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Heintzman receives honorary law degree from LSUC

Thursday, March 16, 2017 @ 8:00 PM | By Geoff Kirbyson


Sure, Thomas Heintzman went to a couple of law schools but arguably the most important training he ever received happened at summer camp.

A veteran of more than four decades as a trial and appellate lawyer at McCarthy Tétrault LLP before venturing out on his own as a mediator and arbitrator in early 2013, Heintzman was given an honorary doctor of laws degree by the Law Society of Upper Canada in a January ceremony in Toronto in recognition of his laundry list of outstanding achievements and service to the legal profession, the rule of law and the cause of justice.

But an awards ceremony may have never been necessary if he hadn’t been part of a group that founded Camp Oochigeas back in 1983. The privately funded camp, in Muskoka, a couple of hours north of Toronto, isn’t your typical let’s-go-canoeing-and-learn-about-fire-safety kind of place — it’s for kids who have (or have had) cancer.

For the next decade, Heintzman spent one week there every summer as a counsellor. His two sons, Thomas and Andrew, as well as his two daughters-in-law, have also served stints as counsellors there.

“I’d be on the ground with kids who were 8 to 10 years old and dying of cancer. Being in an environment with kids who are in terrible condition made me a better human being and a better trial lawyer. I’m a more compassionate person by far [because of the camp experience]. Compassion is a crucial element in understanding the other person,” he said

“Too many trial lawyers can’t put their minds around the other side’s case. I’m not saying they should be bleeding hearts but understanding the other side is a huge part of being a trial lawyer. The camp made me understand what suffering they were going through. It made me a better partner for the law firm, a better husband and a better father.”

It also helped put things in perspective when he fought off prostate cancer himself 20 years ago at the age of 55.

Heintzman said he was humbled to be honoured by the legal profession after his nearly half-century of service.

“They don’t often recognize old trial lawyers as notables. They usually give them to some esteemed person,” he said.

“You do things during your life that you think are worthwhile for their own sake, not for putting them on your resumé. They need to be done and are valuable and you’re grateful later when people say, ‘that was good.’ ”

He studied and played hockey at Harvard University — one of his teammates was now-Governor General David Johnston — and then the London School of Economics and Osgoode Hall at York University, earning law degrees at the latter two.

Heintzman, who was called to the Ontario bar in 1968 and subsequently to the bars in Newfoundland & Labrador and Alberta, has already received the Order of Canada. He doesn’t get tired of the whole awards thing, though.

“I don’t go out looking for them but if they come my way, they’re all right,” he said with a laugh.

Heintzman decided to step aside at McCarthy Tétrault to give young lawyers the chance to pour their boundless energy into the kind of work he was doing. He opted to move into mediation and arbitration — something he could never have done at the firm because of the many conflicts that would have arisen — he felt the justice system was broken.

“Access to the system isn’t what it used to be. More of us should be trying to provide alternative means for justice,” he said.

“You can’t get to trial in Toronto for two years. It’s totally ridiculous. Our civil law system is far less accessible for the average person and it’s too expensive. If it’s inaccessible, then it’s not useful. It’s an enormous and very serious problem. Civil cases are sliding into eternity. Time is moving faster, things happen in a nano-second. People can’t wait five or 10 years for a case [to go to trial],” he said.

Heintzman and other independent mediators maintain offices at Arbitration Place in Toronto where he is retained in subject areas where he garnered his reputation as a lawyer, including construction law, corporate law and partnership disputes. He does not handle family law or labour law cases.

He quickly found out that taking the plunge and going out on your own was no piece of cake. Luckily, his wife, Mary Jane, who is well versed in accounting, handles his payables and receivables and even set up his website.

“You’re a coddled individual when you work at a big firm. On your own, you have to look after cash receivables and making sure you get things printed and published the right way. It’s not easy,” he said.

You don’t get to work in the legal profession for so long without learning a few secrets. At the top of Heintzman’s list is continual learning.

“You can’t assume you know the law and the practice. You need to continually study the law and bring yourself up to date,” he said.

You also need to get out from behind your desk so you can stay in good physical condition.

“The law is a draining exercise with difficult problems every day. If you’re not in good physical shape, you’re not going to do a good job,” he said.

And even though you may not be comfortable with technology, it’s crucial that you adopt the latest tools and practices, including something called the Internet and e-commerce.

“Some lawyers in smaller towns can soldier on with older systems but I don’t think they’re doing a service to themselves,” he said.

Heintzman said he has trouble recognizing the industry he started in a half-century ago. Perhaps the most obvious difference is there are so many more lawyers in today’s profession.

“It’s much more competitive and it’s much more anonymous now. You don’t know as many [other lawyers]. When I started, we all knew each other and the juniors who worked for them. It was a very close community so you didn’t pull a fast one today because you’d get it back at you tomorrow,” he said.

“Today, (some lawyers) might think they won’t see you again so they might stretch the limits more. There are so many lawyers scrambling for the work so there are all these temptations to push the envelope.”