J. Edgar Sexton recounts his exciting career as a lawyer and judge

February 29, 2016

Mistakes are an inevitable part of life—ones that can either ruin you or make you stronger, depending on your approach. J. Edgar Sexton has mastered the art of turning his mistakes into amazing opportunities—and his efforts have been rewarded with an incredibly colourful, successful career.

His first seized opportunity occurred in his fourth year of Engineering at Queens University—a degree he pursued after developing an interest in engineering in high school. It was after taking a course on engineering law in his final semester that he decided to leave engineering altogether and pursue a career in law instead.

“The course addressed the legal duties and liabilities of an engineer and I found that way more fascinating than anything I learned in engineering. So I decided I would rather be a lawyer than an engineer.”

After completing his law degree in 1963, he articled at McCarthy’s under a lawyer by the name of John Robinette, one of the most prominent litigators in Canada at the time. At the end of the year, John’s junior left to become a judge at the Ontario Court of Appeal, and Edgar was offered the position.

“It was a marvelous offer, but my first wife didn’t want to live in Toronto. She wanted me to practice in London, where I grew up. So I turned the position down and ended up joining a two-man firm in general practice in London,” he recounts. “I didn’t enjoy it. I realized I wanted more interesting work—work I couldn’t really find except in Toronto. At that point, turning down Robinette looked like a big mistake.”

Not one for harbouring regrets, Edgar brushed himself off and started getting the word out that he was looking for a job in Toronto. Soon, a former classmate connected him with Bert McKinnon, a partner in the Toronto firm McKinnon McTaggart, who was looking for a junior. Edgar landed the job—and, by doing so, launched a very prosperous career.

What goes around comes around
While Edgar’s career is full of many interesting twists and turns, one of the most influential events may have been a pro bono case he took during his time at McKinnon McTaggart.

It all started when a young man came into the firm looking for a lawyer. Because Edgar was available, the receptionist called him—and he ended up taking the case.

“The fellow told me that a City of Toronto council member had voted on something in which the councilor had a personal interest. This fellow knew, for a fact, that it was a conflict of interest, and he wanted to get the council member disqualified. There was only one problem: he had no money and couldn’t pay me at all,” Edgar says.

After consulting with his boss, who was not averse to taking on interesting cases for free, Edgar took the case.

“What made the case interesting was, at the time, the law wasn’t clear if you could disqualify a person with a personal interest,” Edgar explains.

“So I created an argument for disqualification—and I won. The case was appealed and I won the appeal too. But I still didn’t get any money.”

Fast forward two years later, to a time when Edgar received a call from an individual who worked for the federal government. He wanted help with a case that dealt with price fixing in the residential real estate industry.

“I didn’t understand how he got my name. And, because I was a young lawyer, I was afraid to ask—I thought he probably had the wrong person,” Edgar recalls. “It wasn’t until I secured the case that I eventually asked him why he had requested my help. He said, ‘you acted for my brother for free two years ago.’”

The federal government ended up retaining Edgar on a number of matters including a prosecution of three large international companies that were charged with price fixing. Edgar obtained the largest fine for such a case that had ever been levied up to that point in time. Further to that, one of the companies he had prosecuted later asked him to represent them.

Finding Osler
Edgar spent 10 years at McKinnon McTaggart, eventually leaving after his boss, Bert McKinnon, was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. He spent a few years as General Counsel at Houlden Murdoch before joining Osler in 1979.

While at Houlden Murdoch, Edgar received a cryptic message to call a certain Mr. Irving concerning a matrimonial case. It took him a while to figure out who Mr. Irving was.

“Mr. Irving was a member of the prominent Irving family in New Brunswick. Robinette had acted for him on many large cases but, due to a conflict of interest, passed the case on to me,” Edgar explains

It was a case that ultimately greatly helped Edgar’s legal career. After it was over, the Irvings sent a great deal of very important work to Edgar—and there was a lot of it. With that amount of case work—and that high profile of a client—he was a highly-coveted asset to any firm.

“Sometime later, I was talking with a couple of lawyers with Osler, discussing the future of law, and they asked if I’d ever think about coming on board. I said sure,” he recalls. “I didn’t expect much to come out of the conversation, but then they asked me to meet the managing partner—and he ended up offering me a job in litigation as a partner.”

Edgar enjoyed his time at Osler—and experienced a lot of success there. In 1982, he was elected to the executive committee, and in 1986 was made chairman of the  firm. He held that position for 12 years—being elected every two years until 1998, when he left to become a judge.

“Osler had one of the most impressive arrays of talent I’d ever seen. The litigation group was excellent and congenial. I never tired of working with them,” he says.

“My practice grew really fast during my time there, so I had to do a lot of hiring. But I always tried to make the juniors who worked with me enjoy their work. I’ve always believed that if you have fun at work, you’ll do a much better job.”

The judicial path
The first time Edgar was approached to become a judge, he turned the opportunity down. It was about 1986, he’d just been named chair at Osler, and his practice was booming. When his former boss and mentor, Bert McKinnon, encouraged him to apply for a position on the Ontario Court of Appeal, Edgar just didn’t think it was the right time.

In 1998, his opinion on the matter had changed. Having been chairman for 12 years, he decided he was ready for a change—and had conversations with the chief justices of both the Ontario and Federal Courts of Appeal.

“They both encouraged me to apply to their courts, so I did,” he says. “I’ve always liked legal problems, as opposed to lengthy factual problems, so I decided not to apply to be a trial judge. A vacancy came up at the Federal Court of Appeal first, so that’s where I was appointed.”

Edgar greatly enjoyed his time as a judge—and working in the Federal Court of Appeal suited his interests. Because appeals are only half a day, or a few days at the most, he was able to see more problems during his time on the bench, which kept things interesting for him.

“People often asked if it’s harder to be a judge than a litigation lawyer, and I would say no—it’s actually easier,” he says. When asked why it was easier, he would reply, “because I don’t have to win anymore.”

“Lawyers can’t pick the point of law they want to argue because they have to take their client’s side. Judges, however, have to do what they think is the right thing. They can’t favour one side or the other. So being able to choose the right answer is very satisfying.”

Refusing to quit
After 13 years as a judge, Edgar retired—but he continues to keep busy. He has been doing arbitration and mediation work with JAMS where, recently, some of his work hours are spent offering consulting services to litigators—advising them on how to present cases, draft factums for the Court of Appeal or make oral arguments. He also advises on policy matters for the Intellectual Property Department of the federal government.

If he has one piece of advice for aspiring judges, he recommends choosing a specialty—either in litigation or a niche practice like copyright law or patents. He also recommends acquiring a lot of court experience.

“People think political connections may help, and that’s true to a degree. Connections can help you get the ear of the politicians making the appointment—and the support of the political party in power at the time of your desired appointment,” he says. “That being said, I had no political connections when I got my appointment.

Edgar Sexton recently read: Thunderstruck, by Eric Larson.
It’s a non-fiction book about Marconi, who invented the wireless system of communication. He didn’t have a real education, but felt communication could occur by means of airwaves. He kept experimenting and convinced himself it would work, but had trouble persuading others.

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