Benchers perform many roles in protecting the public interest

Anyone who has taken on the role of Bencher knows that it is much more than attending the monthly meetings. In fact, Benchers handle everything from making rules for the legal profession, to acting as advisors to lawyers in their county, conducting articled student interviews, sitting as adjudicators on discipline and credentials hearing panels, attending special events and call ceremonies.

As a group, our Benchers contributed at least 10,000 hours of their time to serving their profession in 2006. It is a considerable commitment, going to the heart of the Benchers’ role as the board of directors of the body charged with statutory responsibility for protecting the public interest in the administration of justice. But at the end of the day, most Benchers come back for a second term and many serve the maximum four terms.

“Benchers always comment on the collegial atmosphere. It’s the relationships that keep people coming back,” says David Newell, who has worked with many Benchers in his eight years as the Law Society’s corporate secretary. Bill Jackson, elected a Bencher in Cariboo County in 2003, echoes that point. “Being a Crown counsel from the frozen North, I thought I would be treated as a second-class citizen, but everyone has treated me so well,” he comments.

In addition to their regular duties, Benchers from outside of the Lower Mainland put in many more hours on the road. To attend a one-day meeting in Vancouver, Jackson needs to tack on two extra days of travel time. With meetings happening two or three times a month, he has found himself spending 15 hours or more a week fulfilling his duties as a Bencher. It’s no small time commitment, but Jackson feels the journey is well worth it.

“The work we do at the Law Society is extremely interesting — the policy aspect, the governance aspect and the regulatory aspect,” Jackson says. “Because of my experience as Crown counsel, I took to the Discipline Committee like a duck to water.”

As a Crown counsel in Dawson Creek, Jackson relies on support from his employer to attend to his Bencher duties. That need for support really applies to all Benchers — from sole practitioners to partners in large Vancouver law firms.

Rita Andreone, who was elected in November 2005 in Vancouver County, continues a long tradition of Bencher service by lawyers from Lawson Lundell LLP. Two former Law Society Presidents, Brian Wallace, QC (1993) and William Everett, QC (2004), came from the firm. As one of only six women lawyer Benchers and one of the few solicitors at the table, she often brings a different perspective to the debate.

Andreone had a pretty good idea of what the role entailed by the time she ran for election, having already served on the Discipline Committee for two years.

“My experience on the Discipline Committee had shown me that there are differences between litigator and solicitor practice and I wanted to ensure that those views were represented,” says Andreone. “There are many different points of view expressed around the table, and it’s very exciting to be surrounded by senior, high-profile people who I wouldn’t be likely to deal with otherwise. Being a Bencher has reminded me why I became a lawyer and it has allowed me to re-connect with the profession in all of its varying forms.”

Andreone says it is a tough balancing act managing her responsibilities as a mother of two, a partner in a big law firm and a Bencher. Last year she spent about 400 hours on her Bencher duties. In taking on the role of Bencher, Andreone points to the importance of a strong support network at home and at work: “I have a very busy transactional practice. I can only do my work as a Bencher because I can rely on people to look after client matters in my absence at the firm. At Lawson Lundell we have a history of high-level involvement with the Law Society, the Canadian Bar Association and the Vancouver Bar Association. It’s built into our culture.”

As a sole practitioner at the Bencher table, Dirk Sigalet, QC must juggle the demands of his busy practice with regular trips to Vancouver. Coming from Vernon, Sigalet notes that he has the luxury of being one of the only out-of-town Benchers who can fly to Vancouver the morning of a meeting. He dedicates about five days a month to Bencher meetings and makes up the practice time on weekends.

“I wanted to work with an organization that dealt with the profession in its entirety,” said Sigalet, who was first elected in 2004. “There’s a strong sense of unified purpose, collegiality and civility among the Benchers.” In looking at the time commitment involved in the role, Sigalet points to the considerable support offered by Law Society staff, “The materials they prepare for us are so well researched and put together.”

Despite the challenges of the job, new candidates step forward at every election. They come from around the province, from big firms and small firms, but they are united by one thing: a commitment to uphold and protect the public interest.

This commitment has not gone unnoticed by the Lay Benchers. “We see the great importance the lawyer Benchers place on addressing issues in the best interest of the public,” says Lay Bencher June Preston, who was first appointed in 2001. “They come to see the law in a bigger picture, beyond what’s pressing on a day-to-day basis. They measure their decisions by what is in the best interest of the public. The rule of law depends on having a body to do this.