Skip to Content

In person :Thomas Cromwell

Retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas Cromwell was made a companion of the Order of Canada in December “for his illustrious service as a Supreme Court justice, and for his leadership in improving access to justice for all Canadians.” The former chair of the Canadian Bar Review Editorial Board now serves as counsel with Borden Ladner Gervais in Vancouver.

Photo of Retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas Cromwell

The National: Name three books that influenced you and tell us why.

Thomas Cromwell: It’s hard to limit it to three! To keep it to law books, one would be S.F.C. Milsom’s Historical Foundations of the Common Law. It confirmed for me the wisdom of Holmes’ remark that sometimes a page of history is worth a volume of logic. Lawyers and especially judges need to understand why and how the law got to be the way it is. This book, more than anything else, taught me that. A second would be Ronald Dworkin’s Taking Rights Seriously. Dworkin’s thinking about the nature of law and legal analysis has influenced me throughout my career. Finally, Stephen Armstrong and Tim Terrell’s Thinking Like a Writer is the best book on legal writing that I have seen. Don’t judge it by my writing!

N: What did you learn from a big mistake?

TC: Fortunately I haven’t made many big mistakes! I did make a really bad career decision quite early on. That experience taught me to trust my instincts. That little inner voice was telling me that this wasn’t a good idea. I should have listened and I have ever since.

N: What advice would you give your younger self?

TC: Don’t sweat the small stuff. I think most of us worry too much about things over which we have very little control. Will I get into this university as opposed to that one? Will I get the articling job with this firm as opposed to that one? Will I be asked back? Will I make partner? Will I get appointed to the bench. Etc. etc. We have little control over most of these things and, in the end, most of them don’t matter very much in the larger scheme of things. We all have our disappointments in career and in life. The key is to develop the ability to do one’s best and keep going. The older I get the more I understand how important resilience is.

N: What new skill would you like to learn and why?

TC: I would like to learn to write for a general audience. It is hard to shake the habits acquired through 19 years of writing judgments. There are so many important legal issues facing our society, first among them is access to justice. We “insiders” need to engage much more and much more effectively with the broader public. They need to understand why an effective legal system is important to them and legal insiders need to better understand the needs and preferences of members of the public who
the system exists to serve.

N: If you could change one thing about the practice of law what would it be?

TC: I feel enormously lucky to be practising with the wonderful group of lawyers at Borden Ladner Gervais. So in my personal professional setting, I wouldn’t change a thing. Thinking more systemically, the profession needs to understand better the range of legal needs in society and do more to meet those needs in cost-effective ways. According to all the research I have seen, there is a very large unserviced market for legal services. Both the profession and the public would gain if we learned how to provide those services in a way that makes sense both to those in need of those services and to those who provide them.