Dennis O'Connor, the Ontario Court of Appeal judge who headed public inquiries into the complicity of Canadian officials in the torture of Maher Arar and the fatal failings of the water system in Walkerton, Ont., is headed back to private practice.
On Wednesday, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP is to announce that Mr. O'Connor, who retired as associate chief justice in December, has taken a post as counsel to the firm – the same firm he left in 1998 to take his seat on the Court of Appeal.
Mr. O'Connor, 71, says he will offer strategic advice to clients and mentor young lawyers in BLG's large litigation department. In an interview, he offered a preview of his sage advice from the other side of the bench. His first tip for young litigators? Be yourself.
"Whatever your personality is, it's fine. Don't try to be Clarence Darrow or Eddie Greenspan or somebody else," Mr. O'Connor said, although he added that lawyers should "avoid having annoying mannerisms or ways to speak."
The fatal error for lawyers, he says, is overdoing it: "Don't overstate your case. If anything, the more persuasive thing for a lawyer to do is to almost understate a point. ... The judge will reach the extra yard that you want him or her to go. The worst thing you can do to harm your credibility is overstate your point."
Mr. O'Connor worked as a litigator with what was then called Borden Elliott starting in 1980. He had been a criminal lawyer early in his career, as well as serving as a magistrate in Yukon – essentially a criminal court trial judge. He also taught at the University of Western Ontario. While at Borden Elliott, he did a wide range of litigation, including securities and insolvency cases.
Mr. O'Connor says he may also offer his services as a mediator and arbitrator – he called it "private judging" – like an increasing number of retired judges. While he has already fielded calls requesting his services as a mediator or arbitrator, he said his central focus will be his work with BLG.
Mr. O'Connor says he won't work as a litigator himself, as he does not believe former judges should appear in court: "I won't go to court. There's a debate on it. My view of it, quite strongly, it is inappropriate."
Looking back on his 15 years as a judge, during which he wrote many appeal judgments and oversaw two wrenching high-profile public inquiries, he says he will miss it: "I loved being a judge ... It was a privilege. It was certainly the highlight of my life."
But at 71, he said he decided to retire and return to private practice while he still could, partly attracted by the chance to teach young lawyers.
Several high-profile judges have returned to law firms in recent years. Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Ian Binnie, who retired from the court in 2011, joined Toronto firm Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin LLP last year.
(Jeff Gray is a Globe and Mail Law Reporter.)
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