Practice makes perfect At 95, Manitoba's oldest lawyer, Gordon Pullan, has been doling out legal advice for seven decades
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/05/2021 (611 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Sitting in a sun-dappled, ninth-floor corner boardroom of his downtown Winnipeg law offices, Gordon Pullan hoists up his necktie for a curious visitor to examine.
“I don’t come dressed like this every day,” Pullan declares with an impish grin. “But my daughter Heather told me I had to dress like a lawyer today.”
Dressing like a lawyer is something Pullan knows more than a little bit about — he’s been doing it almost every day for the past seven decades.
At the age of 95 — he’ll turn 96 on June 16 — he is now the oldest and longest practising lawyer in Manitoba, and likely in all of Canada.
After graduating law school, Pullan was called to the bar on May 9, 1951, meaning he has been practising law in this province longer than the vast majority of lawyers throughout the country have been alive.
The Free Press learned of this remarkable legal milestone in a heartfelt email from Tom Frohlinger, who is not only the managing director of PKF Lawyers, but Pullan’s son-in-law of more than 40 years.
A life of service
Here’s a look at some of the organizations Manitoba’s longest practising lawyer, Gordon Pullan, has served in his 70 years in the profession
Here’s a look at some of the organizations Manitoba’s longest practising lawyer, Gordon Pullan, has served in his 70 years in the profession:
Pullan is present or past honorary counsel to: Mount Carmel Clinic; Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra; Jewish Public Library; Greater Winnipeg Social Welfare Planning Council; Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada; The Ukrainian, Jewish, Mennonite Conference; and Jewish Radio Productions Inc.
He is present or past member of the following boards of directors: Greater Winnipeg Community Welfare Council; Ramah Hebrew School; Sharon Home; B’nai Abraham Synagogue; Winnipeg Jewish Community Council; Jewish Foundation of Manitoba; Chesed Shel Emes; Mount Carmel Clinic; Asper Jewish Community Campus Planning Committee; Bnai Brith Lodge 650; Anne Ross Health Resources Centre Inc.; and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
Present and past offices held include: President of Jewish Foundation of Manitoba; president of the Sharon Home; chairman of Volunteer’s Bureau; and western regional vice-president of United Israel Appeal.
Present and past member of the following organizations: Various fundraising committees of Israel-based organizations; canvasser for Combined Jewish Appeal; pledge redemption committee Combined Jewish Appeal; Environment Commission of Manitoba; Convention Chairman; Manitoba Bar Association (co-opted rather than elected member); and the University Community Liaison Committee.
• Pullen was awarded the prestigious Sol Kanee Distinguished Community Service Medal in 1998. This is the highest recognition the Jewish community bestows on any person.
Areas of Practice
• Business planning and corporate organization
• Commercial real estate and construction
• Corporate and commercial law, mergers and acquisitions
• Wills, estates, trusts and Elder Law
Source: PKF Lawyers
“Wonderful, wonderful father-in-law. I look on him as a father more than a father-in-law,” Frohlinger says over a socially distanced cup of coffee at the boardroom table equipped with Plexiglas protective screens.
“He’s opinionated, he says his piece, and then he moves on. Some would say he’s the curmudgeon of the firm, some would say he’s the soul of the firm,” says Frohlinger, 75, who is married to Pullan’s eldest daughter, Heather.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a senior lawyer or a junior lawyer, he’s always constructive, he’s always kind and his overarching singular attribute is he’s genuinely interested in people…
“I think the fact he’s practised longer than most lawyers in Manitoba have been alive is a phenomenal accomplishment. I got my call to the bar in 1981. In order to get to his level, I’d have to make it to age 105.”
Over the course of an interview last week, Pullan reflected on the joys and tribulations of spending 70 years working for clients in Winnipeg, displaying a level of energy and mental acuity that belies his age, and an irreverent sense of humour more common among standup comedians than lawyers.
Asked when he plans on retiring, Pullan doesn’t miss a beat: “When I get old! I’ve been asked that many times.”
Told he doesn’t look like a man poised to celebrate his 96th birthday, his grin widens and he replies: “How does one look 96? I don’t feel my age, if that’s a feeling one gets.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I took three months of isolation, and after working for over 70 years, I just couldn’t sit at home. I’m so used to getting up and coming to the office. The practice of law is one of challenges — sitting around the house, the big challenge is to wash your dishes.”
When it comes to famously long and distinguished legal careers, Gordon Pullan of Winnipeg’s PKF Lawyers is in excellent company.
When it comes to famously long and distinguished legal careers, Gordon Pullan of Winnipeg’s PKF Lawyers is in excellent company. Here are just two examples:
● At 97 years old and with 71 years of service under his belt, Winnipeg’s Harry Walsh was Canada’s oldest practising lawyer when he died in February 2011.
Before a stint in hospital for complications stemming from a fall, Walsh had come to work every day since being called to the Manitoba Bar in 1937.
Walsh, who helped create Manitoba’s Legal Aid system, considered his work helping to abolish the death penalty in Canada his crowning achievement.
“I was responsible for that and I want to take credit for that,” he once told the . “I never had a hanging in any case where I was the senior lawyer. We have no right to take the life of anybody.”
● In British Columbia, trailblazing lawyer Constance Dora Isherwood was still working two hours before she died this past January at the age of 101.
“She worked that day and was very, very worried about closing real estate deals by the end of the day. She didn’t want to put anybody else out, and passed away at 6 p.m.,” her son George Isherwood told earlier this year.
B.C.’s oldest practising lawyer, who had turned 101 on Jan. 19, Isherwood spent seven decades clocking billable hours and paved the way for generations of female lawyers.
When the centenarian was interviewed in 2020 on CBC Radio’s , she credited her longevity to her intrigue with the law.
“So that keeps you interested, and of course, going to work keeps your body active and mind active, which is a good thing at any age,” Isherwood told host Carol Off.
Pressed to reveal the secret to his longevity in a notoriously stress-filled profession, he flashes another mischievous grin. “I don’t know if you should tell everybody, but my main secret is you must be extremely careful in the choice of your parents. I think the genes have something to do with it.
“I didn’t prepare for this. I didn’t prepare to get old. I remember wondering in my youth if I’d make it to the year 2000. I lived every day as it came. Whatever happened in any given day didn’t affect the way I was going to live the next day.”
What about exercise? What about eating healthy? “I would say it’s basically fate, luck or, if you’re religious, God’s will,” the soft-spoken Pullan reflects. “I did nothing special to get to where I am today.
“But I’m fortunate to have eating habits that were beneficial. If you were to ask me my preferred meal, I’d say a good salad.”
Whatever he’s done, it’s worked. Appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1982, this nonagenarian is marking his 70th year in practice by doing what he’s always done — going to the office. The only real difference is that a lot of his clients now are third generation.
“He comes in usually Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He likes Saturdays because no one bothers him and he can get his work done. The staff just love him. He’s everybody’s grandfather and great-grandfather,” Frohlinger explains.
“He comes in at nine and I usually take him home at six. He’s given up driving so I’m now his chauffeur. His major complaints are his eyes are going and his hearing is going, so he needs some assistance,” he says, adding that Pullan is still doing estates, real estate, corporate and commercial work, though he no longer litigates. “He just did a fairly major transaction involving the sale of shares in an IT company in Winnipeg.”
When he hasn’t been working, Pullan has become famous for sitting on boards and raising funds for local Jewish organizations. He was awarded the prestigious Sol Kanee Distinguished Community Service Medal in 1998, the highest honour in Winnipeg’s Jewish community.
It would be difficult to name an organization in the Jewish community that has not benefited from his time and legal advice, though he also served other organizations, including the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
“My family knew one thing — I won’t be home for supper because I’m either at the office or in a meeting,” Pullan recalls.
Looking back on his career, Pullan insists there are no crowning achievements to brag about. His decades of service have been fuelled as much by a love of people as they were by a passion for the law.
“I just enjoy being with people. Then I’m a very curious person. I don’t know if you want to put this in your notes, but I maintain I love to stick my nose into everybody’s business and then they pay me. Can you find a better life than that?” Pullan says.
“It’s a profession where you learn something new every day. The law is a very fluid thing; it’s not static, it’s continuously changing and adapting. It covers every aspect of your everyday life. There’s a never-ending flow of interesting situations.”
Pressed again to reveal a highlight from his long career, he sticks to his guns. “No real highlight. I haven’t been a leading lawyer of anything. There’s always been guys smarter than me around so I had a bigger challenge,” he insists.
“The main thing is I’ve gone through 70 years of practice and never been called to appear before a disciplinary committee.”– Gordon Pullan, Manitoba’s oldest practicing lawyer
“The main thing is I’ve gone through 70 years of practice and never been called to appear before a disciplinary committee, which is very difficult. It’s so easy to do something that you shouldn’t do,” he says.
Which is when son-in-law Frohlinger chimes in about a precedent-setting construction case in which Pullan was the lead lawyer.
“You made law,” he gently reminds Pullan. “It’s the leading case in builder’s liens. I taught the case for 31 years. It involved the security taken by a mortgage lender in a new construction project that ultimately fell on hard times. The question was whether the mortgage lender had priority over the workers for its money.
“The outcome was the mortgage lender had priority over some of its money but not all because of the timing of the liens versus the timing of the advances. It’s a complicated case. It’s still cited today.”
Pullan began piling up memories the day he hung out his shingle 70 years ago this month. Three weeks after being called to the bar, he opened a one-man practice. In those days, all that was required was a desk, chairs, a typewriter and a telehone. Today, he notes, he’s a major business investment.
“I took on a student who remained with me. And we took on other students who remained. And we had other people join us. But we weren’t anywhere near the size we are now. I made one mistake — I let my son-in-law come in and gave him an office, and guess who I work for now? I have security in my job now because to fire me he has to get my daughter’s approval.”
At the beginning, Pullan did criminal work. But there were often days when he wouldn’t get a single phone call, nor receive a single letter. “I used to say my highlight was Thursday, because that’s when Time magazine came in and I had something to do — I read it.”
He handled criminal cases for about two years, but it wasn’t his cup of tea. He started to get a lot of real estate work during the housing boom of the early 1950s.
If he has a crowning achievement, it’s his four children, nine grandchildren and the 68 years he was married to his high school sweetheart, Esther, who died last summer, leaving Pullan rattling around the five-bedroom home he had built in River Heights in 1959.
Pullan has survived more than his fair share of challenges — mumps, measles, chicken pox, scarlet fever, not to mention the Great Depression, the Second World War, and seeing his law offices burn to the ground twice.
The youngest of three brothers, he was born in St. Boniface Hospital in 1925. “That’s my life story. I was in an orphanage at age three,” he recalls. “My mother went to the hospital for a gallstone operation, a simple thing. Unfortunately, she developed a blood clot and she died, leaving my father with three boys, ages 3, 9 and 13. My father and my oldest brother moved in with an uncle. My middle brother and I went to the Jewish orphanage. I was in that orphanage for a year.
“My father made it known in the community he was desperate for a wife to help him raise his boys. He didn’t want to break up the family. He got remarried, rented a house across from the orphanage and we all moved into that house. We were all reunited.”
In Grade 12, he went into basic training with the army, then spent almost two years training in the airforce, then finally came a stint with the navy. “I got basic training in the army, I got basic training in the airforce, and I got basic training in the navy. I never went overseas,” he says.
I started with nothing, I grew up in the Depression. My father would be laid off in the winter. My mother had to feed five of us on a pound of hamburger sort of thing… When I was a kid playing on the street, I never had a store-bought toy in my life.”– Gordon Pullan, Manitoba’s oldest practicing lawyer
If he’s learned anything in the last 70 years, it’s how to take things in stride, including huge fires that razed his offices in the Time Building on Portage Avenue in 1954, and a 2003 fire that destroyed a former funeral home on Kennedy street that was being renovated to house his growing firm.
“It was just another issue in my life, another source of stories. I have to tell you, I started with nothing, I grew up in the Depression. My father would be laid off in the winter. My mother had to feed five of us on a pound of hamburger sort of thing… When I was a kid playing on the street, I never had a store-bought toy in my life.
“That was the beginning of what my life was. We learned to live with life as it came along, and you made the best of whatever was available. Tom (Frohlinger) came along and married my daughter and I had to accept him.”
As for the future, Pullan insists he’ll continue dealing calmly with whatever life dishes up. “At this point in life, I’m immune to everything,” he jokes, flashing his trademark wit. “The future of my life is not a worry. I bought a 10-year passport because it was a good deal. Now that’s optimism!”
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.