This month’s spotlight is on longtime CLEBC contributor Tom Anderson, QC. Tom, who is now retired, specialized in pension law, particularly in a family law context, when he was in practice. He is one of the original editorial board members of our Family Law Agreements – Annotated Precedents.
How did you first get involved with CLEBC?
In the early 80s, the Family Relations Act (“FRA”), the previous family law legislation, was only a few years old, but had radically changed ideas about rights and obligations upon marriage breakdown that there were a multitude of conflicting decisions about crucial issues, most particularly regarding property division. The FRA upended practice in untold ways, and there were few resources to assist the profession in coming up to speed. The Chief Justice requested CLEBC to prepare comprehensive books on family law, practice, and agreement drafting. Teams of volunteers from the family law bar were assembled to draft chapters on specified topics, and an editorial board was assembled to build those drafts into a polished final version.
At the time, I was involved with the BC Law Reform Commission’s family law projects. We had just published a Study Paper on Family Property analyzing all family law decisions up to that date. CLEBC invited me to participate and before I knew it, I was on the editorial board engaged in creating what eventually became Family Law Agreements – Annotated Precedents (“FLAAP“). It was an awful lot of work, but exciting as a young lawyer, to collaborate with Larry Kahn QC, Professor Don MacDougall, Madame Justice Carol Huddart (who was then a county court judge, but busy transforming BC family law from the bench with seminal judgments that are still the leading cases on so many fundamental issues), and CLEBC’s editor Susan Lyons. Part of what we did was rewrite all of the standard precedents to work under the new legislation. However, many of them still had a 19th century flavour to the drafting, so we also set out to recast all the precedents in modern language. What was gratifying, after FLAAP was published, was to see how quickly our work was adopted by the bar!
What are you currently working on (or have most recently worked on) with CLEBC?
I’m still involved with FLAAP! In one way or another, except for a five-year break in the 2000s, I’ve been involved, most recently as editor. I rewrote FLAAP in 1997, and worked with an editorial board to polish that. Also, with the new family, pension, and wills and estates legislation over the past five years, I’ve been involved in a major reworking of FLAAP since 2013. Since retirement from practice though, the only way I can stay up to date is to take the month before work on FLAAP begins and go through CLEBC’s family law case updates for the previous year and binge read as many cases as possible. It’s a luxury that few, if any, practising lawyers can afford, and it’s a rare treat for me to get an annual snapshot on how BC law is evolving!
What inspired you to specialize your practice to focus on pension law? How did you develop this practice?
At university, I had no real idea of what I wanted to do. I did well in math and liked English literature, so I took courses in both – an unlikely combination for any future financial success! But ideal for what I ended up doing (where the math background was crucial for dealing with pensions and family law financial issues, and communication skills vital for sharing this information). As to taking those skills and becoming a lawyer, that was never my goal and more my father’s. I think he might have liked to have studied law, had WWII not intervened and disrupted his life just when he would have been going to university. Instead several years later, he took BComm courses as a mature student. So his deal with me was: “Don’t worry about completing law school. Just try one year.” And after the first year, he said: “Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Why not try another?” And before you knew it, I was called to the bar!
In the early 90s, I was involved with the BC Law Reform Commission in developing legislative policy for pension division on marriage breakdown. This was another area thrown into confusion by the FRA. The Act said that pensions were also divisible. But it forgot to say how. Pensions are incredibly complicated, diverse financial constructs. Dividing them raised a host of difficult issues, for the family law bar and for plan administrators. There are many experts in pensions and pension law but for the most part, they work for, or as, plan administrators. So the family law bar depended upon advice and expertise of a handful of a very few, very talented actuaries. It seemed to me that what was needed was someone who could explain family law to pension experts, and pension law to family lawyers. And it turned out I was right!
What are the rewards and challenges of practising in a specialized area of law?
In most cases, if a young lawyer wants to specialize, they can work with an experienced lawyer who will show them the ropes. But pension law was an area with few, if any, ropes. So I had to create a lot of them myself.
Being involved with CLEBC was a major part of developing my pension law expertise. In almost every family law course, it seemed natural to include discussion of some aspect of pensions, so I had frequent invitations to participate. Preparing materials for CLEBC courses gave me an opportunity to pull precedents together into a coherent discussion (just as useful for me as everyone else!) and to think deeply about aspects of my practice that I was encountering. I don’t think I would have become as skilled and knowledgeable in my area without being involved in so many conferences where I had the opportunity to discuss cutting-edge issues with family law practitioners, pension experts, judges, regulators, and so on. Of course, if I’d just delivered the same basic message over and over again, I would have gone crazy. What made presenting fun every time was that I made sure that I had a chance to explore something different or go deeper into a familiar theme.
There’s also a fringe benefit to taking part in so many courses and conferences. It’s a great way to develop a reputation and clientele. But there was another unanticipated bonus. I had many files involving pension plan administrators far afield from BC, who were often reluctant to agree with my proposals for dividing benefits between the parties. But when their advisors did their own research on these questions, they kept finding that almost all of the resources had been produced by me and the word came back that “Ok, Tom knows his stuff and it’s safe to do what he says!”
What is one of your most memorable pension law cases?
Pension law cases don’t often make the most interesting anecdotes! I do recall a number of conferences I took part in with real pleasure though.
There was one presentation that was about an hour and a half, as part of a Federation of Law Societies National Family Law Conference. The presentation was held in a big room and sparsely populated when it began. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but there was kind of an electricity. I was enjoying talking to those who had come and they seemed to be getting a lot out of the presentation. Then, the word seemed to spread and by about the one hour mark, all the seats were full and people were still coming in and filling along the sides. It was a lot of fun and exhilarating. I just wish more of them had heard the first part too!
I remember another presentation, one of my first, to a huge group of family lawyers at a CLEBC Family Law Conference. This was before everything was wireless, and I was given a microphone with a long cord that I managed to step on every time I moved, disconnecting the cord from the mike. I was nervous and mortified, and I feared that it was going to be a terrible presentation. The third time this happened, I muttered to myself something like: “…how do those singers…” which was picked up by the mike. When everyone in the room convulsed in laughter, I realized they were all on my side. All went well after that. I think there’s a lesson there for people who haven’t presented at a CLEBC course yet because they’re nervous about embarrassing themselves in front of their colleagues. They should not worry about that at all. I’ve found that every group I’ve talked to doesn’t want me to fail but has only good will. The audience will appreciate your jokes, however clumsy, because your audience wants to encourage you. Ultimately, your audience is grateful you’ve taken time to share your knowledge and experience.
What has your experience of being a sole practitioner been like?
Very positive. I was reluctant at first to take the step. I thought it was too much of a financial risk. But I had a lot of encouragement from a dear friend, Gayle Raphanel, who insisted that my services would be valuable to the family law bar. And it turned out she was right!
What is the most valuable piece of advice that you have received in your career?
I think all lawyers should be aware of the importance of clear, jargon-free writing. When I was articling in the 70s, one of the first things I was asked to do (by David Freeman, QC) was draft a letter for him on one of his files. I produced two pages of dense writing to explain our position and suggested a way forward. Later, when I checked the file to see how much he had used, I saw that my version had been condensed down to a pithy three sentence paragraph essentially covering everything. That was a great learning experience! Even more transformative for me though, was working at the BC Law Reform Commission, where Arthur C. Close, QC showed me that writing about complicated legal concepts not only could, but must, be conveyed in the simplest, clearest language possible.
Other than law, what are you passionate about?
Bridge! Since I’ve retired, I’ve taken up duplicate bridge and have a wonderful time on the tournament trail! I love not only the game, but also the people in the bridge community, who are tremendously supportive and encouraging. I also volunteer a lot in this area. I’m now a certified director, so I can run games at our community center and I’m on the Unit Board that runs tournaments in the Lower Mainland. I’m also the webmaster for our Unit, West Vancouver Senior Center Duplicate Bridge, and the Squamish Bridge Club. I’m wondering how I ever had time to work!