A reformer at heart

By Michael Dempster July - August 2012

Ron Skolrood’s interest in social policy inspired a life-long dedication to improving the law.

A reformer at heart Photo of Ron Skolrood Venturi+Karpa

In Ron Skolrood’s busy world, there’s nothing more relaxing than a Saturday morning visit to Van­couver’s bustling Granville Island public market. There, he takes his time choosing the freshest ingredients for an evening’s dinner with friends.

His lucky guests might be treated to Skolrood’s balsamic and red wine-braised short ribs — his signature dish — complemented with some good conversation. 

During the summer, those conversations often turn to the kids’ softball teams that Skolrood coaches, the two golf vacations he’s made to Pebble Beach during the past year, or an interesting recipe (he’s taken several cooking courses) they’re about to be served.

But this fall, a meatier topic may be up for discussion as Skolrood returns to the Court of Appeal in B.C. for the latest go-round in the fight against the federal government’s Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) legislation, first tabled in May 1999. 

It’s an issue that Skolrood, a senior litigator at Lawson Lundell LLP, knows inside out. He has represented the Canadian Bar Association, which is an intervenor, on a pro bono basis from the beginning. 

And like his passion for entertaining friends, golf, family and his practice, Skolrood finds deep satisfaction digging into areas concerning law reform. 

“The proceeds of crime legislation is a very important issue for the legal profession and the importance of maintaining an independent bar and protecting solicitor-client privilege,” Skolrood ex­plains. “That’s what drew me to the issue.” 

While he contends that lawyers and the legal profession support the government’s efforts to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, he strongly believes it can’t be at all costs.

“I think that’s where the CBA and the Federation of Law Societies have tried to draw a line — that lawyers, while supportive of the efforts of government, shouldn’t be co-opted into being agents of the state to spy on their clients,” he says. “It tends to call into question the whole administration of justice.” 

Skolrood is perplexed by the government’s persistence. He notes the law societies have addressed the two major areas of government concern: first, limits have been put on the amount of cash lawyers can accept from clients; second, efforts around client identification and verification rules are in place.  

The latter issue is the most recent concern. Under the proposed legislation, lawyers would have to collect and maintain certain personal information relating to their clients and relating to the transactions in which their clients are involved. That information would have to be available for inspection on demand. 

“For me,” Skolrood says, “issues like this are important for the profession and society, and from a lawyer’s perspective, to get immersed in.” 

The legislation is just one example of interesting cases that motivate Skolrood to become involved. He has been recognized for his pro bono work with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. He is also past chair (2007-2010) of the B.C. Law Institute, a not-for-profit law reform agency that’s near and dear to his heart because of its mission to improve the law.

“That’s what I’ve enjoyed about the CBA,” he adds. “It’s very involved in law reform. It makes submissions to government on legislation and ways to improve the law, and I think that’s a very important function.”

Skolrood’s day-to-day practice involves pension and benefits litigation involving large pension plans. He’s worked in public law, constitutional and administrative law, and a smattering of commercial disputes.

His interest in social policy evolved as a youngster. Born in Vancouver, the family moved to southern Alberta in 1967 when his father became one of the founding faculty members at the University of Lethbridge. 

Harold Skolrood was a professor in the education department, taught sociology and, as his son remembers, was a “very engaged person” who passed on his interest for politics and history during dinner table discussions.

Skolrood was attracted to the law, in part, because of the role it can play in social policy. He was further convinced after earning his law degree at the University of Victoria and then being chosen to clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada in 1986-87. There, he says, “some brilliant judges, and a group of interesting people (his peers) who were all bent on doing interesting things,” inspired him. 

Peter Behie, Q.C, and partner at Ramsay Lampman Rhodes on Vancouver Island, was one year ahead of Skolrood at law school and again at the Supreme Court. The clerk’s job, Behie says, had a lasting effect. 

“You can’t get a richer, higher octane environment at the Supreme Court,” Behie says. “The people there...  have deeply penetrating minds, as you would expect, because the issues that get (to that level) resist easy analysis.”

“They are challenging questions that are on the cutting edge of law,” he adds. “They are big issues, capacious.”

Although Skolrood and Behie were a year apart, their similar career paths brought them together. After the Supreme Court, both would article at Lawson Lundell, followed by graduate work (Behie at the University of California, Berkeley; Skolrood, the University of Cambridge) then returning to Lawson Lundell. Behie left six years later for Vancouver Island, but by then they’d become fast friends.

“We were young single lawyers at Lawson, a gaggle of us, who worked really hard, long hours and then hung out and had lots of fun together,” Behie remembers. “Those relationships tend to be tight.”

Behie calls his friend a bit of an enigma, whose easy-going personality hasn’t changed within the pressure cooker of a big firm. In such an environment, he explains, “you often see the rooster-in-the-barnyard phenomenon where you have to paw the ground and puff your chest out.”

“Part of Ron’s charm and ability to succeed is that he is very likable and maintains that nice touch with people, notwithstanding the fairly challenging head-butting aspects of corporate commercial litigation,” Behie says. “That’s no small feat.”

Associate Michelle Jones sees the same traits in Skolrood, her formal mentor at Lawson Lundell since she started as a summer student in 2006. 

“He is genuinely interested in helping me to be the best lawyer I can be,” Jones says. “I never, ever thought when I started that I’d have someone as invested as he is.”

Jones earned her law degree from the University of Ottawa in 2007 and afterwards spent a year clerking in the Federal Court of Canada’s trial division. 

Jones and Skolrood share the same professional interests, she says. “We’re both in tune and fascinated with government and policies and administrative regulatory schemes that oversee behaviour of a certain discipline or an area that cries out for legislation.”

Beyond insightful debates at work where they flesh out issues, Jones admires how “well-rounded and well-grounded” her mentor is. 

She also notes how well Skolrood and his wife have managed to balance their work and family lives.

Jane Murdoch, a mining securities lawyer, met her future husband when they articled together. She was a partner at Lawson Lundell until this spring when she left the firm to join Cassels Brock.

The job switch will likely add to an already hectic “go, go, go” household. Hannah, 17, Sam 15, and Daniel 8, are all busy, athletic kids, and the family works together to manage the chaos at a reasonable level.

Skolrood has coached Hannah in softball for years, encouraged Sam’s passions for hockey and baseball, and this year has gone full circle, returning to coach Daniel’s baseball team.

Busy as his life can get, nothing has really suffered except for his golf game — a subject Skolrood admits he really never tires talking about. 

Last year, for his 50th birthday, he, Jane and another couple travelled to California’s Monterey Peninsula where, over three magical days, they played the famed Pebble Beach, Links at Spanish Bay and Spyglass Hill golf courses.

“That was one of the most special weekends in my life,” he says, adding that he made a follow-up visit to Pebble Beach with some buddies earlier this year. 

Those two trips made him determined to play more golf, Skolrood says. That means his handicap will likely be brought up over dinner with friends — at least until fall when a more serious game resumes at the Court of Appeal. 

Michael Dempster is a freelance writer based in Calgary.
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