September 30, 2012

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: Interview with Richard Pound

A senior tax litigator in the Montreal office of Stikeman Elliott, Richard Pound boasts a host of professional and personal accomplishments. A world-class swimmer, he represented Canada in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. He's served at the highest levels of the International Olympic Committee (including chairing the committee that investigated bribery by cities seeking to host games) and the World Anti-Doping Agency. For his unyielding pursuit to purge sports of performance-enhancing drugs, Pound was named one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in 2005." The chancellor of McGill University from 1999 to 2009, Pound has also authored several books on history and tax law and writes Pound's Tax Case Notes, well-read summaries and reviews of all Tax Court of Canada decisions.

What inspired you to attend law school and practice law?

My father was an engineer in a pulp and paper business, the result of which was we spent a lot of time in small, stinking towns gazillions of miles from anywhere. So I decided I would not be an engineer if that's what a successful engineer got stuck with.

Then I met somebody in this small town where I lived in British Columbia at that time, who was what we call a chartered accountant, which is the same as a CPA in the States, and I got interested in that as a profession. So by the time I got to university, I was going to become a chartered accountant. About two years into that process, I thought I really should have something that would be a hedge against obsolescence. I must say I've been very happy with that decision. If you have to work for a living, being a lawyer is a pretty good choice of what to do and I've always felt that way.

Why did you decide to specialize in tax litigation?

That grew out of the combination of accounting and law. When I started practicing law, I wasn't terrified by financial statements like some of my friends who did history and political science were. I could look at a balance sheet. I understood the computational nature of tax problems. And as for the litigation side, it's quite a lot of fun to break a problem into its constituent parts and then reassemble those parts in a way that can be understood by a judge who may or may not be a tax specialist.

What were your early years in practice like and how does that compare to the practice of law for new lawyers today?

We may have been a little more solution-oriented than process-oriented.

What has been the most fulfilling moment in your work so far?

There's a constant stream of fulfilling moments. It's not just a single homerun. I've always enjoyed the breakthrough when you've assembled the facts and then all of a sudden you can see your way to a resolution of the problem. That's an immensely satisfying thing and it happens a lot so it's reinforcing when you're in practice.

What are three essentials that every business lawyer needs to know?

First, listen, even when you're reading something. You also have to be able to analyze the essential facts, which means you've got to also discard facts that are not essential for the solution because otherwise you just get system overload. And then finally—and it's an art—you've got to be able to express yourself clearly and simply so that somebody can figure out what it is you've said and also what you haven't said.

What changes do you see on a horizon for the legal profession?

There's going to be an exacerbation of the division between commodity work and the value-added work, and it's going to require lawyers doing commodity work to become better and more cost-effective, more process-effective. Also, the slope of the partnership is going to become steeper. The ones at the top will be very well rewarded and those who are not able to contribute meaningfully to that value-added work are going to be less well rewarded unless of course they can perform miracles with the commodity work.

What were some of the highlights of your swimming career?

The first highlight was getting across the pool the first time without drowning. I was worried enough that I got across the pool as fast as I could and the swimming coach mistook fear for talent and I was invited to be part of the swimming team. I grew up in this little town in Northern British Columbia that had maybe 400 kids and it had one indoor 60-foot pool. But in every Canadian Olympics, Commonwealth, and Pan American Games team from 1948 to 1976, there was at least one swimmer from that community pool. The coach there expected us to do well, the town expected us to do well, and we expected to do well. So the result was if you expect to perform well, you're far more likely to do so than if you hope to perform well.

After that, the highlights were to go to the Pan American Games in 1959 and the Olympics in 1960. Two years later, I won four medals at the Commonwealth Games.

What are some life lessons that you learned from your years as an athlete?

One of the things you learn that is you don't start practicing for an Olympic final a month before. You get out of the sport--in terms of results--what you put in. Also, dealing with success can be even trickier than dealing with failure. I've seen a lot of people go off the rails because they've been too successful too early and they don't know how to handle it. You learn from each time you fail and you learn a lot when you succeed, and one of the things you learn is to be careful about running around with a trumpet.

Explain why anti-doping has become a mission for you.

In sports, there's an agreement on the rules, and one of the rules that we've agreed on over time is that we don't use performance-enhancing drugs, partly because they're dangerous in the quantities that would be taken and partly because that's our deal. I find it offensive to have people agree to the rules and then deliberately break them.

I don't want my children to have to stockpile chemicals to be successful in sports simply because there are a whole bunch of sociopaths who don't care what they promise.

Would you characterize this year's Olympic Games in London as a success and, if so, how do you measure success?

They were very successful. They delivered the games on schedule and under budget, even though London was experiencing some of the worst economic conditions in living memory. They got good television revenues, good sponsorship revenues. They got the construction, the heavy lifting done early. The security was superbly done, especially considering that in the States, the objective is to keep the bad guys out, but in London, the bad guys are already there and they're embedded. Also, the home team did well and that's always a factor in having successful games.

What did you learn from your decade as chancellor of McGill University?

It's a daily pleasure to be associated with smart kids and smart faculty. McGill University is probably the most international of all the Canadian universities. So it's a terrific international experience and we've learned to turn out world-class work with a budget that's per student about 10 percent of what it is in Harvard, for example. It's a community of ideas and that's what generates the magic and the feeling of moving forward.

Discuss your writing process and how you fit writing books into what's obviously an already packed schedule.

There's a lot of time out there. The key with time is not to waste it. The biggest problem for lawyers is that they're really good at taking a document and tinkering with it to make marginal improvements. But the great majority can't look at a blank screen and create something from nothing. Fortunately, I don't have that kind of writer's block.

How are you involved in developing opportunities for young lawyers?

Primarily through teaching, through writing, through mentoring, through showing that you can do other things in your life and still be an excellent lawyer. I help them develop an enthusiasm for the profession. Why is it fun to be a lawyer? What are the great things we can do? How do they help clients? How do they help the community?

What has been the highlight of your work as a Business Law Section Advisor?

The chance to meet a lot of extraordinary people who are at the top of the profession and to get the different perspectives on the variations of business law.

What would you say is a commonality among the most successful business lawyers that you know?

They're all intelligent and they are of the ready, aim, fire approach, in that order--not, as we've seen in many forms of activity, the ready, fire, aim, or even worse.

Who is your idol in the legal profession?

I don't really have an idol. It's kind of an incremental thing. People you admire are the ones who can present a good argument for or against the particular proposition. People who can draft well, when you read something that they've put in a letter, a memo, an article, a contract, and you say, "Boy, I wish I'd said it that way." And when you see people in deal situations exercising good judgment. If you're willing to go with osmosis, there's no limit to how you can grow.

Who was your most influential teacher?

Frank Scott was a professor of constitutional law in Canada, one of the leading scholars of his day, one of Canada's leading poets and essayists, somebody who championed human rights cases. He was one of the founders of what's now our New Democratic Party and he was just fabulous.

In our firm, we had a lawyer by the name of George Tamaki, the first Japanese lawyer admitted to partnership in Canada and every sentence he wrote just weighed a ton. His letters would be a page and a half. You'd say, "Oh gee, that's a pretty complex problem. I wonder if he's thought of--oh yes--oh yes, there it is." And so we learned to try and think as vigorously as he did and have the judgment that he did. One of the litmus tests within our tax group was, "What would George say about this?"

And then the swimming coach that I mentioned from the small town in Northern British Columbia. He taught me that it's not where you come from, it's what you bring to the party.

What is the most unique thing about you?

I don't know that I'm unique at all, but I would say that I get up every morning looking forward to what the day will bring. When I get to the office and the phone rings, I don't know whether it's going to be somebody with a tax problem or somebody looking to arbitrate a commercial or sports dispute or whether it's a problem at McGill University, whether it's a doping issue coming from the World Anti-Doping Agency, whether it's a legal or commercial or sports problem from the International Olympic Committee. It's almost like a lottery of fun and important issues. So I can hardly wait to get to work everyday.

What is on your bucket list?

I don't have a bucket list. Maybe when I get old I'll have one but I'm not prepared to say that I've reached that despite the evidence of the birth certificate. Somehow I enjoy what I'm doing currently. Also, because I'm with the International Olympic Committee, I've been to a lot of places that I would never have been to otherwise. I've been to 80 or 90 countries over the years for Olympic travel. So I've probably been to a lot of the places that others without that opportunity would put on a bucket list.