John Hunter, QC – A “lawyer’s lawyer”

by Jane Mundy

John Hunter, QC, the Law Society’s 2008 president, is walking to his desk at Hunter Litigation Chambers in Vancouver when he spots a garish witch sitting in one of the offices. It’s not what you would expect of a lawyer whose clients include business leaders and governments, who likes French wine and chamber music, and who regularly appears in the Supreme Court of Canada. But it’s Halloween and Hunter’s legal assistant, Shannon Rasmussen, is dressed as the evil fairy from Sleeping Beauty. “Hmm, we’ve got to do something about the dress code around here,” Hunter says with a faint smile.

Friends, family and co-workers agree: John Hunter is a lawyer’s lawyer. He is also the “ideal family man” and a “true friend.”

“Some lawyers will tell you exactly how they want you to do things, but John is very approachable,” says Rasmussen. “Everybody gets stressed out, but with John it only shows in the corners of his eyes — he is less stressed than others.”

Hunter’s office is decorated with several exceptional carvings, and he becomes animated when talking about First Nations art. “Here is a Dzunukwa — Wild Woman of the Woods — mask. My wife refuses to have it in the house and it scared some assistants in the office, so here she stays,” says Hunter, who developed his interest in First Nations art through 20 years of Aboriginal litigation. “I don’t know what my clients think when they come in and see all these masks, but I love them. They are fascinating.”

Hunter’s life has been equally interesting, and busy, too. After studying political science at Yale, followed by a year in international relations at the London School of Economics, he took his law degree at the University of Toronto. He has practised civil litigation and administrative law in Vancouver for 30 years. On top of his heavy caseload, he has taught advocacy at UBC law school, spoken at countless conferences and written numerous papers. By all accounts, he remains fully occupied with his work, which makes many people wonder how he will find time to be president of the Law Society.

Hunter says he’ll have to become a juggler. “When I became a Bencher, I wanted to do something for the profession, and I have great colleagues who have cut me some slack in terms of time at the office.”

“John enjoys being busy, whether it is the Law Society or his practice, and he is always called upon to talk at various events, from law school to continuing legal education courses,” says Rebecca Hunter, Director of Citizenship, Immigration and Public Safety at the Department of Justice and John’s wife of 31 years. She and John were classmates in law school, and she herself is a busy lawyer. Years ago, she says, her husband’s spare time was devoted to the kids’ activities and weekends were usually built around soccer games and other family activities. And he made a point of instilling in his children a moral code that he lives by: “He has an absolute determination to make sure the right thing is done in any circumstance, and you don’t try to get away with anything less — how being honest and forthright and responding to situations in an ethical way is most important,” Rebecca explains.

The couple’s daughter, Claire, is in New York practising law, another daughter is in the arts in England, and their son is working at the Pan Pacific Hotel here in Vancouver “to get work experience and think about what he wants to do when he goes back to school.”

“Growing up I heard stories about my dad’s cases, and I was always interested,” says Claire. “My dad has a great respect for the rule of law, and I think that is a value he imparted to us, part of the reason I became a lawyer.” She adds that even though her dad was busy, he came home for dinner most nights and coached her softball team in elementary school. “He made an effort to be involved in our activities — he was there for us.”

Although his children are now out of the house, John continues to have a rich family life, whether it means taking his son to a World Cup soccer game in Germany, attending a chamber music concert with his wife (Rebecca is a director of the Friends of Chamber Music Society), or travelling with family to a Seahawks game in Seattle.

Other interests include music, theatre and art. John speaks enthusiastically about chamber music: “There is an individuality of the players, and when they play as a group, they are having a musical conversation. But the whole needs to be more than the sum of its parts. There is an analogy to all sorts of work — a small group operates as a team but each person has to pull their own weight. In our firm, it also works that way — everyone does their part, but we work together.”

John also enjoys good theatre and plans trips around new productions. A few years ago, he and his wife travelled to London specifically to see a new Tom Stoppard trilogy. “He does research and reads a lot of reviews beforehand,” Rebecca says. “He is careful and wants to be well informed. Generally, we both like to know what we are getting into and plan ahead of time.”

A new activity for John in recent years is power boating. This interest came naturally because John’s parents had a power boat in Ontario when he was growing up. “Each year since coming out to British Columbia, I would look outside my office window at all the boats in English Bay and think, ‘One of these days….’ Finally, a couple of years ago, I decided it was time to attend the Power Squadron course and buy a boat. I haven’t gone out as much as I would like to, but hopefully my time will free up in the next few years.”

Unless John juggles his numerous responsibilities successfully, the boat may be anchored for much of next year and the following year because when his presidency is over, he’s hoping to take a long-delayed holiday in Australia.

Partner Peter Voith, QC likely won’t mind, knowing how much work John has put into the firm. They’ve known each other for 25 years and he has nothing to offer but praise. “John strives for excellence, and this firm is about that. We are seeking to engender a habit of excellence in young people,” Voith notes. “John performs a leadership role yet is also a low-key guy — it distinguishes him. And he is deceptive: a very good athlete and accomplished academically. He never talks about stuff like that, and he doesn’t wear anything on his sleeve; he doesn’t get excited or carried away.”

Other interests? He plays a little golf (“He doesn’t like to lose,” says Tobin Robbins, a partner at Heenan Blaikie and close friend), plays pick-up basketball when he can, and used to play squash with Voith. A longstanding enthusiasm is wine — visiting the wineries, enjoying the wine, admiring the skill and industry of the producers.

“I started laying wine down in the late 80s — mostly French Bordeaux — and over the years my interests expanded to Australian Shiraz and recently BC red wines, especially Pinot Noirs,” says John. I like the fact that we can make good wine in BC, which wasn’t the case when we moved here in the mid 1970s.” John even says that if he weren’t a lawyer, he’d want to be a winemaker. No doubt he would produce fabulous wine, but the legal profession would be all the poorer for it.

Lawyer’s lawyer: the definition

“We once talked about a lawyer’s most valuable characteristic,” explains John Hunter’s partner Peter Voith, at Hunter Litigation Chambers. “John said ‘judgment’ and that defines him. He is supremely reasonable and he is a wonderful advocate — his advocacy skills and ability to persuade are strong; he is very concise. Judges pick up their pencils when he speaks.”

“John is extremely intelligent and tenacious, but very principled and extremely eloquent on his feet in court,” says lawyer Tobin Robbins, of Heenan Blaikie.

The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson recalls that “A deputy attorney general once described John as ‘straight-laced in the best way, not about to get blown off stride easily and not going to play to the gallery.’ He isn’t wildly outside the mainstream — purposeful, reasonable and researched, but no iconoclast. He would be a great teacher at a law school. Frankly, I thought he would be a fantastic judge [and] with his capacity for legal reasoning, well-suited to a court of appeal. He has an extremely logical mind. It marches from point to point. He has a considerable reasoning capability and he loves the law — it fits his whole mental makeup.”

Rebecca Hunter describes her husband as an intellectual who thinks through issues. “He’s an independent thinker, not easily swayed by rhetoric. He is very modest — you wouldn’t know his accomplishments from him.”

“He is a true advocate in the sense that his love is to present the most persuasive arguments on behalf of his clients,” says outgoing president of the Law Society, Anna Fung, QC. “He is careful, thoughtful and is considered in his arguments and reasoning. He has a deep love for the law. He is the type of lawyer that other lawyers would hire in order to represent them in important appellate cases. I have no doubt that John Hunter will make a great president in terms of leading the society — I am leaving it in good hands.