Commitment to professionalism — Allan McEachern's bequest to his profession
John J.L. Hunter, QC
This is my first column as President of the Law Society, and I want to begin by expressing my appreciation to all of the members for the opportunity to serve my profession in this way. I am fortunate to follow a series of dedicated presidents and I will endeavour to live up to the standard they have set.
My year has, however, begun on a sad note. Ten days after my term commenced, former Chief Justice Allan McEachern passed away. Allan was a giant at our Bar — the leading counsel of his generation, a Bencher for many years and then a prominent judge for over 20 years. His passing is truly the passing of an era.
While Allan can be remembered for so many contributions, I would like to focus my first President’s column on his commitment to professionalism. This was a quality that he exemplified not only in his legal practice, but also in his leadership on the Bench, through speeches, articles for the profession and in many other ways.
Professionalism is fundamental to the role we play as lawyers, and it is timely to reflect on some of the qualities that define professionalism in our working lives.
Allan wrote, “Professionalism is the product of attitude, competence and conduct.” The Law Society regulates professional misconduct, but professional conduct goes beyond the absence of misconduct to embody a particular standard of behaviour. Competence has long been regarded as a professional responsibility, and as you are all aware, continuing competence will soon be a regulatory requirement in this province. Attitude is perhaps the most ephemeral and important of professionalism’s standards.
A fundamental quality of professionalism for Allan was simple honesty. As he expressed it, “The most important aspect of professionalism is scrupulous honesty in financial and all other matters.… A lawyer’s word must be his or her bond, whether stated as an undertaking or otherwise.”
While breach of an undertaking is regarded as serious professional misconduct, any conduct that falls short of simple honesty is unacceptable in a lawyer. A lawyer acting professionally should never be driven to making the distinction between an undertaking and a promise to do something. In either case, professionalism demands honouring one’s commitments.
Professional courtesy was also a matter of considerable importance to Allan. He was the driving force behind the Inns of Court program, a series of social and educational seminars for young lawyers that began in 1984 and continues to this day. One of the common themes of that program is the inappropriateness of rudeness and bullying, particularly when directed at junior members of the Bar.
Civility and mutual respect are aspects of professionalism that need emphasis in these days of the portrayal of aggressive and preening lawyers on American television. I can still recall being a little surprised as a young lawyer when I realized that the most successful and prominent counsel were not the hyper-aggressive and arrogant lawyers, but the lawyers who could truly be described as honourable. These were lawyers who could be relied upon to do what they said they would do, were civil and would never take paltry advantage of a slip by another lawyer. Lawyers like Duncan Shaw, Jack Giles and Rick Sugden set the standard of professionalism for their generation.
In some other jurisdictions, civility at the Bar is under some stress. A few years ago, after an appellate decision directed particularly sharp criticism to the conduct of counsel towards one another, the Advocates Society of Ontario published Principles of Civility for Advocates: a booklet of suggestions to encourage a greater degree of civil behaviour among counsel. The general theme was reflected in these words of the Chief Justice of Ontario: “the level of civility at the Bar relates directly to the level of professionalism of the legal profession.”
Allan McEachern was noted for his civility both as a practising barrister and as a judge. I had an early lesson in his courteous demeanour in 1979 when, as a very young and green barrister, I found myself appearing in the first trial heard by the newly appointed Chief Justice of the BC Supreme Court. I was well aware of his prominence as a barrister and even more acutely aware of my own inexperience at the Bar, but found the Chief Justice to be unfailingly patient and courteous as I stumbled through the trial. This was a time when we still had trial judges who would swivel their chairs and turn their backs on counsel if they were unimpressed with the submissions being made. I have no doubt that the respectful demeanour of the most prominent jurist of his time played a significant role in the evolution of professionalism on the trial Bench as well as at the Bar.
Unlike the Advocates Society of Ontario, the Law Society of BC has not found it necessary to instruct our lawyers on how to be civil to one another, and I hope it will never be necessary to do so. The leaders in our profession, of whom Allan McEachern was the most prominent, have bequeathed to us a powerful and compelling standard of professionalism in the practice of law. It is our obligation to carry this attitude forward for the generation of lawyers that follows.
One final comment should be made. Allan’s contributions to the Bar and the Bench were legion, but in the minds of some, are diminished somewhat by his controversial 1993 trial judgment in the Delgamuukw case. His decision has been criticized, quite unfairly in my view, by those who have forgotten the context of the decision and the very early stage of development of Aboriginal law that prevailed at the time. At the memorial for Allan McEachern, the Chief Justice of British Columbia commented powerfully on the unfairness of these criticisms and urged that this decision be viewed in the context in which it was made. It would be most unfortunate if those who focus on this decision failed to appreciate the enormous contribution Allan McEachern made to the legal profession in this province.
Allan will be missed, but his leadership not forgotten.
It is customary for the year’s first President’s View to set out the incoming president’s priorities for the coming year. This year we have changed our approach somewhat. The Benchers met on February 29 to set their strategic priorities for the year. I will report on those priorities in my next column.
Until then I wish you all well.