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Remembering legal legend Neil Finkelstein

Neil Finkelstein

Neil Finkelstein used to tell the story of a case he argued early in his career. It went terribly. The judges attacked him with questions and, when he was finished, threw out the appeal without even asking the other side to respond.

“When it was over, I had to drive to Montreal for my brother’s wedding,” Neil would say. “I sat there in the car, fuming. And then I thought to myself, ‘You know what? Either I’m stupid, or they’re stupid – and I’m not stupid.’ ”

That was Neil. He was a master storyteller, which made him a world-class litigator. He wasn’t afraid to tell his juniors about his worst days in court, so that we were better prepared to learn from our own failures – to get “blood on our shoes,” as he would say. Neil had a stubborn confidence that was contagious. When he made it clear that he believed in you as deeply as he believed in himself, it was electrifying.

Neil died last week. He withdrew from practicing law about a year ago, at the height of his career. We have missed him every day since.

Neil’s life as an advocate was, in a word, extraordinary. Yet, his most significant and lasting achievements were as a teacher and, as was obvious to anyone who knew him, as a husband, father and grandfather. Simply put, each and every lawyer who worked with Neil is different, and better, because of him – not just better advocates for our clients and for the rule of law, but better spouses and parents, too.

Neil joined our law firm, McCarthy Tétrault, in 2009. To say that his reputation preceded him would be a massive understatement – he was a living legend, a giant of our profession and a senior litigator who was held in unsurpassed esteem by lawyers, judges, academics and clients alike. He was a big macher who needed nothing, and had nothing to learn, from us.

But from the moment he walked through our doors, Neil was as ferocious in his loyalty and collegiality as he was in his advocacy. He made it abundantly clear that his objective was to deploy his reputation in the service of his new colleagues, to raise our collective game and to attract work that would give us all more opportunities to grow and shine. “We’re going to make you famous,” he would boast, as though there could be nothing more important in the world. Neil saw advocacy as artistry. He was the director, the set designer and the star, but he shared the spotlight as generously as anyone ever could. In the nine years that he was our colleague, Neil demonstrated over and over again that he thought it was a privilege to be associated with us – a view that could never withstand scrutiny, but that was hugely empowering nonetheless.

As lawyers, we cannot hope to replace Neil, individually or collectively. On our best days, we cannot aspire to his acumen or his skill. But if we can even approach his success as a husband and a father – and as a mensch – then we will rate our lives a success.

Unlike most of us, Neil turned his desk away from the window, so that his view would not be of the skyline or the lake, but of the artwork on his office walls – artwork created by his cherished wife of 40 years, Marie. (In addition to being a brilliant legal mind in her own right, Marie is also a talented artist.) On his shelves, Neil’s books – the ones he wrote himself – ceded the prime real estate to photos of his children and their spouses – Jonathan and Natasha, Emily and Rocky, and Sara – as well as his grandchildren – Ty and Jacob Neil. It was impossible to spend time with Neil and not hear about his loved ones’ most recent successes. He cherished his family more than his most exciting cases and treasured them more than any professional accolade. They were his proudest achievement. In that, he set an example that shaped everyone around him.

Whenever he argued a case, Neil wore a pair of monogrammed cufflinks that had belonged to his grandfather, Arthur Crelinsten. His grandfather had always wanted to be a lawyer, but never got the chance. When he died, Neil, who had previously been more interested in playing bridge than in his studies, turned his full attention to achieving what his grandfather could not. And so, although Arthur Crelinsten did not live to see it come to fruition, Neil brought his zayde’s dream to work with him his entire career, pairing his “AC” cufflinks with his barrister’s robes, and always arriving in court at least half an hour early, so that he could treat every courtroom the way his grandfather would have: as hallowed ground.

The message was clear: our privilege is to be links in the unbroken chain that joins generation to generation, and our highest duty is never to ourselves, but to those who came before and those who will follow after.

Neil never failed in that duty. Because we knew him, neither will we. May his memory be a blessing.

Sarit E. Batner, Eric S. Block and Adam Goldenberg are litigators at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto.

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