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Thursday January 21, 2010

He upended Toronto's 'WASP-ish order' to create a new kind of boutique law firm

Founder of Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg attracted lawyers and clients snubbed by establishment firms

David Ward, who died last week at 78, built one of Canada's most successful corporate law boutiques by attracting promising lawyers and clients who were snubbed by establishment firms.

Mr. Ward died after sustaining injuries from a fall while skiing at Georgian Peaks Ski Club.

Known as "Ironman" by family and friends for his intense athletic and work regime, Mr. Ward broke ranks with the legal establishment in 1961 when he walked away from a promising career as a tax lawyer at McCarthy Tetrault LLP to launch a firm known today as Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP.

Colleagues and family said his vision was to create a more nimble and competitive law firm that recruited ambitious lawyers and clients regardless of their social connections or ethnic background.

"It didn't make any difference whether you were Jewish, black or polka dot, if you had talent you were welcome. It wasn't quite like that in the early sixties," said Howard Beck, one of the firm's early recruits.

One of the first businessmen to visit the new firm was Paul Reichmann, an Orthodox Jew and fledgling real estate developer who "had been treated shabbily" by another establishment firm, recalled Davies partner David Smith.

Mr. Ward helped Mr. Reichmann solve a tax problem and the developer hired the firm to represent his company Olympia & York Developments, which went on to become the world's largest commercial real estate company until it failed during the real estate collapse in the early 1990s.

The son of a banker, Mr. Ward initially chose accounting as a career. Early forays into tax law, however, prompted him to shift gears and apply for law school, which he financed by working part time as a business bookkeeper. Family members said his early struggles to pay law school bills inspired a lifetime of sympathy for students who overcame obstacles to enter the profession.

Although he landed a plum job at McCarthy, one of Canada's leading firms, Mr. Smith said he "chafed under the WASP-ish order" of the time that saw lawyers frequently promoted because of school and family ties.

Under Mr. Ward's leadership, Davies established itself as a specialist law firm with deep expertise in tax, securities and mergers and acquisitions law. Its lawyers were promoted to partners faster than other firms and its support staff were put on shifts so that client needs could be met at all hours.

In an industry built on secrecy and close relationships, he insisted that all client files be located in a central location so that teams of lawyers could access data at all hours when clients called for help. Unlike major law firms that boasted generations-old relationships with companies, Davies won corporate clients by offering around-the-clock services for major takeovers and financial transactions.

Over time the firm became known as Bay Street's "Deal Machine." Hard working associates dubbed the firm "Slavies."

Until his death, Mr. Ward arrived at his office 8 a.m. every day. His sports regime was equally rigorous. At the Georgian Peaks Ski Club, where he and his family where long-time members, he was usually the first skier to shoot down the hills shortly after dawn to take advantage of the day's fresh snow. He was also an avid sailboat racer.

In addition to running the firm, he built a loyal following as a tax lawyer who could solve the most intricate corporate and personal tax problems. Mr. Smith said his former partner was so vigilant about tax nuances that he regularly ordered archival tax treaty working papers and documents from Europe and North America to understand the thinking that shaped modern laws.

His archival studies were rich fodder for dozens of Canadian and international papers, speeches, case opinions and a book on tax law.

With his clients he could be very pragmatic about tax problems. When one well-tailored client was due to negotiate a settlement with Canadian tax officials for back taxes, Mr. Ward asked the client to don an old suit and tie. When the client balked at being seen in public in out-of-date clothes, Mr. Ward arranged for the client to change in his office ahead of the meeting.

"He always had an eye for tactics," said Mr. Smith.

Mr. Ward leaves his wife Nancy, and daughters Martha and Mimi.

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