What people should know about law and the legal profession
by Gordon Turriff, QC
I discovered when I became a Bencher that I knew a lot less about what the Law Society and the Benchers did than I thought I knew. Until then, I had been pretty cynical about the Benchers’ work, tending to side with those who considered the society to be an organization that had grown beyond what it needed to be. I knew that it oversaw credentialling; that it had a disciplinary function; that it ran a Professional Legal Training Course; that it occasionally told us about changes to the Professional Conduct Handbook; and that it funded a scholarship for graduate law studies. I had pretty much let the society take care of itself and, like many of us, I was happy that our paths had not crossed.
But in August 2001, just by chance, I went for a long run with the then President, Richard Margetts, QC, beside the river in Saskatoon. It was an invigorating run in more than one sense. As some may know, Richard is quite competitive. So we were probably doing six-minute miles. He was very keen to tell me everything the Benchers were doing and what he had in mind for them, even though his term as President was winding down. By the end of the run, I was intrigued, if not hooked, and that fall I was elected as one of the Benchers from Vancouver County. So here I am, as cynical as I may then have been. Now I know more about the Law Society and the Benchers than is probably healthy.
My pre-Bencher cynicism evaporated within a few months of my taking up my new responsibilities. I learned quickly that everything the Law Society did was done in the public interest, something I may have understood in a vague way but had never really thought about.
I also learned very soon that the Benchers and all the society staff took the public interest mandate very seriously and that every decision the Benchers made was tested against the public interest standard. Soon the rule of law, independence of lawyers, self-governance and solicitor-client privilege were matters with which I had constant contact. They were and are the canopy over the daily work of the Benchers and Law Society staff.
For me, as one lawyer in the community of lawyers, those concepts had been of academic interest. For Benchers, they are matters of central importance. But I knew so little about them. It was a steep learning curve. I climbed it chiefly with the help of Michael Lucas, now the Law Society’s policy manager.
It would not be right to say that these subjects consumed me, but it would be right to say that I came to see that they were matters that must not be ignored or even undervalued. I learned by interviewing articled students that they knew as little as I had known and when I spoke about these topics to people in the community I raised polite smiles or got blank stares.
I could see that there was work to be done. I could see that public confidence in the Law Society and the Benchers required public education. I could see that people in the community needed to learn that they depended on the rule of law; that the rule of law was only as secure as lawyers allowed it to be; that lawyers were independent because the public interest demanded it; that self-governance was a necessary condition of independence of lawyers; and that independence was illusory if solicitor-client privilege was not vigorously defended.
What to do? As a start, while I was Chair of the Independence and Self-Governance Committee, I prompted the development of a unit on lawyer independence for high school law and civics classes. The Benchers quickly signed on to that initiative. They also endorsed public education as one of their chief priorities. This was an opening for me. I proposed a speaking tour, to occur during the celebration of the society’s 125th anniversary of its incorporation. Happily the Benchers supported the idea and the Law Foundation provided some funding.
In the result, I will travel the province this year delivering the public interest, rule of law, independence of lawyers, self-governance message to all who will hear me. My hosts will include high school and college classes, local libraries, historical societies and business clubs. I will speak to anyone who will have me. When I can, I will take with me the resident Bencher or Benchers and I will bring along one of the Lay Benchers whenever the arrangements can be made.
I am looking forward to taking the profession’s message into the community and I look forward to seeing local lawyers as members of the audiences I will address.