“For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.”
These words, immortalized by Frank Sinatra in the iconic song “My Way” could easily be used to describe David Asper’s ’84 ethos to life and career.
The son of media magnate “Izzy” Asper, one of Canada’s foremost tax lawyers, Asper certainly had a hard act to follow, but right from the start he was determined to do it his way.
“I didn’t have a lot of opportunities because I wanted to make my own way in life and not be part of my family business,” reveals Asper.
Graduating from the University of Manitoba with a BA in political science and history, he decided that a career in law was most aligned with his natural interests and skills.
Never one to take the path of least resistance, he avoided the obvious choice of a Canadian law school and, on the advice of a business associate of his father, opted for California Western School of Law.
Notwithstanding the lure of San Diego’s weather, Asper explains, “I visited the school and was immensely impressed with the curriculum balance between legal academics and practice-readiness. That approach to legal education didn’t exist in Canada at the time, so I jumped, and moved to San Diego.”
That decision was to be a huge turning point in Asper’s life.
He thrived at Cal Western, excelling in the Moot Court Program and serving as Chair of the Advocacy Honors Board. He cites many of the faculty as having had an influence on his education and throughout his career.
“Professors Stiglitz, Ireland, Campbell, Meiners, Ehrlich, Lynch, and DeBarr had a huge impact on my life, both as a lawyer and eventually as a law professor myself. They were fantastic role models,” recalls Asper, adding with a chuckle, “And one day I’d love for for them to know that notwithstanding my occasionally odd analysis of contract law problems, I didn’t wind up as an encyclopedia salesperson!”
Returning to Canada after graduation, Asper needed to complete Articling—a Canadian legal requirement whereby law students have to serve a year of apprenticeship after finishing law school.
But that didn’t happen.
“The Law Society was mortified that by going to school in the U.S. I had somehow decoded a secret way to avoid the very restrictive Canadian admissions process,” explains Asper. “ 'The floodgates’, they argued, and they actually tried to prevent me from Articling.”
In typical style, after almost reaching litigation, Asper prevailed and the Law Society agreed that he could take five courses in Canadian law and then Article. This settlement, however, has had a lasting effect as the case triggered a more formal evaluation process for students trained in law outside Canada, which is largely still in place today.
In Canada, Asper began to practice commercial law but quickly discovered that he hated it. He wanted more action.
“Given that I’d done well in the advocacy program at Cal Western, I figured that I should try to find something in the courtroom and applied for jobs in criminal law,” he says.
As a criminal defense lawyer, Asper successfully represented David Milgaard in overturning one of Canada’s most notorious wrongful conviction cases.
“We had to mount what became a six-year legal and political campaign, and it exposed major systemic problems,” recalls Asper. “The immediate aftermath was that the Federal Department of Justice reorganized itself to try and better deal with wrongful convictions.”
The Milgaard case turned out to be a major milestone in Asper’s career path as, despite his success, he found himself disgusted at the legal system and sought new adventures to pursue.
A stint in the family’s media business led Asper back to law school at the University of Toronto to get his Master’s degree. After graduation, he served as an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Manitoba. He also taught at Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin School of Law and Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
When his teaching contract came to an end, Asper embarked upon a series of entrepreneurial ventures from co-founding a consolidator of pharmacies in rural centers across western Canada and investing in the development and commercialization of life science-based businesses, to producing the award-winning production of Scottsboro Boys in London's West End and chairing the board of his hometown Canadian football team the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
But irrespective of his broad and diverse career, Asper is first and foremost a lawyer. He was recently appointed Queen’s Counsel and currently serves as Chair of the Manitoba Police Commission. He will be receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Manitoba in June.
“Regardless of my varied career experiences, I always come back to law because it’s where my soul lives,” he admits.
Today, Asper devotes a good proportion of his time to the Asper Foundation which was established by his father in 1983 so that his children could “do something useful with [their] lives and make a difference.”
Asper, a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of his community service, remains inspired by his parents’ dreams to make a transformational difference in the world.
“It’s really about the social contract,” he says. “Life’s not always easy, but we get enormous benefits from living in a free and democratic society, and I think in return we should give something back, whether it’s time volunteering, or money, or both.”
Thirty-six years after graduating from California Western, Asper admits that he is “super proud” to have gone to the school and is forever grateful to the staff and faculty for his education.
“At Cal Western I learned how to think,” says Asper. “I learned how to be on time. I learned how to process my studies, which became files, which became business, which became life, and all of that made me a pro.”
Throughout his life David Asper has indeed traveled each and every highway.
But more than this, he has done it his way.