John Nelligan’s genius in a courtroom was such that his one of his longtime colleagues looked to a completely different arena for an appropriate analogy to describe his prodigious talent.
“As a young lawyer, I felt like what it would feel like to be a rookie playing with Wayne Gretzky,” says Peter Cronyn, who spent decades working alongside Nelligan, a titan of Ottawa’s legal community who died on Jan. 7 at the age of 97.
“He was a brilliant man and really in a league of his own. It was just a great pleasure and an honour to be able to work with him in such close contact.”
Cronyn was one of many former co-workers left grasping for superlatives in their praise of Nelligan, who enjoyed a long and illustrious career as one of the capital’s most prominent lawyers.
Born in Hamilton in 1921, Nelligan was a gifted student who started high school at age 10 and eventually graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1949. After spending a few years in Toronto, he moved to Ottawa in the mid-1950s and opened his own practice in 1963. Six years later, he and original partner Denis Power launched Nelligan Power, the firm now known as Nelligan O’Brien Payne.
Over the years, Nelligan defended clients of all stripes in both criminal and civil cases, from regular Joes to well-known politicians such as former Liberal cabinet minister John Munro and senator Hazen Argue. His affable demeanour in the courtroom reminded some of big-screen everyman Jimmy Stewart, while his razor-sharp skills led one headline writer to dub him “Ottawa’s Perry Mason.”
Janice Payne, who worked her way up to partner after Nelligan and Power hired her as the firm’s first female lawyer in the early 1970s, says her longtime boss had an uncanny ability to distill a legal argument down to its “simplest and most compelling” essence.
“He wasn’t a lawyer that talked to hear the sound of his voice, ever,” she says. “He always had less to say than his opponents. He generally spoke from brief notes; he was utterly compelling; and judges were always riveted by what he had to say. They didn’t want to miss a word.”
Nelligan’s legendary powers of persuasion were so strong, Cronyn says, that one judge once told him he would wait at least 24 hours after hearing an argument from the famed lawyer before making a ruling just to be sure he wasn’t being unduly swayed by the force of his arguments.
Those on the stand weren’t immune from being dazzled by his brilliance, either.
“At the end of the cross-examination, the witness would be his friend,” says partner Al O’Brien, who first joined the firm as an articling student in 1973. “It was really skilful. The witness didn’t want to disappoint or upset John Nelligan, because he seemed to be so right and righteous. It was almost unfair at times, but he had that talent.”
In a career spanning nearly 70 years, Nelligan took on more than his share of high-profile cases. Among the highlights was his defence of Munro, who faced a slew of corruption charges related to his failed 1984 bid for the Liberal Party leadership. Nelligan succeeded in having most of the charges thrown out, and Munro was acquitted of the rest.
O’Brien says computers were just coming into common use in the legal industry at that time, but Nelligan quickly gained command of the new technology and immersed himself in the case despite not knowing if he would ever be fully compensated for defending Munro, who was nearly bankrupted by his legal expenses.
"He talked about the firm as being his other family."
“For what he did at his age and his commitment to that case and no money in it and learning computer skills, it was quite remarkable,” he says. “You just shake your head. How he had the energy and zeal to do that was remarkable.”
Away from the courtroom, colleagues say, the father of three was a generous, loyal man who made even the most junior articling student feel like he or she was an indispensable part of the team. Nelligan continued to drop by the office as recently as a couple of years ago, Cronyn notes, and he remained as engaged in the business as ever.
“He just seemed to be completely on top of what all of us were doing, and he cared about what we were doing and had genuine interest in our growth and development as lawyers,” he says. “He talked about the firm as being his other family.”
While Nelligan and his wife Marion weren’t “socialites,” they did enjoy the company of friends, O’Brien says, adding the most coveted seat at any dinner event was almost always the one next to his longtime law partner.
“He was a great conversationalist,” O’Brien says. “He was always informed of current events, he was always up on politics, he was well-read. He was a delight to be with.”
Nelligan was predeceased by his wife and their son Jack and his survived by daughters Peggy and Kathleen and their children. The family will be hosting a celebration of his life in the next few weeks.