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Take your place in legal history

What did you do in the law, dad (or mom)?

Few things in legal history are harder to track than things that seem most obvious at the time. What was it like practising law in a sole practice or in a small Ontario town in the 1960s, say? How did the lawyers get along? What was a big case or a big deal like?

At one point, everybody in the profession knew the answers. But that sort of thing never gets documented, and then . . . eventually those people are gone, and their experience of legal practice has gone with them.

The law society’s heritage committee thinks there are lawyers willing to change that, and its legal memoirs project is trying to help. In recent months, interested lawyers have organized memoir seminars in Ottawa, London, and Sudbury, as well as Toronto, and the law society has been providing organizational help, pointers on memoir writing, and advice on oral-history interviewing.

“So often, we meet senior lawyers from small practices who say, ‘I loved my work, but nothing I did was of historical interest.’ That couldn’t be further from the truth,” says heritage committee chair Constance Backhouse of Ottawa. “Future generations will want to know what it was like to practice law in these settings, what the day-to-day experience was. As do many of us now.”

The legal memoirs project is still in its infancy, but the committee can point to some promising examples. There’s Kingston lawyer George Speal’s 2002 memoir. Speal was Kingston’s mayor when the city hosted the Olympic sailing events in 1976, and he can tell of spats with Jean Drapeau and the time Queen Elizabeth came to dinner. But he has stories of more routine law practice too.

A few notes saved from an admiralty law class at Osgoode Hall were all Speal had (or needed) years later when he found himself going down to Kingston harbour to arrest a ship. And he reports a newly called lawyer could expect to earn all of $75 a month in a Kingston law firm in around 1959.

The project has also supported some oral history interviewing. After a family member contacted the legal memoirs project, historian Allison Kirk-Montgomery began interviewing a Hamilton female lawyer who was called to the bar in 1934. Other interviews will cover post-war practice in the Haliburton region.

Sophia Sperdakos, policy counsel at the Law Society of Upper Canada, has been helping out with the legal memoirs initiative. “They always say, ‘I was just a typical lawyer, I didn’t do anything historic.’ But when they get to talking, the stories strike sparks every time.”

That’s my experience too, and the stories are worth preserving. And you needn’t be ancient: if you practised in the 1970s, you probably did lots of things that are hardly known today.

Working up a legal memoir needn’t mean falling completely into anecdotage. To make a memoir more than just a retelling of favourite war stories, it might be worth reviewing the file or the case report to get dates and details.

Pointers? Here are five questions to which thoughtful answers remain rare and precious.

Who was the best or top lawyer in the community (besides you, of course)? More important, why? What were the ingredients of successful practice, and did they change?

Technology: Dictaphones, Selectrics, the first dedicated word processors, Quicklaw, all today’s digital devices - how and when did all that change practice?

Clients: Who were they? Wills and house transfers? Mostly the local business community? How much court work? Did it change over time? What was most profitable? Most satisfying?

Overheads: I heard a lawyer say that over several decades his overheads went from 35 per cent of revenues to 80 per cent. What was going on? How did a firm adjust?

What’s an important question that would never occur to the bloody historian?

Answer some questions like those, throw in your stories, let the law society archive it for you. Some 22 Century legal historian may yet celebrate your life.

There was a lawyer, long dead now, called Robert McLaughlin. In his day, he headed a substantial Bay St. firm and ran a trust company. No small career, but nowadays McLaughlin’s chief claim to fame comes from the fact that in the 1880s, as a law student in Lindsay, he kept a diary that happened to be preserved. No famous cases, no royal visits, just the way that study and business and social life revolved around a small-town law office way back then. It is a rare description of lawyers in that era.

“As things pass into memory, what was most familiar becomes most precious.”

The law society’s legal memoirs web page can be found online (www.lsuc.on.ca/about/a/history/heritage-committees-history-project/). Or consult Sophia Sperdakos (sperdakos@lsuc.on.ca) about a memoirs workshop in your part of the province.


Christopher Moore is the author of several works in legal history. His website is www.christophermoore.ca

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