The Bay Street lawyer behind AIDSbeat

By Michael Rappaport

An epic battle of the bands showcasing some of Bay Street’s best lawyers/rock stars. Alluring dancers, who gyrate on stage between sets. A bevy of models with sponsors’ logos painted on their bare chests. Just a few of the familiar features that have transformed AIDbeat into the hippest, swankiest, must-attend bash for young lawyers in Toronto each October for the past twelve years.

Less familiar is the founder and co-chair of this annual extravaganza to raise funds for AIDS research: Patricia Olasker, a partner at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, who practices corporate finance and securities law.

In an interview with The Lawyers Weekly, Olasker let loose on why she volunteered with the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR) and the inspiration and evolution of AIDSbeat.

Blast to the past: About fourteen years ago, Olasker was pregnant with her first and only son. Like many expectant mothers, she says she was filled with an “overwhelming sense of gratitude and good fortune” and was searching for something to do “to make this world a better place.”

As chance would have it, Olasker had a friend who volunteered for CANFAR. This was back in the day, 93/94, before AIDS had become a trendy cause.

“I felt I could make a difference. So many other causes already had big organizational backing on Bay Street,” Olasker explains. “People hadn’t accepted yet that AIDS was a mainstream concern, a global concern.”

The first fundraiser that Olasker organized for CANFAR was a much more sedate affair: a breakfast briefing on the impact of AIDS for 30 managing partners from the largest law firms in Toronto, which was hosted by the Royal Bank of Canada.

“The event was not a huge success. It was the wrong audience and a very blunt message, which didn’t resonate,” Olasker confides. Undeterred, she went back to the drawing board to try to find a way to reach a younger demographic, who might be more receptive to their message. At a party hosted by Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, where her husband is a litigator, she was struck by an epiphany.

“At the party, a band of Oslers’ lawyers played. I thought if Oslers had a band, there must be plenty of other lawyer/bands out there,” she recalls.

The inaugural AIDSbeat in 96 was admittedly very amateurish. “In the early days we had no experience producing an event,” Olasker concedes. “It was a do it yourself Sock Hop, we served beer in plastic cups and made $15,000 but it was a beginning… It was not the slick and professional event that it has become.”

Developing a following at first proved difficult. “The only way we could get people to attend the first one was to make them attend, to lean on friends and coerce them to come,” Olasker says. She adds, “The challenge was to make the event into an institution, something that you marked on your calendar and had to be at, because your friends were there.”

Putting together the annual bash, takes almost one year in planning, with a committee of between 15-20 lawyers and 30 volunteers for the night of the big event.

“I hate to think what in lawyer hours goes into planning this event, it’s probably way more than the hard cash raised,” Olasker says. Still she’s very proud that they have succeeded in delivering 91 cents of every dollar raised to CANFAR. “If there’s a better expense ratio in the charity world, I challenge someone to show me,” Olasker declares. The event has raised $1.4-million for CANFAR in the past twelve years.

What can groupies, fans and partygoers expect at AIDSbeat 2008?

The usual suspects: The Battle of the Bands will be back with The Gavelheads, The Insecurities, Disorderly Conduct, Hung Jury, and Nunk Pro Funk and celebrity judges Jim Middlemiss, editor of the Legal Post and Samantha Tajik, Miss Universe 2008. Also on the menu are fetching dancers, eye-popping body models, MOD Club’s Mark Homes, DJ DaSilva, a fashion show, prizes and of course booze.

The 13th AIDbeat on October 3 will also feature some new twists: an authentic rock venue, Koolhous, a Rocky Horror Picture Show vibe, performance art pieces by Toronto artists and a lingerie show, which Olasker described as “reasonably daring.”

“The show will feature not just women’s lingerie, but men’s, women’s and everything in between,” Olasker raves. “So, leave your buttoned down shirt, your inhibitions, your natural lawyerly reserve at home, and come out and party for a good cause.”