Last year, when Thomson Reuters acquired the Canada Law Book Company, we expected that CLB’s President and CEO, Stuart Morrison would enjoy a well-earned retirement, after winding up all the Cartwright Group businesses that West didn’t acquire. That is why we were shocked to learn that he died of leukemia on Saturday.
Stuart was a real character among Canadian legal publishers, a man of strong views and language, who lived his life with gusto – he would tackle any challenge. There are stories of his bungee jumping, when all around quietly slipped away. Any opportunity to shock, he would take.
I first encountered him around 1982 at CLIC meetings, when he was a young sidekick to Wally Cowing and Stan Corbett, the then top management of Canada Law Book. Stuart spent the next 28 years at CLB – surprising, I suspect to both him, and them.
For the roughly thirty years I knew Stuart, there was pugnacity in our dealings. If there is an edge in any of my post, it comes with his character.
His was an extraordinary career in many ways. To see Stuart debate with the legal great and good, you would not have known that he was, in his own words, “a drop out from a respectable British school with its accompanying tradition of cross-dressing”. This post won’t dwell on “cross-dressing” but Stuart was right at home riding his hog with the Hells’ Angels.
He lacked any formal education after his pre A Level drop out from his minor public school in England. He fetched up in BC, where I seem to recall he joined the Attorney General’s department, under the Socred government, in the courts. Slaw readers who are bibliographic obsessives might even like to see if there are any extant copies of Stuart’s sole published work, the Victoria Family Court Maintenance Study – a work that is scarcely consonant with his subsequent career. It was the lightning strike that galvanized him, since it exposed him to the legal system. Then he persuaded to appoint him as a Justice of the Peace. Victoria was a little dull for Stuart, and it would have been impossible to see him as a bureaucrat administering traffic offences.
He reached Vancouver, where Jack Cram gave him a job at Western Legal Publications. He was in a marketing role and when Canada Law Book bought out Jack, they also acquired Stuart. They needed a marketer, and Stuart was the closest one to hand. Phil George went west, and Stuart came east to Aurora Ontario.
He was the marketing face of Canada Law Book, until after Stan’s retirement the controlling shareholders picked Stuart – rather than the company’s young publishing VP, Geralyn M. Christmas – to be the CEO. He was the CEO until the sale.
Stuart loved controversy – paradoxically, because he was, in many ways, an arch-conservative. His prime contribution to Canadian legal publishing was probably his creation of the Law Times, which in its early years was a provocative, irreverent, muck-raking publication which was fun to read and which generated a fair number of libel suits. After a few damage awards, Stuart decided that libel insurance might be a good idea, and perhaps fact checkers had their uses. After a few controversies too many, the advertisers started to walk, and Law Times pulled in its horns.
But the Law Times was always willing to puncture a few legal egos, to grade judges like any other commodity, and to pursue stories for the sheer whim of it. Stuart regarded it, as he did the Canadian Lawyer, as his personal vehicle for whatever interested him. What’s happening in post-independence South Africa? Well let’s get Morris Manning to accompany Stuart on a fact finding mission – with great wine and safaris, of course, thrown in. Then CBC interviews afterwards, on the basis of their mission.
He liked to try and influence legal opinion. But any legal newspaper is ultimately ephemeral. Stuart was a gadfly.
Stuart wasn’t a conventional legal publisher.
Hell, Stuart wasn’t a conventional anything.
Printers’ ink didn’t flow in his veins. His heart did not go pitter patter at the prospect of publishing an academic work that would transform Canadian law. Alan Marks – who ran CLB’s publishing programme in its glory days – he wasn’t.
CLB ventured tentatively into electronic publishing – but after an early investment in QL, Hugh Lawford squeezed CLB out, and it never really became an innovator. It had its law reports, of unrivalled quality, and a modest back list. It became, frankly, a little complacent. Attempts to diversify the business seldom made money.
Thirty years ago, Canada Law Book’s reputation was unparalleled – the quality of its list, and the resources it devoted to new works put it ahead of its then competitors. The slow decline matched the rise of Thomson as the dominant legal publisher in legal Canada. They weren’t easy years for Stuart. Margins were squeezed – see Stuart’s testimony in front of the Commons Heritage Committee . A relentless focus on the bottom line – on the business of publishing rather than the traditions of professional publishing.
Ultimately the only future for Canada Law Book was to be sold. The Cartwright family preferred a sale – as opposed to the major investments that might have been required to turn the business around. Stuart was the one who prepared the business for the acquisition. The family got what it wanted – and Stuart did well. Over a century of legal publishing history is scarcely visible when swallowed up by Thomson Reuters West. Stuart’s leadership of CLB was not without its critics – Ian Cartwright had been criticized as being too hands-off and Stuart was a safe pair of hands, not a publisher.
A pity he didn’t get to enjoy his rewards.
Stuart was a bundle of paradoxes. Every Stuart story had a twist. Highly opinionated, though undereducated. Canadian though somehow terribly English. Convention-shocking in a conservative trade. A legal publisher whose heart was more in marketing – and running a tight business – than publishing books. A bon vivant who put in time on the line learning how to be a sous chef. Hard headed, though with a soft centre for blind horses and vulnerable animals.
In the end a combination of malaria (picked up in Namibia) and leukemia did him in. He will be mourned and missed by his family and friends.
He didn’t want a funeral. You’ll see no obituaries. Next time you have a drink, think of him and smile. That’s all he would have done.