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The circus ain’t peanuts anymore

|Written By Mike King

Of the close to 80 million spectators who have attended a Cirque du Soleil show since its inception in 1984, few have likely considered the legal acrobatics behind the scenes to bring the awe-inspiring spectacles to the stage.

Among the almost 4,000 employees worldwide, there are 1,800 at the Montreal international headquarters alone — including the 12-member in-house counsel team led by René Khayat. The 45-year-old vice president of legal and business affairs joined the circus as an in-house counsel in 1998 and climbed the corporate ladder to the highest post two years ago. “It’s not just a management job,” Khayat tells Canadian Lawyer. “I’m still a lawyer and get involved,” he says, explaining that was a condition in accepting the position. “It’s essential to continue to work as a lawyer.”

His team is split into three fields. There is intellectual property with Catherine Delorme as director overseeing legal advisers Maude Vézina, Maryse Tellier, Marianne Proulx, Marie-Pierre Simard, Beth Trister and paralegal Patricia Marleau. Anne-Marie Papineau is senior legal adviser for the corporate group with legal adviser Félix Duval and paralegal Carolina Rivas. Papineau’s counterpart in the commercial wing is Maude Pariseau with her legal advisers Isabelle Guilbeault, Geneviève Paradis, and Marianne Polnicky-Racine. Another adviser, Su Ling Yap, is based in Singapore to cover the Asia-Pacific region.

The world famous Cirque provides jobs for many other Montreal lawyers directly and indirectly. While most of its legal work is done by Khayat’s team, he still has to turn to outside counsel when the Cirque needs assistance on such matters as immigration and taxes since its workers and more than 1,000 artists represent at least 40 nationalities and speak 25 different languages.

And sometimes he needs the help of specialized experts like Stéphane Gilker of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP. He has acted as outside counsel for the Cirque on copyright matters since the early to mid-1990s, longer than Khayat has been on board.

Noting the Cirque “is the biggest contentious enterprise in Canada (with its international scope),” Gilker says he thrives on the “uncommon and not day-to-day” cases that arise from the client that takes up anywhere from 15 to 25 per cent of his practice at any given time during the year. “I’m very privileged to work on such projects,” he says pointing to the LOVE show in Las Vegas featuring the music of the Beatles and an upcoming show there that will be built around the songs of Elvis Presley. “It’s very stimulating and exciting to work with people you admired and still do.”

Another of Khayat’s outside go-to guys is Jean-Pierre Colpron of Ogilvy Renault LLP, who was also instrumental in acquiring the rights to the Beatles catalogue and other big deals over the past 18 years.

Colpron, with his own team of merger and acquisition specialists Patrick Shea and Eric Stevens, performed one of his biggest acts for the Cirque in helping broker the mega-deal that saw busker-turned-billionaire Guy Laliberté sell off one-fifth of his entertainment empire to one of the world’s most powerful investment groups operating out of the United Arab Emirates.

The veteran tax and business restructuring specialist negotiated with fellow Montreal lawyer John Leopold, the senior partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP who represented private equity investor Istithmar World Capital and real estate developer Nakheel — both units of government-owned Dubai World — in each acquiring a 10-per-cent stake in the Cirque.

That August 2008 deal, which Leopold called the first globally active sovereign wealth fund investment in Canada, is estimated at approximately $400 million. Assisted by Stikemans partner Peter Castiel and associate Sophie Lamonde, Leopold says, ultimately, about 25 lawyers at the firm were involved in the nine-month-long negotiation. Leopold, co-chairman of Stikemans’ M&A group, has been dubbed the Prince of Dubai by Montreal French-language newspaper La Presse.

It’s dealing with such specialists and “cutting edge legal perspectives” that make Khayat realize he has the most “interesting and challenging job” helping develop permanent and touring shows around the globe. “Fifteen years ago, we were in 50 countries, now we’re in almost 200,” he says. There are seven touring and 10 permanent shows that were seen by a total of more than 10 million people in 2008.

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