The tale of The Honest Lawyer

By Michael Rappaport

John Downing has the distinction of being both a member of the Bar and a bar owner. The London, Ontario-based lawyer at Miller Thomson LLP, is the co-founder and co-owner of The Honest Lawyer, a restaurant and pub, with a name that’s meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek.

“We wanted a name that’s catchy,” Downing told The Lawyers Weekly. “It wasn’t lost on us that a lot people would think that it was an oxymoron and have a laugh at it.”

The story of how Downing become a lawyer and came to co-own The Honest Lawyer is kind of convoluted. (You may want to pour yourself a drink.) Originally, Downing didn’t set out to become a member of the Bar or a bar owner for that matter. He graduated from the University of Waterloo with a degree in math and computer science in ‘88. For three years afterwards he toiled as a computer programmer at Tandem Computers, which made large mainframe computers for the financial sector. He left Tandem (which was taken over by Compaq Computers in ’97, which later merged with Hewlett-Packard in 2002) to open his first bar in Hamilton with his business partner Greg Sandwell.

“Our research indicated that Hamilton was under serviced for student bars at the time,” Downing explains. Thus, The Pipeline was born. (Go ahead and pour yourself another drink.) Around about 1991, Downing moved to London, Ontario to open a dance club. So begat The Nac. While running The Nac, Downing decided to embark upon a law degree at the University of Western Ontario in ‘93. Despite working at the club three nights each week, he graduated in ’96 as the Silver Medalist for the student with the second highest average.

Downing articled at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in London where he worked for ten years. (Finish your drink we’re almost at the denouement.) In ’98, he and his business partner were searching to move away from dance clubs and decided to open a restaurant and pub: one that offered good food, a welcoming atmosphere and lots of entertainment. Thus, the original The Honest Lawyer was founded…in Windsor. Later, locations were opened in London, Richmond Hill and Ottawa. However, Downing only co-owns the one in London, while his business partner owns and manages the others.

What makes The Honest Lawyer unique? Start with the entertainment: In the beginning all of the pubs were equipped with a single lane for bowling. (The lane in the London location was removed, due to the costs of maintenance.) All of the locations feature wide screen TVs and interactive games. Move on to the décor: All of the restaurants have a legal motif with stacks of law books used as adornments. (Downing cautions against using the text books for legal research, since most of the books are out-of-date and were purchased in bulk from retiring lawyers.) Don’t forget the menu: While most of the food served is classic pub fare, the menu refers to appetizers as “Opening Arguments,” dessert as “Closing Argument” and features a “Legal Aid Burger.”

Although owning a restaurant would be more than enough to keep most people busy, Downing a partner at Miller Thomson LLP, who practices corporate and commercial litigation, sees himself first and foremost as a lawyer. Recently, he successfully represented RIM, the Waterloo-based manufacturer of every lawyers’ best friend and chronic nemesis, the BlackBerry, in a jurisdictional dispute before the Superior Court of Justice.

In addition to a thriving legal practice, Downing, a married father of two, is also a member of the Alpine Club of Canada. He has scaled mountains, ranging from Kilimanjaro in Africa to the Rocky Mountains. Despite his busy practice, he still finds time to go on one mountaineering expedition every year.

Downing has also lectured on litigation at the University of Western Ontario’s law school. And his former alma matter has been a boon to The Honest Lawyer – even though his target demographic tends to skew 25 and up.

Every Wednesday evening Western Law students hold a Lord Denning Pub Night at a local watering hole, to pay tribute to the late, great British jurist Alfred Thompson Denning, Law Lord and Master of the Rolls, who achieved legendary status among law students for his witty, no nonsense judgments. Generally, at least once a year, a Lord Denning Pub Night is held at The Honest Lawyer.

We’ll drink to that.