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BlackBerrys losing lustre even among Bay Street elite

A picture taken on October 12, 2011 in the French western city of Rennes shows Blackberry phones. BlackBerry users across much of the globe experienced outages in key functions for a second straight day on Ocotber 11, 2011 while a Canadian merchant bank jacked up pressure for a management change.

DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

As slumping Research In Motion Ltd. shakes up its leadership, its signature BlackBerry has been losing some of its most loyal supporters: pinstriped lawyers on Bay Street.

The iconic hip-holstered device has long been standard-issue in the conservative legal industry, thanks to the smartphone's reputation for data security, a key concern for law firms, and its aura of seriousness. Until now.

The betrayal of the BlackBerry often starts by turning to a spouse's iPhone or iPad, toyed with on evenings after a grinding day of thumbing away at legal memos on the durable keypad of a BlackBerry.

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Now, several IT departments at some of the most prestigious law firms in Canada's financial capital have quietly started allowing the use of iPhones or iPads, in addition to BlackBerrys, saying they are satisfied that clients' data on the new devices are just as secure.

Top lawyers are now more likely to carry two smartphones, perhaps with an iPad in the briefcase, too. A few even predict that the sexier, more Web-friendly devices of Apple Inc. could one day supplant BlackBerrys in the legal world entirely. One iPhone-loving lawyer, who declined to be named, derided his BlackBerry a "legacy product."

Several wouldn't discuss their dalliances with Apple products on the record, for fear of offending RIM as a potential client. But over coffee in a financial district café, two deal-making partners and long-time BlackBerry users freely admit they have strayed.

Michael Matheson, a partner at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, who advises clients on the financing of multi-billion-dollar takeover bids, says he and his BlackBerry began to grow apart after his children gave him an iPad for Christmas.

"When I come home I literally throw my BlackBerry in the drawer and I never use it at home," Mr. Matheson said. "And when I travel, as well, when I am in a hotel that has WiFi, I never even turn my BlackBerry on. I just leave it off."

His colleague, Jeremy Fraiberg, although a constant user of his wife's iPad at home, is still quick to defend RIM's flagship device, insisting that its keyboard is far superior for bashing out memos to clients.

"If I have to 'power type' out an e-mail or some advice, I still find it easier to use the thumbs on the BlackBerry," he said. "I am hugely brand loyal to them."

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At a recent meeting in New York for a deal, Mr. Fraiberg noted that every lawyer or banker involved still pulled out a BlackBerry. But a team of British lawyers working with Osler on the London Stock Exchange Group's failed bid for TMX Group last year seemed to favour iPads.

Some U.S. firms have handed out iPads to their lawyers. And back in Waterloo, Ont., RIM itself appears to be positioning itself for a world where the latest BlackBerry is no longer a key marker of membership in a corporate elite.

The company said last year that it was testing a new system for corporate IT departments that would allow them to use RIM's vaunted security system with a range of non-RIM devices, including iPhones, iPads and Google Android smartphones.

Peter Bier, Osler's chief information officer, said about a quarter of the firm's partners now access the firm's e-mail system using iPhones or iPads. It first became an option, he said, after Apple's latest operating system appeared to meet the firm's security standards.

But despite the current anti-BlackBerry "hype," RIM's smartphones still remain popular with the firm, he said. The latest models are just as fast and user-friendly as an iPhone, he added.

"The best thing right now, we don't have to dictate anything," Mr. Bier said. "It is a matter of choice."

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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