Associates: Outside interests keep law in perspective

Charles Boulakia plays in a band and sails competitively, both of which help him maintain his focus as an intellectual property lawyer.

If you were going to put a rock band together to perform at a conference full of intellectual property lawyers, what would you name it? Charles Boulakia, a patent lawyer and associate at Ridout & Maybee LLP in Toronto, was faced with this conundrum. His fellow bandmates are also lawyers, so there was plenty of debate. “The e-mails went back and forth about a dozen times,” he recalls. “Everyone had about 10 suggestions.” Finally they settled on a whimsical, yet fitting, moniker: The Infringers.

“I thought it was appropriate for a bunch of IP professionals playing cover songs,” Boulakia laughs, adding that music performance royalties would be duly paid to the Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada.

The band was asked to perform at the annual meeting of the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada, playing a repertoire including The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and even Green Day. Boulakia plays bass, which he took up in high school after playing cello from age five. “I realized you can’t play cello in a rock-and-roll band,” he recalls. “So I started bass.” He does, however, play cello with The Infringers on the Green Day song Good Riddance (Time of Your Life). “I see the irony there,” he laughs.

One of the great things about playing music, Boulakia says, is that it involves a completely different mental process. “It’s a change from doing law. It’s a great diversion. I play by feel. I listen to what other people are playing, and I play along. It’s about getting the song as good as we can, and making it a fun experience for everyone. Nobody is a perfectionist.”

That’s refreshing, because a perfectionist is precisely what he must strive to be when he’s drafting a patent, crafting the claims that describe the invention to be protected. “Everything has to be correct,” he says. “You have to have backup for everything you say. But when I play music, I play by intuition. It’s completely different than practising law. I sometimes improvise, on the spot. You get to duck and weave. Which is something you don’t do as a patent prosecutor.”

Another diversion comes in the form of competitive sailing, which he does on a weekly basis — in season — on Lake Ontario. “I grew up sailing on my dad’s boat in Ottawa,” he recalls. His seafaring expertise was requested by a classmate from the University of Western Ontario’s LLB/MBA program. “An investment banker pal of mine needed crew on his 41-foot racer,” Boulakia explains. “You can sail it with two people, but you really need six to race it properly.”

He was happy to help. His marine exploits have included a long-distance race that lasted 30 hours. “You sail all night in shifts. It’s completely insane, passing other boats at 3 a.m. It’s the most eerie thing. Lake Ontario gets eerie because it gets foggy. You’re on a little boat, you can’t see 10 feet in front of you, and you’re racing. And sometimes you get wicked storms, with swells bigger than the boat. But we’re an experienced crew. You just go with it.”

Sailing is an ideal escape, he says. “You get out on the water and you’re on vacation for a few hours every Wednesday night. The city disappears, work disappears, your entire life, personal and professional, disappears. All you have is this little boat and the six people you’re with.”

Adding to the sense of adventure is the fact that there’s dubious BlackBerry coverage far from shore. “The coverage has expanded,” he admits, “so I think I might have it. But I don’t even check
it. It goes in the chart box along with the car keys.”

Boulakia started off as a biochemical scientist, but realized it wasn’t for him. “Being a scientist is very slow paced,” he says. “You have to repeat every experiment dozens of times. Each experiment takes weeks, sometimes months. When you get results it’s very, very exciting. But you don’t get results all that often. It can be very frustrating. Growing cells in a lab is gruelling, thankless work.”

Now he’s in a better position. “It’s really exciting when there are results, and as a patent lawyer, I get to see all the results other people get. I see only the successful experiments.”

His advice to young associates: “Having outside interests keeps everything in perspective, especially if those outside interests are team or group-based interests that don’t involve other lawyers. On the sailboat there are people from different walks of life. If you’re hanging out just with lawyers, it becomes too easy to just talk about billable hours, the size of deals, and who’s left what firm. And that’s really not the stuff that’s important in life.”

Are you an associate with an interesting story to tell, or do you know someone who does? E-mail editor Gail Cohen at [email protected] and tell us about it.

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