In conversation with Brian H.Greenspan

In conjunction with the Toronto Lawyers Association Award of Distinction presentation on March 5, 2020 in Toronto, writer Evan Thompson spoke with Brian H. Greenspan, partner at Greenspan, Humphrey, Weinstein LLP and this year’s Award recipient.

T.L.A.:  What attracted you to the legal profession?

B.H.G.: There was never any question that I would become a criminal lawyer. Shortly after I turned 10, in 1957, my father had a fatal heart attack and passed away at the age of 42.  My father had come to Canada at the age of 13 in 1928 and had his heart set on law.  He had received his B.A. in Law and attended Osgoode Hall for one year in 1939 but could not continue due to war and his father’s illness, which required him to return to Niagara Falls to look after the family scrap business.  It was not a matter of “whether” but a matter of “when” I would become a lawyer.  My late brother, Eddie, and I both chose law to pursue our father’s dream of becoming a criminal lawyer. Our younger sister, Rosann chose an academic career as a criminologist and recently retired as the Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Law and Society at Berkeley. We grew up in a traditional Jewish home and although we celebrated our roots surrounded by books by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Clarence Darrow, Louis Brandeis, F.D.R. and Winston Churchill; lawyers, judges and world leaders committed to freedom, to civil liberties and equality.  We were aware of the destructiveness of state lawlessness and the need to protect people from oppression.

T.LA. Can you share some of the recognitions you received that brought you great satisfaction?

B.H.G. In 2013, Eddie and I received the Key to the City of Niagara Falls, where we grew up and where my family had become involved in many aspects of the community. In 2010, The Ontario Criminal Lawyers' Association presented me with the G. Arthur Martin Criminal Justice Medal for contributions to criminal justice in Canada.

I was also greatly honoured to receive an Honorary Doctor of Law in 2012 from the Law Society of Upper Canada (Law Society of Ontario). And now, the Toronto Lawyers Association Award of Distinction. This award is very meaningful to me as it represents a recognition not only from my colleagues at the criminal bar but an acknowledgement from the entire legal community.

T.L.A. How has the legal profession changed since you were called to the Bar of Ontario in 1974?

B.H.G. Once a male dominated, “old boys” network, the practice of law in Canada was largely closed to outsiders. Social change demanded greater inclusion in the 70s and 80s, and transformed the legal profession. The doors began to open particularly with respect to gender equality. When I was called, there were relatively few women in the profession or on the bench. Justices Van Camp, Boland, Dymond, German and Wilson were some of the pioneers who greatly contributed to gender balance during that formative period. My friend and colleague Marlys Edwardh was among the first of the great women criminal counsel.

My graduating class at Osgoode Hall in 1971 consisted of approximately 10% women.  By 1976 that proportion had risen dramatically – likely to one-third, and now women are in the majority at most law schools. I recently attended the Osgoode Hall graduation of 2019. It was gratifying to see law graduates reflecting the strength and diversity of our multicultural community.

T.L.A. What personal strengths do successful criminal defence lawyers share?

B.H.G. Part of being an effective criminal lawyer involves an unwavering commitment to both the client and to the administration of justice.  

Good lawyers realize there is nothing more important than hard work and preparation.

As far as personal attributes are concerned, the best criminal lawyers learn from their mistakes and keep moving forward. They are relentless in ensuring that every accused receives a fair trial in accordance with fundamental principles of criminal justice.

As a teenager, I read Clarence Darrow’s biography “Attorney for the Damned.” It often comes to mind when I reflect on the role of counsel, whose job it is to protect the rights of every person.

T.L.A. How has social media changed the role and public perception of the criminal defence lawyer?

B.H.G. The news cycle has become so pervasive and moves so quickly that readers often base their opinions solely on what they read in headlines or on Twitter. On the strength of a fleeting headline or image, they often express an opinion of guilt or innocence before a trial outcome is announced – and share it across their network.

Now, more than ever before, a criminal lawyer must be precise, and convey facts and thoughts accurately to remove the possibility of being misinterpreted. Careful craftsmanship is required to communicate our clients’ sentiments and reactions in a way that cannot be misconstrued.

T.L.A. Do you have any advice for aspiring criminal defence lawyers regarding what to expect on their journey?

B.H.G. Aspiring lawyers who enter the profession dreaming of being legal “superstars” are destined to fail. Lawyers are part of an adversarial process and should not see themselves as the focus of that process.

There are no “high profile” lawyers. There are “high profile” clients who hire lawyers and sometimes bring them into the spotlight.

You succeed as a lawyer when you commit to working tirelessly and accept that you will make mistakes (and learn from them). You also grow as you learn from other people within and outside the profession who inspire you with their dedication and professionalism.

While you can learn and improve by watching seasoned counsel, try to avoid copying them.  Channel what you learn from them into who you are.  Good criminal lawyers understand that advocacy is the art of persuasion, and to be persuasive you need to be authentic and remain your own person with your values as your guide.

T.L.A. Who are two or three people who have influenced and helped guide you over your career?

B.H.G. Early in my career, I watched and admired G. Arthur Martin, both as a lawyer and jurist, Charles Dubin, the former Chief Justice of Ontario, and J.J. Robinette, one of the greatest litigators Canada ever produced. I was in awe of their composure, their command of their subject, and the way they answered questions with thoughtfulness and clarity. I admired Arthur Maloney and David Humphrey (my partner’s father) who made it all look effortless. Their humour and humanity were the keys to their persuasiveness.

T.L.A. Do you have other thoughts on this occasion?

B.H.G.  My firm is part of my family, and I am as proud of the achievements of my colleagues at Greenspan, Humphrey, Weinstein as I am of my family.  I treasure my collegial relationships with all the people at our firm – both past and present - our students, administrative team and lawyers – and am proud to be part of a group that works at the highest possible level from a place of mutual respect and support

Join us to celebrate Brian Greenspan's outstanding contribution to the legal profession!

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