"Someone I think who is successful in business by and large isn’t stupid, by and large has interests, by and large have ideas, they do things, that’s a good friend to have. So my social network and my professional network overlap a lot and that has been a source of great joy and huge reward." - Lyall Knott, Q.C., Expo 86 Director, Honourary Captain - Canadian Fleet Pacific - Royal Canadian Navy, Honourary Counsel for The Republic of Tunisia, Class of 1972.
Lyall Knott, Q.C. was born and grew up on Vancouver’s west side, where he still lives within walking distance of 48 members of his family. His ancestors were pioneers to British Columbia, arriving in the province in the mid-1800s, and numbering among the first missionaries, engineers, and physicians in the area. This long history has inspired how he views his heritage, and Knott will tell you he’s “Scottish and First Nations by background, but…self-identify as a Canadian.”
Mr. Knott enrolled in the combined commerce/law program at the University of British Columbia. He appreciated the ability to take more liberal arts courses in the program than in a typical business program. He remembers classmates from law school who became and stayed his friends, such as Hein Poulus, Chris Pollard, and Ron Stern. During his time in law school he volunteered with the first off-campus legal aid clinic at Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House in East Vancouver.
Knott recalls that there wasn’t the same physical sense of the school then as there is now. Classes would be held in old huts constructed during the Second World War. The age of these buildings would really show in the winter, when the heat would turn on and as Knott remembers “…the prof was at the front of the class, and the radiators were just ‘clang’ ‘clang’ ‘clang’ ‘clang’ ‘clang.’” Knott also recognizes the privilege he had to learn from great professors, including Dean Curtis, Joe Smith, and Peter Burns, but especially Bertie McLean, who he believes “was the best teacher I ever had.”
After graduating from UBC with his LL.B. in 1972, Lyall Knott enrolled in a Master of Laws program at the University of London. At the time students in that program could take courses from a variety of London schools, including University College London, King’s College, and the London School of Economics. In addition to classes, he remembers enjoying the Fall being a young guy in the big city of London and exploring the city’s urban landscape, sometimes even with the eventual Prime Minister Kim Campbell. As well, students would receive honorary membership to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple. Lyall Knott would take advantage of this by sitting in Lord Denning’s Court a couple of times a week. Knott remembers one day the Judge’s secretary asked if he was a law student and then invited him in to meet the Judge. After that, Knott had regular opportunities to meet with Lord Denning, “every now and then he’d call me in and say ‘what do you think of that’ or ‘I’m really struggling with this issue.’”
He returned to British Columbia and was called to the bar in BC in 1974. From 1974 to 1977 Lyall practiced with the firm of Ladner Downs until he decided to hang out his own shingle and start the firm of Knott, Pollard, Morgan. Over five years in business, Knott and his partners grew the firm to 14 lawyers. Eventually, they were attracting substantial clients who needed more than the firm could provide. Seeking to serve their clients as best as they could, the firm went in with Clark Wilson. By that time, Clark Wilson had lost its founding partners and needed leadership to bring it forward and into its next generation in the Vancouver legal marketplace. In the end, both firms came out the merger with their weakness absolved by the strengths of their new partner.
Lyall Knott’s career has enjoyed a fascinating evolution, involving many of the important events and projects that shaped British Columbia. He considers working on Expo 86 as one of the first of those transformational experiences. Serving on the board of the event, he had the opportunity to meet the Prince and Princess of Wales, but also had to face the reality that any error would be front page news. Thankfully, everything turned out well. “Things went pretty well and exceeded everybody’s expectations,” remarked Knott “and certainly those people that put themselves on the line were given a good pat on the back.”
Knott also played a significant role in creating the Vancouver Airport Authority as we know it today. The airport had been managed by Transport Canada, meaning that planning and management was often influenced by the Minister in Ottawa. A relatively small group of locals had an idea to create the Airport Authority, so management could be localized, and set about executing that idea. Without a reference, Knott worked to establish the first airport authority in Canada at YVR, and watched the model spread nationally over the next decade. He recalls the start wasn’t easy, “you had to go into the markets without a guarantee from anybody without a balance sheet and borrow zillions and zillions of dollars…and the model worked.”
Mr. Knott’s career has also included interesting work with the Rick Hansen Foundation and the Vancouver Grizzlies. Considering his practice, he reflected “my social network and my professional network overlap a lot and that has been a source of great joy and huge reward.” One of the other experiences Knott found rewarding was serving as honorary counsel for the Republic of Tunisia in Vancouver, affording him a front row seat to Tunisia’s Arab spring and transition to democracy.
From 2009 to 2012, Lyall Knott was appointed by the Prime Minister to serve as one of three Canadian Commissioners on the International Joint Commission pursuant to the Boundary Waters Treaty with the United States. He has served on the Board of Directors of The Vancouver Port Corporation and as Chair of the Board of Directors of Canada Place Corporation.
Service has always been a strong priority for Lyall Knott, Q.C. He’s devoted an impressive amount of time to the University of British Columbia, serving on advisory and executive search committees and chaired the UBC Foundation. His commitment to UBC is his way of recognizing the huge importance of the institution to family. He has also served as the Honorary Captain of the Navy’s Canada Fleet Pacific. In service to the Royal Canadian Navy, Knott has worked to connect the broader community with work of the Forces. His interest started with founding the Friends of the HMCS Vancouver, inspired by a similar organization which supported the HMCS Calgary (and bought cowboy hats for the crew).
Service and sound work have led to extensive recognition for Mr. Knott. He was awarded the rank of Queen’s Counsel in 1985. As well, he has been awarded the Commonwealth Medal for both the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees. For him, volunteering has never been about the recognition. “Law rewards us materially quite well” says Knott, “…there’s a big payback and there’s a responsibility to get out in the community, that community that gave you those privileges deserves to have you repay to the amount you can.”
When asked for his advice to students, Lyall Knott recommended that the newest members of the legal profession remember two things. First, that a career in the law is not a sprint but rather a marathon - the learning process will be lifelong, and maintaining the skillset is a constant necessity. Second, he remarked that reputation is invaluable. “There will be times when it's easier to turn a blind eye, to maybe ignore something or think you can get away with it,” said Knott, “…reputation in this business is everything. And you can sell your reputation but you can’t buy it. And in the profession, you know who cuts corners. Maintain your ethical standards.”
He also doesn’t like lawyer jokes, and doesn’t encourage people to tell them.
Lyall Knott, Q.C. was interviewed for the Peter A. Allard School of Law History Project in Fall 2017. Listen to the full interview to learn more about his incredible career and exemplary public service.