President's View

Lawyer volunteers — what they do and why they do it

RalstonRalston S. Alexander , QC

During my years of work for the United Way, I developed an appreciation for the role of volunteers. That appreciation has deepened during my time at the Law Society. As you can see in this Benchers’ Bulletin, we have over 500 lawyers to thank for their volunteer efforts this past year. As President, I can now personally thank all of you, including my Bencher colleagues.

Ours is a profession governed by volunteers — a remarkable fact considering the breadth and scope of the organization. The significant volunteer commitment from our profession raises questions. Why do lawyers volunteer their services? Why volunteer within the profession? And why on earth seek to serve as a Bencher?

One thing is certain — volunteerism is an unshakeable part of the culture of lawyers. There is much talk these days about lawyers offering pro bono legal services to low income people, and that is a truly important component of our contribution to access to justice. Just as the Canons of Legal Ethics remind us, our profession is not merely a money-making business. Lawyers obviously take this principle to heart because our statistics bear it out — three out of four lawyers do pro bono work for poor people. The next time someone takes a cheap shot at lawyers, just ask them: What profession other than the legal profession finds so many ways to provide their services for free?

The volunteer contributions of lawyers are woven into the rich tapestry of community life. Almost every charity, community organization, club, sporting organization and political party you can name benefits. It is good for the image of the legal profession to be seen providing free legal services, or making other contributions, for those who cannot afford to pay. There is no better positive public relations.

As part of their volunteer commitment, some lawyers choose to serve within the profession. This might be as a volunteer for the Law Society or for another organization. I think it’s fair to say that, within the governance hierarchy, we rely heavily on volunteer committee members, PLTC instructors and practice reviewers among other volunteers.

There are few concrete enticements — certainly not the sandwiches offered over the dinner hour (most sensible folks would prefer a hot meal at home) or the year-end token gifts of appreciation (we know you have enough knick-knacks and electronic devices with incomprehensible instructions). No, I think volunteering for the profession is really a chance for our members to be part of a bigger picture, to work alongside other lawyers for the greater good of the profession and the public.

Despite the personal sacrifice of volunteering, some lawyers also look to leadership positions in the profession.

When it comes to the Law Society, this is a big commitment. The Society is responsible for a multi-million dollar budget, and its leaders must fulfil governance obligations that demand vision, intelligence and an unwavering commitment to the protection of the public interest in the administration of justice. We are blessed to have those responsibilities in the hands of the Benchers — the most committed group of volunteers I have ever met.

Benchers come to the engagement from a variety of backgrounds, and not necessarily well suited to a policy development retainer. After all, we are for the most part, lawyers. (More on lay Benchers in a minute.) The job description is intimidating. Give away three to five days of your life each month, without pay, so that every two years you can throw your hat in a ring — perhaps just a bit on edge because you might be the incumbent who fails in a bid for re-election.

Most of the candidates, new or incumbent, are sufficiently secure in their career achievements that the very real risk of running unsuccessfully is an unnecessary aggravation in an otherwise well-ordered life. (The problems of running successfully I’ll get to in a moment.) Despite the uncertainty of elections, of putting ourselves on the line, the Law Society continues to attract strong and credible candidates for Bencher positions. And we are dramatically the better for it.

I recently heard one of our non- Bencher committee members observe that lawyers generally have no idea of the work commitment that the Benchers undertake. Let me take the opportunity to shed some light.

A Bencher can expect to attend day-long board meetings each month, one or two evening committee meetings each month and regular task force meetings, as well as other events, such as call ceremonies, the annual general meeting and special events throughout the year.

Preparation for meetings includes reading copious amounts of material and sometimes preparing material as well. Benchers also serve on credentials and discipline hearing panels, which can last days or occasionally weeks, and prepare hearing reports in a timely way. Many Benchers meet with lawyers in our community, such as at local bar association meetings, to canvass current issues. Benchers frequently liaise with the Law Society staff on policy implementation and operational issues and with other legal organizations, sometimes serving as Bencher representatives on other boards. Also fundamental to the role, Benchers interview articled students prior to call to the bar and make themselves available to lawyers to provide ethical guidance.

The “up-country” Benchers (a perjorative adjective applied by those who are unable to read an atlas and who can attend Bencher meetings on foot) have their own crosses to bear. While their elections are, for the most part, less difficult than the “down-country” equivalent, they have a much greater burden of travel and practice disruption. For most of them, attendance at meetings, hearings and Law Society special events involves an extra day of travel, time away from family and the office, and the additional hassle of being “on the road.” For them, the three to five day commitment becomes six to ten days, with the extra days often falling on weekends when most of us ought to have better things to do.

We are, however, an equal opportunity Law Society and all of the Benchers have an equal opportunity to contribute according to their abilities and inclinations — and they all do. It is the stuff of legend that the Benchers are a hard-working lot.

And then we have the lay Benchers. Six hardy souls appointed by the provincial government to sit as full Benchers with all of the entitlements (sic) that the elected Benchers enjoy. Whatever could they have been thinking when they said “yes” to that apparently innocuous appointment? To begin with, no one outside the legal profession has any idea who or what a Bencher is, let alone a “lay” Bencher. At cocktail parties, the causal mention that “I serve as a lay Bencher with the Law Society” will generate blank stares or worse.

For elected Benchers, it has been suggested that some measure of cachet, at least within the membership, accompanies the election and service. There is none of that for the lay Benchers, yet they continue selflessly in their service and, by doing so, provide a valuable transparency function in the work that we do. We are all deeply indebted to the lay Benchers for their contribution.

Even for lawyer Benchers where the cachet, the prestige of the elected position is some reward, we have to be up to the extra hours, reduced billing hours and the reality that we need to live up to the expectations of the public and the lawyers who elect us. In the end, the reasons to serve in this way are the same as for other ways we volunteer. We want to give something back to our profession and the public.

The Law Society is self-governing because lawyers across the centuries have ensured it is so and have each played some small part in preserving our reputation, independence and vitality as a profession. And so for all who take the time to read this far (that number being the subject of an entirely different debate) your task is straightforward — keep up the good work!