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  • Writer's pictureJohn Hollander

From Carleton Medal to Advocacy Club: Advice From a Veteran Litigator

Hello! Please introduce yourself.

I was called to the Ontario Bar as a severe recession started to grip the country in 1978. I was fortunate to have articled at a small full-service firm in Ottawa that collapsed as the recession hit. Fortunate? Yes, because the firm split into three factions, and all three offered me a position. In addition, my predecessor, as an articling student, was considering creating a new firm with three colleagues, and they offered me a position, too. So, I had choices that many first-year associates don’t.

Now, 45 years later, I am recently retired from a career in civil litigation. I devoted the last dozen years of my practice to two areas – estate litigation and claims against financial advisors. During that period and still today, I have run an extensive training program for junior lawyers and articling students, the Advocacy Club, which earned me the Ottawa Bar’s Carleton Medal.

For a dozen years, I taught trial advocacy at uOttawa (click here for the profile I used then). What I learned from the Club and from teaching at uOttawa informs much of what appears below.

What motivated you to pursue a career in law?

I attended law school for the wrong reason – because a friend wanted to. I thrived for the right reason – the study of law fit my skill set and interests. I enjoyed the manipulation of ideas to accomplish a purpose.

I graduated from Queen’s, although I started at uOttawa in the first chaotic year of Fauteux Hall, 1973-74. Transferring schools introduced me to two sets of students, a networking opportunity I have taken full advantage of over the years.

Although law school prepares us for careers other than private practice, I never considered an alternative until I left law for a year at age 50 to help found a technology company.

As the founder of the Advocacy Club, what skills or qualities do you hope to instill in the current generation of law students?

I created the Advocacy Club to resolve a problem in my firm – junior lawyers lacked the basic skills to conduct an interview or examination. After a few months of trial and error, I formed the curriculum that is now the Advocacy Club Boot Camp. I included articling students and junior lawyers from other firms soon after that.

From the outset, the format of each session was experiential. I presented the technique in a few minutes, and the participants practiced the technique using a case study for the rest of the available time.

We began with a dozen or so 90-minute sessions once a week after work. After several semesters, it became apparent that the participants were too busy to make the necessary time commitment. The current format of the Boot Camp calls for two half-days in the same week.

Experience by the participants – learning by doing – is the key to a successful educational experience. How can you learn a tennis swing by reading a book or listening to a lecture?

We cover these skills:

  • How to formulate questions and put them into sequences to accomplish objectives.

  • Case analysis – how to consider the information gleaned in interviews to assess the merits of a case and create a strategy. After all, we don’t learn all the facts until after trial – when it’s too late to do anything with the knowledge!

  • We recently added a technique to break the case into its component scenes. This permits us to apply case analysis to prepare and examine witnesses.

  • Direct and cross-examination techniques. We can’t conduct an examination until we know how to ask questions in a sensible sequence.

  • Arguments. Although students learn something about argument in law school, they rarely learn a holistic technique applicable to all arguments and presentations.

There are other benefits to participation in the Advocacy Club.

  • Networking. Participants meet colleagues and practitioners. Many will serve as mentors and referral sources in the future.

  • Leadership. Participants can lead their own sessions and organize CPD and social events in the Club.

The Advocacy Club now offers a boot camp to students in law school – any school, any year – at no charge, the AC@LS. Here is a brochure that describes the session for the fall semester of 2023. Students get to practice what we preach in small groups, each led by a seasoned litigator.

The Club also offers boot camps for articling students and junior lawyers throughout the year.

Given your extensive experience as a litigator, can you provide some insight into what a litigation practice entails for lawyers?

There is no such thing as a uniform ‘practice’. Each is different. Not only are the areas of practice different (e.g. family law, criminal law, construction law, insolvency law), but so, too, is each type of ‘firm’, whether large or small, urban, suburban or rural, corporate in-house (e.g. insurers and CPA firms have litigation shops), governmental, NGO, or private practice.

What all employers have in common is people. Getting to know and interact with your peers and supervisors is often as important as your advocacy skills. Due diligence to determine how an employer treats its trainees and juniors can be very revealing.

Interpersonal skills are also essential – relations with clients, opposing counsel, referral sources and the public. Empathy is a skill that may be inherent but may also be learned. This is the most important single skill for any lawyer.

My advocacy skills improved with practice, but also with teaching others. My father used to say, “If you want to learn a subject, teach it.” I learned a great deal from my students.

If you could give one piece of advice to prospective or current law students to help them succeed, what would it be?

You can’t learn to litigate – advocacy skills – by watching. You have to run examinations and make arguments. To gain that experience, I suggest that students and junior lawyers volunteer for pro bono clinics, for legal aid, to serve as second chair for lawyers – anything that exposes them to the rough and tumble of cases, disputes, and contests. If you don’t like this work as a junior, it’s a red flag that you may have chosen the wrong career!

I also suggest you take the Boot Camp – more than once, if necessary. Many law students who have completed the AC@LS later enroll as articling students or lawyers. Several lawyers have taken the Boot Camp twice. Practice! Practice! Practice!

What are your future plans, and how can our readers connect with you in the future?

The Advocacy Club is still going strong, which is the best way to contact me. Recently, I have created a Substack to present the techniques of the Club online and in far more detail than I do in the Club’s live sessions. Check it out here.

I have conducted many interviews – with lawyers, judges, Great Canadians, and junior lawyers. Interviews cover professionalism, areas of practice, and techniques. Check them out here.


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