Local lawyer’s legacy more than just good luck
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/11/2020 (736 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Renowned, trailblazing Winnipeg lawyer Jack London has turned his spectacular life and career into a memorable memoir and an excellent read.
Now 77 years old and a longstanding senior counsel to one of Manitoba’s largest law firms, Pitblado LLP, London made history in 1979 at age 36 as the first Jewish dean of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Law.
Courageous enough to discuss his life’s vicissitudes, the U of M- and Harvard-educated London is both candid and clever as an author. “I feel like a kid,” he writes, “with a sense of spunk and optimism about the future and the new opportunities it will bring.”
A member of the Order of Canada, London modestly attributes his success to serendipity and espouses these two quotations: “Life, as Sartre believed, is absurd. Socrates opined that the unexamined life is not worth living. Both were correct… luck is everything.”
A colourful combination of personalized anecdotes, law cases and legal opinions, Serendipity features cogent arguments for many of London’s views.
Among his favourite philosophies: “The more things in life you like and the fewer you dislike, the more opportunity you will have to be happy… I have resisted hate and anger.”
The only son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, London spent summers as a boy working in his parents’ arcade, Playland, at Winnipeg Beach. His writing is at times poignant and always insightful, as when he writes about his father, Louis, who died when Jack was just 19 years old: “My dad was a mensch — a good strong man who did not need accolades.” His mother Mary, meanwhile, “was a gigantic force; small of stature but brilliant, tireless… supportive beyond reason.”
At St. John’s Technical High School in Winnipeg, London developed what he says is his still-paradoxical personality, “feeling superior and at the very same time abjectly inferior.”
When he was a university student, London met Belva, the woman who would become his wife of 57 years. He describes her as “the best thing that ever happened to me… my true mentor, guide, teacher, friend and partner.” They share two daughters as well as grandchildren.
London heart-stoppingly describes his and Belva’s miraculous survival of 36 hours of gunfire while trapped in a tiny bathroom on a trip to Rwanda when he turned 50. It was the couple’s quick thinking and bravery, and more serendipity, that saved their lives.
Among his trailblazing achievements in law, London successfully argued for the abolition of an extra year of articling for law students who did not have a prior degree.
London loved teaching law at the U of M, and won awards for his professorial prowess. As dean, he controversially reduced the size of the first-year law class because, as he writes, “I would rather see fewer people enter first-year law school with the assurance they will be able to find positions after graduation.”
London also deserves much credit for the amount of pro-bono legal work he has done throughout his distinguished career. For 30 years he was also a well-recognized legal commentator on radio, TV and in print. He was founding chairperson of the Manitoba Law Foundation. He also helped to design Canada’s universal childcare system in the 1980s.
London is a passionate advocate for the rights of First Nations communities. His admiration for Phil Fontaine, former national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is immense, and his behind-the-scenes insights into his work with the former chief are fascinating. London and his “brilliant” Pitblado counsel colleague, Dr. Bryan Schwartz, “successfully intervened at the Supreme Court of Canada for the right of First Nations to control and use Canada’s natural resources like fish, land, mining and forests in their traditional territories according to their traditional practices.”
Jack London has lived an extraordinary life, and is more than wise enough to appreciate it — as will readers of his important autobiography.
Veteran Free Press book reviewer Brenlee Carrington is a former sessional instructor at the U of M Faculty of Law and practised law for more than two decades.