Memories of Robson Hall
Top Vancouver Tax Lawyer Joel Nitikman, Q.C., learned life lessons at UM Faculty of Law
Lexpert lists Joel Nitikman, Q.C. as one of Canada’s leading tax litigation and corporate tax lawyers. Recently awarded the designation of Queen’s Counsel in British Columbia, the Dentons partner has twice-received The Canadian Tax Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award. A former Governor of the CTF’s board, he has been an adjunct professor of Tax Litigation and International Tax at UBC’s Allard School of Law, and in 2012, received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal from the CTF. When he graduated top of his class as Gold Medalist in Law from Robson Hall in 1985, no one could have known that this once-aspiring mathematician had started down this illustrious career path by taking the LSAT on a whim.
Though he hadn’t recently been in touch with any law school alumni, the BC Ministry of Attorney General’s announcement of his Q.C. designation prompted a classmate to get in touch and talk about getting together with the pockets of Robson Hallers in the Vancouver/Victoria area. A conversation with an old friend, Acting Dean David Asper, Q.C., directed Nitikman to the Faculty’s 2020 Homecoming recording that featured Jack London, (another) Q.C., who was dean when Nitikman was a law student. This brought back memories that Nitikman was compelled to share.
Speaking by phone from Vancouver in early January of 2021, his voice rises with the excitement of a first-year law student when he recalls his first impressions arriving at Robson Hall in the fall of 1982. “The first thing that happened is, I walked in down the hall and saw this gold medal thing there and I saw my uncle’s name: it said I. Nitikman. And I thought, Oh, crap. Now I got some big shoes to fill here. I’m in serious trouble.”
Under (No) Pressure
Israel Nitikman [LLB/1929] was Joel’s father’s uncle, who had become a famous judge in Manitoba. Joel’s own uncle, Phil Schacter [LLB/68] had attended Robson Hall and was a well-known criminal prosecutor in Winnipeg. To top it all off, Joel’s mother, Shelley Nitikman was a Robson Hall grad, class of 1972. “So I was pretty nervous about the whole thing,” he said.
Though he grew up in Winnipeg’s North End (and later Tuxedo) and spent summers at Falcon Lake, the family moved to Vancouver when he was about 12 when his father, an accountant and close friend of Israel Asper’s [LLB/57, LLM/64], was promoted. Nitikman majored in mathematics and graduated with a BSc from the University of British Columbia in 1982. Wandering across UBC campus one day during his final year, he found himself having second thoughts about his chosen career as a mathematician. “I realized I wasn’t smart enough,” he said. “I thought, oh my god, I’m going to graduate in eight months. What the heck am I going to do?”
He spotted a sign outside a physics lecture theatre that said “LSATs being written today.” Only knowing what that was because his mother was a lawyer, he walked in, deciding on a whim to try it out. Despite not having registered or studied for the test, Joel convinced the test administrators to let him in. “They looked at each other like I was nuts,” he said.
He wrote it and got accepted at the University of Manitoba, his mother’s alma mater. During his first week of law school, he found himself in conversation in the Common Room with other 1Ls talking about their LSAT experiences. “What prep course did you take?” someone asked him. Nitikman had no idea what they were talking about. “I don’t know. I didn’t take one,” he recalled telling them. “They all looked at each other like I was completely bonkers. I was the only one in first year who hadn’t taken an LSAT prep course. I didn’t even know there was such a thing.”
Later in life, Nitikman ended up teaching part of the LSAT preparatory course. The humour of the situation is not lost on him.
The impromptu start of Nitikman’s law school career set a precedent for how his time at Robson Hall unfolded: making split-second, impulsive decisions that altered his life in ways he would never have imagined. As he related his favourite moments, some major impressions stood out.
To this day, Nitikman remembers the welcome address Dean Jack London, Q.C. gave to his first-year class at a time when law school was portrayed in Hollywood films as a cutthroat environment where the norm was to tear others down to get ahead, as demonstrated in The Paper Chase. That didn’t fly at Robson Hall, especially under London’s governance. Thirty-eight years later, Nitikman still remembers him telling the class on orientation day, “Look at the person on your left, look at the person on your right. In three years, all three of you will still be here and you will all graduate.”
Robson Hall’s resident British Lord, Professor John Irvine, made a huge impact on the future tax lawyer. “He taught a course called personal property, kind of an obscure topic that very few lawyers ever deal with,” said Nitikman. “Actually, I deal with it all the time.”
Nitikman found the case-based course to be a good introduction on how to read and analyze case law. He also found both the subject matter and the professor to be lots of fun, recalling how Irvine would come to school wearing hip-waders from his farm, speaking with an English accent which the North-Ender had never heard before. “It was all very interesting, and the process of legal analysis kind of suited me.”
His complete and utter inability to gauge his understanding of the law bewildered Nitikman throughout law school. Exiting his Criminal Law exam, he swaggered with confidence: “I said to somebody, ‘They’re going to have to invent a grade higher than A-plus, because I did so well on that exam.’ I think I ended up getting a C in the course.”
“And then when I walked out of my administrative law exam, I went to the professor and said, ‘You have to let me re-write this. I don’t know what happened. I know the material, but I just had some brain aneurysm in the middle of this exam. I’m sure I failed. I know this material, you have to let me write this again.’ And he said, ‘Well, let me mark the exam and we’ll see how it goes.’ I ended up getting an A-plus.”
“So that only goes to show you I had absolutely no idea about what was going on,” he said.
Real Life Lessons
One of the most important lessons Nitikman learned at Robson Hall arose from a conversation he had with Professor Cameron Harvey, who was Associate Dean Academic at the time, and who taught – then as now – Agency and Partnership law. Nitikman challenged Harvey on the necessity of closed book exams, which nearly all law courses at the time had. “I said, ‘Explain to me why this needs to be a closed book exam. In real life, when I’m sitting in my office – if I ever get to be a lawyer – it’s not going to be a closed book exam. I’m going to have law books on my shelves. Somebody will come in and ask me a question, and I’ll be able to look at the book. So why do we have to write closed book exams? That makes no sense.”
Nitikman recalls Harvey’s answer thus: “He said, ‘Yes, that’s true. But when a client comes in to see you, they expect you to have a certain amount of fundamental knowledge right off your fingertips. They don’t expect you to say, ‘Oh, I don’t know the answer to that. Let me look it up.’ If there’s some obscure random question, yeah, that’s okay. But if it’s some basic question about the law, you can’t always say to them, let me look that up. They’ll look at you like you’re an idiot, like you’re not even a lawyer. There’s a certain amount of fundamental basic knowledge that clients will expect you to know, right off the top of your head. And if you don’t know that, you can’t come across as somebody they can trust to be their lawyer.’”
Nitikman was floored. “That’s a great answer,” he told Harvey. “Why didn’t somebody tell us that in first year? Why did I have to wait ‘til third year to learn that?”
“And that was 35 years ago, and it stuck with me ever since. I tell that to my students, and I tell that to my juniors, and I say, this is the lesson I learned 35 years ago, and it’s a good lesson. It’s been true all these years and I’m passing it on to you. That was maybe one of the most important conversations I ever had in law school.”
Thirty-five years after law school, Nitikman’s own advice to pass on to current-day Robson Hallers is this:
For first-year students: “You get assigned homework almost every day in law school, you have to read a chapter, you have to do this, you have to do that. My own advice to new first year students is: don’t go home. This was my personal rule. Don’t go home until you’ve finished your homework that day. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s midnight, or 1am. Because if you leave it till the next day, you got more homework, and then you leave that and you say, oh, I’ll do it on the weekend. By that time, you got five days of homework and it becomes impossible.”
For all law students: “You know that the first part of the word of lawyer is law. And yet, I found over the years, and I don’t know quite why this is, that many lawyers don’t want to practice the law, they’re not interested in law. They want to do big deals, they want to negotiate business arrangements, or do anything other than practice law. But that’s not what we’re here [for]. You want to do that, go get an MBA. Which is fine. But there’s no point in being a lawyer, if you’re scared to deal with the technical aspects of the law. So my own recommendation is, study hard in law school, learn as much law as you can. Because that’s going to be the foundation for whatever you do as a lawyer.”
The Gold Medal Story
As a matter of priorities, Nitikman never went to his law school convocation at which he was supposed to have been presented with the Gold Medal for receiving top marks in the Law Faculty graduating class. Again, he had no idea where his marks stood. He was bent on seeing Europe for the first time in his life. “I’d never really been anywhere,” he said. “I’d never done anything except go to school. So when I graduated from law school, I went on a Contiki trip to Europe for two months.”
He was in Austria boarding a tour bus when he got a telegram from his mother saying, “You won the gold medal. There’s going to be a celebration. Come back right away.”
Needless to say, Nitikman did not cut his travels short, and speculates he may be the only Gold Medalist in Robson Hall history who didn’t show up for convocation.
A Quality Education
This is not at all to say he didn’t appreciate his time spent at Robson Hall. In 1993, when accepted into New York University to do a Master of Laws degree in US tax law, he was once again beset with the same jitters he arrived with at Robson Hall in 1982. “Oh, crap, I am in serious trouble,” he recalls saying to himself. “There were people there from Harvard. There were people there from Yale. There were people there from Boston University, which has one of the strongest undergraduate tax programs in the US. There were people there from Europe. And I walk in and I’m from Robson Hall in Winnipeg.”
As it turned out, he was fine. “The education I got at Robson Hall, stood me in good stead,” he said. Despite low Maclean’s magazine rankings, a small library, and the U of M not having as much money as the University of Toronto, for example, Nitikman said, “I always tell people, it doesn’t matter. You go to Robson Hall, you’re going to get an education that’s going to put you up there with Harvard and Yale, and Boston. And you can take my word for it, because I’ve been there. And I always thought that the education I got there has stood me in good stead for almost 40 years.”
A Final Winnipeg Moment: “Who is your favourite Asper?”
The thing about Winnipeg is that everyone knows everyone. A quintessential part of Winnipeg is the Asper family, and a quintessential part of Robson Hall is any number of Asper family members who either obtained their law degrees from the Faculty, taught there, or have worked with U of M Law graduates. That includes the Nitikmans.
When he was a kid, Joel’s family spent summers at Falcon Lake where his parents were friends with Babs and Israel Asper. The families were close, and in his impish way, Acting Dean David Asper wanted to ask our illustrious alumnus “Who is your favourite Asper?”
The answer was another story.
“When I was younger,” said Nitikman, the smile in his voice clearly audible, “I was a very competitive table tennis player. I played in tournaments and I won. I won the Manitoba Table Tennis Championships in my age group a couple of times.
“If you looked up the word competitive in the dictionary, Izzy’s name was there. It didn’t matter what you were doing: waterskiing, mixing drinks, it didn’t matter: he wanted to win, and it didn’t matter who his opponent was.
“One day we were in the basement of his cottage at Falcon Lake, and we were playing ping pong. And I was maybe 10 years old.
“I was pretty good at ping pong, relatively speaking. You know, at 10 years old for Falcon Lake and Winnipeg. And I beat him because he didn’t know how to play and I did. He was apoplectic; I thought he was gonna have a heart attack. I was scared. He was so mad.”
But when Joel’s father died, the elder Asper gave the eulogy at his friend’s funeral, which made a lasting impression on the 17-year-old Joel. He gave “a very mature eulogy, praising my father and talking about my father and what a great guy he was and how he had been so smart. I compared the two Izzys between what I had seen when I was 10, and what happened when I was 17 and I thought, ‘there’s more to this man than meets the eye.’ So when he died, I deliberately and very purposely went back from BC to the funeral to mourn Izzy because of the close connection between our families. But basically to honour him for having given such a warm eulogy at my father’s funeral. So I guess I would say Izzy is my favorite Asper. But Babs was certainly the nicest Asper for me.”