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A long life in law

Still practising law after 69 years, Gordon Pullan, QC, reminds us how much the legal profession has evolved.

Managing director of PKF Thomas G. Frohlinger stands with Gordon Pullan who has been practising law for seven decades
Managing director of PKF Thomas G. Frohlinger (left) stands with Senior Partner Gordon Pullan, QC, (right) who has been practising law for seven decades

The practice of law has evolved so much since 1951 that it's "not even the same profession," says Gordon Pullan.


Now a senior partner at PKF Lawyers in Winnipeg, 95-year-old Pullan describes his early days of practising as extremely collegial, with an "absolute trust" in other lawyers—a far cry from today's adversarial system. Back then, if something was wrong in a court case's documents, the lawyer on the other side would "phone and say, 'hey, take a look at your document, did you really mean that?'"


Pullan says lawyers didn't get the rigorous academic training lawyers now receive, "so in a trial, most of it was decided on facts, not on law. And walking into court with a couple of law books, the other guy would start laughing and saying 'you must have a really weak case if you're bringing books in.'" 


A Canadian Bar Association member since 1955, Pullan was made a life member once he reached the 50-year mark. "I was very happy always to be a member. Paid my dues, I got all the material and read it, and I knew that there was a body to represent me that carries weight." He has never had to appear before a disciplinary committee, which is "my one major claim to fame in the profession."


Pullan did not originally set out to become a lawyer. After serving in the Air Force and the Navy near the end of the war, he learned that he could get a discharge if he was accepted to university. He ended his military career and put his $60 a month living allowance towards education.


He "literally fell into law" after suffering through the unhappiest year of his life studying engineering. One day, he bumped into an old friend on Portage Avenue who was off to register at law school. Pullan serendipitously decided to walk with him and, since he had taken the necessary university credits, decided to sign up for law school on the spot. 


Other than the history of law course, Pullan says, "I enjoyed every course we took. And I've enjoyed it ever since." With a law school faculty of just two (not including part-time lecturers), students took morning classes and worked in a law office in the afternoon. In a class of about 80 students, only two were women.


Since he couldn't find a job at a firm, he started a solo practice with "a desk, a chair for myself, two chairs for clients, and a telephone." He didn't even own a typewriter but the company he was renting an office from allowed him to use theirs during lunch and after hours. He did his own typing for almost two years before hiring a secretary. 


All the new lawyers started out with no clients, so "we did whatever walked in the door. We even did income tax returns." Eventually, "someone knew someone who needed a lawyer." That client had no money but promised he would send enough work to make up for it, so after representing him, he carried on a criminal law practice for almost two years until commercial work started coming in regularly. Once Pullan was able to make $2,000 a year, he could get married and start a family with Esther, his high school sweetheart. But with four children and two mortgages, he had to work long hours. "Once in that period, I went 10 years without a holiday.


The key to Pullan's longevity in practice? Resiliency, says his eldest daughter, Manitoba Provincial Court Judge Heather Pullan. She adds that despite the changing dynamics of practising law—relationships between counsel, shifting diversity and evolving technology—somehow "he found a way to adapt to all of it. He's managed to work his way through all of that, for better or worse, to the position that he's at now." Pullan had to call on that resiliency in the wake of an office fire that destroyed his firm's files.


Judge Pullan says her father has always enjoyed engaging with others. "He really develops strong relationships with the people he works with and with his clients and it's his investment in those human relationships that surround him in practice that gives him the most pleasure." One of his most important qualities is his strength of character. "He has quite a strong belief system and he's not shy to let you know where you stand with him. He has a very clear vision of how things ought to be. In a good way."


Pullan has dedicated much time to community organizations, including board memberships and acting as an honorary solicitor. He was very active in a number of Jewish organizations because of his close ties to the community. For his contributions, in 1998 Pullan was awarded the Sol Kanee Distinguished Community Service Medal, the highest recognition the Jewish community bestows.


Pullan is "loved and respected by his peers and the firm's assistants," says Tom Frohlinger, his son-in-law and managing director of PKF. "He connects with each on a personal level and is able to provide pragmatic advice to the lawyers and personal advice based on a lifetime of human experience." He "does not dwell on previous acrimony," Frohlinger adds. "He says his piece and moves on and leverages his personal relationships to continue to achieve positive results. He does not let his ego get in the way of moving forward, either professionally or personally."


These days, Pullan declares himself "semi-retired," only working Monday to Friday from nine to six. He typically works on a couple of estates, a bit of real estate, and some family law, but he doesn't go to court anymore. He tells people he'll retire when he gets old. "Somehow, my head keeps going and I remember what I had to do or what I did." He says his natural curiosity has helped over the years. "My work involves sticking my nose in everybody's business, and they pay me. I think it's a good way to spend your life."


Frohlinger says Pullan has an "overarching curiosity about all things in his professional and personal life. He has a need to know how things work—or not work—and why," including the many technological advances that have taken place over the years. 


In a speech to the firm's incoming students each year, Pullan tells them not to expect a nine-to-five day or a five-day week. "The only thing I can promise you is you're going to have a tough week working hard but you'll never be bored."


Pullan is modest about his lengthy career success, attributing it all to luck. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and made the right decisions."