practising law and even legal education that tend to bring out the worst in people. For example, lawyers are highly paid – some of them – to find ways around rules. Most people, a rule's a rule; you know, you're a citizen, you follow the rule and that's sort of how everything works. But if you are a rich citizen, and you don't like the rule, you can go to your lawyer … And the lawyer will say, let me see what I can do. So you're the kind of guy who makes a lot of money figuring out how to get around rules. And I think one of the effects of that is to make you very unimpressed by rules."
What is a law firm? A passage from Bay Street
Dibbets lawyers didn't care about each other, that was clear. Good personal relationships were not part of the firm's architecture. Money was what mattered. Greed drove the firm. A partner's worth was measured by his ability to increase profits. A client's value depended on the size of the bills it paid. Unfettered pursuit of money produced brutal competition. In such a setting, thought [Detective] Vitanza, murder was indeed possible.
Another thing occurred to him, as he studied the trinacria on the wall opposite for the umpteenth time. The firm had no physical substance. It was just people in rented space, sending out bills. There was no building, no heavy machinery, no physical inventory, no minerals in the ground, no plan of exploration, no processing, no manufacturing, no distribution system, no patents, no trucks, nothing except ambitious people reading law and exchanging memoranda with each other. In the middle of the night, when everyone had gone home, except perhaps the odd articling student or very junior lawyer pulling an all-nighter and feeling the thrill of it, the firm was little more than a phantom.