The value of volunteerism – why you should run for Bencher
Anna K. Fung, QC
As in-house counsel for Terasen Inc. and someone who is in the position of hiring lawyers, I am always asked by other lawyers how they can get work from clients or how to get new clients. The one sure way is to meet a wide range of people who can get to know you and your abilities by watching how you work and relate to others on boards, committees and projects where their money is not directly at stake. Build your profile through your professional and volunteer activities. Busy people are much more likely to return your phone call or email when they know you than when they don’t. This may seem harsh, but I believe that saying “I’m busy” is just a convenient excuse not to do something. When people say “no,” pleading that they are too busy to take on some work, I interpret that to mean it is just not an important priority for them. If it is truly a priority for you, then you will make time for it because you have to.
Because this is an election year for new Benchers, I want to encourage all of you to consider becoming a Bencher at some time during your career. Why do I say that, you ask, or more specifically, “What is in it for me?”
Five years ago, I was asked to speak to a meeting of women lawyers on “The Life of a Law Society Bencher.” One of my dear friends, Anne Giardini, now vice-president and general counsel of Weyerhaeuser Canada, sent me an email. She said:
I am signing up, but I am sure that I already know what the life of a Law Society Bencher is like: port and Stilton in the tastefully appointed salons [or maybe she meant saloons] of the Law Society building, a generous clothing and personal maintenance budget, vintage wines on tap, hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. Or do I have the Law Society of BC confused with the Law Society of Upper Canada?
Well, let me start off by saying that I know nothing personally about what it’s like to be a Bencher at the Law Society of Upper Canada, but lest any of you share Anne’s illusions, I’d like to tell you that while there is a bottle of port in the Benchers’ lounge, I have never seen anyone drink from it, as I suspect it has been around since the Law Society first moved into the building 15 years ago. As some of you know, an opened bottle of port actually does not improve with age. As for Stilton, I have never seen any in the building, but we do have some questionable art left to us by past presidents. Moreover, if you have ever seen how some of us Benchers dress, you would know that there is no clothing and personal maintenance budget for the Benchers. Nor do we have any vintage wines on tap. As for hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, well, since we are talking about lawyers, it’s more accurate to say, commiserating with the poor and constantly stressed.
Seriously, though, you do not and should not become a Bencher for the material perks that come with that position because, frankly, they are few and far between. Instead, you get to eat far too many stale sandwiches and drink way too much coffee to stay awake during meetings that deal with difficult and challenging issues — all at the expense of your practice and the clients who are screaming at you.
So, why does one become a Bencher? After more than nine years as a Bencher and five months as President, and as the only Bencher who practises in-house, I’d like to share three reasons for you to at least consider becoming a Bencher.
First, to widen your perspective, open your eyes and educate yourself about all aspects of the legal profession. My experience as a lawyer has always been that of someone working in big office towers in large organizations, whether they be large law firms or large companies. I knew nothing about what it was like to practise as a sole practitioner in a small town, where the idea of specialization would be laughable, where conflicts of interest rules are almost insurmountable when you are the only lawyer in town, and where the idea of a “multidisciplinary practice” is not that of competing with the big accounting firms, but whether a lawyer can profitably join forces with the local real estate agent, car dealership, investment advisor and funeral parlour to provide one-stop shopping for their clients and thereby increase business. I was insulated from the practical realities of all this as a lawyer practising in downtown Vancouver.
Similarly, a Bencher from Smithers learns what it is like for practitioners in Vancouver to have to compete for business, the challenges from the big accounting firms, the nightmares arising from previously unlimited liability law partnerships, and the realities of national law firms having to grapple with conflicts of interest rules that were never designed to deal with national firms in the first place.
As Benchers, we deal with emerging issues and changes facing lawyers, whether they come in the form of regulation of multidisciplinary practices, specialization, improvements to the articling and admissions process, inter-jurisdictional mobility of lawyers or, heaven forbid, the concept of one national law society across Canada. These issues, while they are very important to the future of our legal profession, are not ones that we otherwise devote much time to agonizing over as we go about our daily lawyering duties. But as Benchers, you will have the opportunity and responsibility of dealing with these issues, hopefully for the betterment of our profession and always keeping the best interests of the public in mind.
The second reason why you should consider becoming a Bencher is to remind yourself of the collegiality of the legal profession and to re-energize yourself as a lawyer.
Over the past 21 years of law practice, I have observed that even if we are practising in large firms or companies, we spend much of the time working by ourselves in our own offices. Maybe it is a result of billing by the hour, the increasing demands of clients, more competition, and the adversarial nature of the court system, but the more time we lawyers spend at our desks practising law and doing nothing but that, the more likely we are to become isolated and cut off as a profession and as individuals from one another.
As a Bencher, I have become friends with some very articulate, caring and concerned lawyer and non-lawyer Benchers from all over British Columbia — people whom I would otherwise not have had the opportunity or the good fortune to meet. From the day that I attended my first Benchers’ meeting, they have welcomed me without hesitation or judgement and have shared their stories and perspectives with me. Some of them have become almost like family to me. More importantly, the experiences we share as Benchers have confirmed to me that despite any heated debates I may have with any of my fellow Benchers, they remain my friends, and the common bond we share is that we all care passionately about the honour and integrity of the legal profession and safeguarding the public interest.
The practice of law, no matter how interesting law itself may be, can sometimes become a grind if we keep on doing the same things over and over again. The work that we do as Benchers requires us to step back from the immediacy of our daily law practice, to take a broader look and consider why we do the things that we do. The issues that we deal with as Benchers, whether they relate to improving access to legal services or protecting clients from unscrupulous lawyers, remind us why most of us entered law in the first place, and that is to help people.
This brings me to my third reason you should consider becoming a Bencher. Along with the privileges that come with being a lawyer, there are certain responsibilities, including the moral responsibility to give something back to a profession that has been good to us. One of the ways that we can do that is to serve as a Bencher.
There is a quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, that I keep by my desk at work:
A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depends on the labours of other men [and I would add, women], living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am receiving.
I count myself lucky to be a lawyer in a free and democratic society. I think that it is important for each one of us to do what we can to improve the future of the legal profession for the many lawyers who will come after us — to safeguard the honour and integrity of the profession and to protect the public from unscrupulous or unethical lawyers. As a Bencher you will have the opportunity and the responsibility of doing so.
Currently, we have 25 elected Benchers, of whom only six are women, and until the recent death of our dear friend and colleague Mike Falkins, six Lay Benchers, of whom only two are women. There is a dearth of solicitors’ voices, as well as big firm representatives, around the Bencher table. Only six of the 25 elected Benchers are from large downtown law firms. So far as I know, I am the first and only in-house counsel to have been elected Bencher, but I certainly hope that I am not the last. The Benchers are comprised predominantly of litigators and small firm or sole practitioners, which means that the perspectives of other types of practice do not always make it to the forefront of the discussions around the Bencher table.
Yes, being a Bencher is time-consuming and you will need the support and encouragement of your colleagues, friends, family and your firm. Yes, some of the issues you will deal with will be difficult, challenging, and even controversial and unpopular at times. Yes, there will be times when you question why you ever decided to become a Bencher in the first place, as your clients or your bosses are screaming at you for something that they want done right away. Yes, you will gain some extra pounds from all the food you will consume in the course of being a Bencher.
But you will also gain renewed appreciation for the selflessness of lawyers and benefit from the knowledge that your work as a Bencher ensures the continued confidence that the public has in a competent and ethical legal profession. You will have a voice and a say in the future direction of the legal profession in BC through the policies that you will set as a Bencher, whether they relate to expansion or contraction of conflicts of interest rules, or to multidisciplinary practices. You will also gain many new friends along the way and get to see parts of British Columbia that you may never have seen before. I promise you that, if you do decide to become a Bencher, you will never regret doing so.