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Wisdom through experience helps to better serve clients

published May 8, 2019

Nearing his 76th birthday in a profession that acknowledges the value of age and experience, British Columbia criminal lawyer Dr. Gary Botting says he is hitting his "stride."

While judges across the country are required to hang up their sashes at 75, there are no such limits on legal careers for those in private practice.

“It sounds old when you talk about it objectively, but I’m not so sure it is,” says Botting, principal of Gary N.A. Botting, Barrister and Solicitor, who views his age and experience as a significant asset to both himself and clients.

“I certainly don’t intend to retire in the next little while — not when I’m right in my stride,” he tells AdvocateDaily.

Botting says he has always been impressed with the deference and respect judges and fellow counsel reserve for their elders at the bar, pointing to the unwritten convention at fix-date sessions in court that, all else being equal, sees lawyers’ cases called in the approximate order of their year of call.

Indeed, as a latecomer to the profession — he was 48 years old when called to the bar in 1991 — Botting admits that he often benefits from preferential treatment from colleagues who assume he must have been in practice much longer than 28 years.

“Sometimes I get to jump the queue,” he jokes. “To that extent, at least, my age is a practical advantage, where everyone else in the court, including the judge, appears a generation younger than I am.

“I’m very comfortable appearing before judges and juries."

That stands in stark contrast to his earlier, pre-law careers when Botting worked first as a journalist for the prestigious South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and Peterborough Examiner in Ontario in the early 1960s, and then as a professor of English and creative writing. He taught at universities across the country from Memorial University in Newfoundland in the late 1960s to Simon Fraser University in the early 90s, when he was called to the bar.

“In the teaching profession, you saw ageism at its worst,” he says of a time when university professors were routinely forced into retirement at 65, regardless of their abilities.

While some had undoubtedly lost their edge by that age, Botting says one of his most inspiring teachers was an 82-year-old history professor whose lectures “would transport you right back to ancient Greece.”

“Campaigns to get younger people into prime positions were symptomatic of what happened later when you got a surge of prejudice against more elderly members of the workforce,” Botting says. “The downside was that if you ever got fired after age 50, you frankly couldn’t get another job. Academics and others who work by using their brains were left to pick up crumbs, which was heartbreaking for a good number of families who still had kids at home and mortgages to pay.”

In fact, he says the suicides of two English department chairmen in two institutions for which he worked, both of whom struggled to cope following forced retirement at 65 – along with the prospect of a similar fate upon his eventual retirement — prompted Botting to reignite an old connection with the law and pursue his current career.

Growing up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Botting got to know legendary lawyer Glen How, who acted for members of the group in a number of landmark cases, including the famous Roncarelli v. Duplessis decision. How encouraged Botting to join him in private practice, assisting him in obtaining the necessary dispensation to attend university from a community that frowned on advanced non-religious education.

Botting was already at the mature end of the spectrum when he began his undergraduate studies, having embarked on missionary work and journalism in Hong Kong before ever enrolling in a university course.

“Pretty soon, I was realizing what I had been missing in terms of English literature, philosophy, and generally questioning my beliefs,” he says.

“As a Jehovah’s Witness, I wrote my first essay, on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, with liberal references to JW literature, including The Watchtower and Awake!

“My professor gave me an ‘F’ and a huge notation in red capital letters: ‘GET THEE TO A LIBRARY!

“That was the best piece of advice I have ever received.”

Before entering the post-graduate academic world, Botting taught high school in Ontario and continued his career in journalism, exposing the shocking state of repair of Victoria County Jail by getting himself arrested for “cashing in” unpaid parking tickets. Once inside, he bored his way through a wall with primitive tools found within the cell block. He fashioned 16 lethal weapons out of innocuous-looking toothbrushes and their hard plastic containers, broken Melmac cups, wire from bed springs, a toilet tank support, and pieces of hard oak with rusted steel spikes retrieved from the walls of the rotting structure.

“Within a year, Victoria County Council voted to shut the prison down,” Botting says.

“In my opinion, every judge and Crown attorney should at some point spend some time in jail to see what it’s like because they have no idea,” says Botting, adding that too many lawyers head straight from high school to undergraduate studies to law school to articling and into practice without much exposure to the larger world.

He says the wealth of experience he brought with him to law school served him well both during and after his studies.

“I had a fairly good grounding, which many in the legal professions don’t have,” says Botting, who articled with Doug Christie, another Canadian legal legend known for his high-profile free-speech cases.

In one of his first acts articling for Christie, Botting had to sign off on a factum for a high-profile Supreme Court of Canada case because his principal was otherwise engaged.

“That was all great experience from my vantage point, and really set the standard for the stuff I’m interested in now,” Botting says.

Thirty years later, he’s still doing appellate work and advancing constitutional challenges.

“My greatest satisfaction comes from working on cases that help shape the law,” he says.