I practiced law from 1974 to 2014, 40 years. If I were to examine my career it wouldn’t occur to me to divide it into four segments of ten years each, 1974 – 1984, 1984 to 1994, 1994 – 2004 and 2004 – 2014. Those divisions are for the most part utterly meaningless to me. Once I started Articles in 1974 the business of practicing law was just more of the same, one day after the other. When at last in 2014 I stood in the empty rooms where my offices once were, small bits of rubbish piled about on the worn carpet, the grimy baseboards exposed by the shattering fluorescent lights, it was an abrupt and undignified end to what had the appearance of having been a performance. All the props were gone. No more Oriental rugs. No grandfather clock. No original works of art. No hardwood furniture. No Tiffany-style lamps. No notarial seals or maps or diplomas. Just thousands of dusty old case books and statutes that nobody wanted, quietly left standing on a bookcase built into an entire wall of my inner office. There were books older than Canada going back to 1849. Halsbury’s Laws of England (1930), a complete 40-volume encyclopedia of brilliant jurisprudence by great legal minds. A huge single-lamp chandelier inherited from the office of the late Raymond A. Jamieson, QC at 74 Mill Street, Almonte hung from the ceiling in the inner office.
It isn’t the pleasant moments of my practice that I especially recall though certainly if I were address my mind to the subject there would be no end of fodder. By contrast I readily recall that I was sued for ten years by a client who was disappointed by the failed scheme hatched by him and his late father to defeat the interest of his father’s 30-year girlfriend. To an outsider the case may have been no more than an attempt to collect insurance to off-set the client’s dismay. To me it was reaffirmation. Not a penny was ever paid. I had a similar feeling of elevation when I succeeded in repelling the unsuccessful claim of a client for reduction of my fees. The court added to the client’s self-imposed aggravation court costs and penalties.
As a country lawyer it was not uncommon to become absorbed in real estate conveyancing. That meant the tedium of title searches. Time and again I was holed up in my office late into the night, bathed in yellow light, circles of cigarette smoke about the room, deeds and surveys scattered everywhere, documents hanging off the backs of chairs or on the seats, sprawled about the floor, suspended from the edge of the large black safe by a solid brass paperweight with my initial carved into it. I didn’t stop working until I had completed my detailed chain of title and reassembled the papers in chronological order and dictated my Letter of Requisitions to the Vendor’s lawyer. One two occasions the difficulties uncovered in my research were insurmountable and we had to seek the assistance of the court and the Government of Ontario to resolve the issues.
When the conveyancing process was streamlined by electronic digital mapping and registration, life as a lawyer improved remarkably even though it put many of the title searchers out of business. There were naturally still some hiccups in the system but for the most part it became like on-line banking, never having to move from one’s desk. The same advances were echoed in many other areas of practice, largely the product of the internet.
Before the internet, the big things were fax machines and computers (word processing). Again the difference was unbelievable. Until then I employed three secretaries, two for four days a week, one for 2-3 days a week. After I learned to handle computers, it wasn’t long before I required one assistant only, partly because I expropriated to myself much of the clerical work, whether bookkeeping or document preparation.
There was a period in the early 1990’s that business was dreadful. One year my net profit after paying my staff and bills was $750! My clients were suffering too, unable to sell their homes for upwards of four years, or else having to sell at a great loss. By 2008 when the market dropped so precipitously I was already in full control of my operation. By that time my assistant was close to being mere decoration. I had narrowed my clientele so severely that I was virtually able to handle everything on my own. It also helped in an ironic way that I had undergone open-heart surgery in 2007 and didn’t even go to the office for three months. That extraordinary experience lubricated my inclination to avoid stress. That translated into accepting only retainers which were good, which in turn meant less difficulty and ample reward, not a bad formula for running a business. I often thought that if I were to do it over again I would quickly adopt the same technique and thus avoid what were assured to be nothing but hassles.
As pleasant as it may be to rejoice in nothing but good retainers, the other reality was that by doing so much of the work myself I was trapped in my office every day from nine to five. Frequently I sent my assistant home as there was nothing to be done that I couldn’t have done myself; and since I had to be there anyway, it might as well be I who stayed. My talent became doing what I did best, avoiding the rest, and getting well paid for what I did. This of course meant I had happy clients who had all the attention in the world. I literally had to push people out the door who I knew wouldn’t want to pay me what I asked.
Certainly in the last part of my practice I never worked after five o’clock. But I remind myself that even when I formerly worked late into the night or on weekends I was seldom getting paid for overtime. It just took longer to do what had to be done. Often the problem was me because I had taken on work which was beyond my scope or competency. I don’t suggest I was ever unprofessional, but when one is running a small office, there is no time for a big learning curve, at least not without its unfavourable repercussions (like unpaid overtime).
In my early career a good deal of my time was absorbed doing charitable or public service work. Again, while it is not a bad idea to do that stuff, it ignores the reality that running a small business doesn’t often afford one the privilege of being a hero. Ultimately there is only one loser. That is why in my latter career I never again accepted any appointment unless I was paid to do it.
The only laurel I might claim for anything I did as a lawyer is the development of a Declaration of Trust which I successfully used for many of my well-heeled clients to avoid probate. This meant a significant cost savings to many of my clients even though, as one lawyer (for whom I prepared a similar Trust) remarked, I lost a lot of business (estate administration) as a result. The document was on several occasions put to the test but has thus far survived any attack. The issues which insinuate the Trust have been the subject of several high-profile court cases and to my knowledge my spin on those issues coincides with the Justices. There is of course some advantage in challenging the Trust because, among other things, it defeats Her Majesty’s entitlement to probate fees. This however is a prosecution which I doubt any government department will readily assume. The banks’ lawyers on the other hand are more inclined to challenge the Trust because being able to insist upon probate closes the door on possible disputes arising between registered and beneficial owners, something bankers are seldom well suited to consider. When I retired, the abstruse nature of the Trust had not as yet infiltrated the ranks of front-line bankers but given the meddling nature of Bay Street lawyers who act for banks (and who cater to the unmerited sense of ownership and superiority enjoyed by bankers of all stripes) it may not be long.
Twice I had a Will of mine challenged. The first instance was a technical matter only and we had no trouble resolving it with the assistance of a common-sense judge. The second instance (arising from the claim of a disgruntled estranged spouse) was more annoying because the competency of the deceased was under attack. I stood fast in having had the Will signed by the deceased even when he was in extremis because the contents of the Will reflected what he had instructed me to prepare months prior to his physical collapse. Again it was a common-sense judge who saved the day but not without a great deal of difficulty from the lawyer for the wife who naturally had everything riding on being able to discount the Will as legal (in which case she would have inherited as on intestacy, namely the lion’s share of her estranged husband’s estate). The Will stood and the wife got what she was entitled on separation.
I encountered several lawyers in my career who were disbarred. They all succumbed to nefarious conduct. With one exception, they were all incompetent in my opinion. The exception was a clever chap from one of the area’s better families who was simply a thief, albeit an honourable one. He did for example assist me to perfect a “tender” which I conducted upon him and his client following the blowup of large deal we had together. The other two lawyers who were disbarred were arrogant and untrustworthy.