Themes for 2007
Anna K. Fung, QC
As I begin my year as President of the Law Society, I want to share with you the four main themes which I will be focusing on in 2007.
4. Enhanced Lawyer Competence
The first, responsiveness, refers to how we at the Law Society relate to the public, to government and to our members, and how well we discharge our statutory public interest mandate. Responsiveness requires an understanding of the needs and expectations of those whom we purport to serve, as well as continuing innovation in the ways in which we try to meet those needs and expectations. One key example of that is in our complaints and disciplinary processes, which I want to see revamped this year.
Not all complaints need to or should be treated in the same manner. Misappropriation of trust funds should be treated quite differently from failure to respond to Law Society correspondence, for example. Both are blameworthy infractions, but they are very different in the magnitude of harm to the public and should be accorded different levels of scrutiny, attention, resources and priority.
With this in mind, the Law Society will be embarking on a pilot project later this year for simple offences and service quality complaints that are not likely to result in serious disciplinary action. These types of complaints will be diverted to a more streamlined and less confrontational process designed for speedy resolution.
Then, there are those few lawyers who are the subject of numerous complaints, whom some call the “ungovernable lawyers.” I believe we should be more proactive in dealing with these lawyers, in either a remedial or a disciplinary manner, so they don’t consume an inordinate amount of the Law Society’s limited resources. A Law Society staff group is hard at work designing a better process to address this problem.
The Law Society needs to be an accessible organization in order for it to carry out its mandate in a manner that instills public trust in the ability of lawyers to continue to self-regulate in the public interest. This means being aware of the issues facing the constituents the Society serves. In addition, the Law Society must get its key messages out to the community in a way that the public, not just lawyers, can understand and appreciate.
The only way that we can do that is through consistent and concerted public outreach, making direct linkages with media, governments and community groups and by really listening to their views. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a marketing strategy. It is something that we must do if we are to continue to assert our right to self-govern.
To paraphrase my fellow Bencher Leon Getz, QC: Lawyers are notorious for spending an inordinate amount of time talking to ourselves. We think that as lawyers we know what the public wants and needs, but do we really? Remember, the public is not a homogeneous mass. In my view, it is not reasonable and is perhaps somewhat arrogant for us as lawyers to individually purport to know what Joe or Jane Public working in a pulp mill in Prince George wants or needs the Law Society to do.
Instead of talking to the converted (namely, our fellow lawyers), we should be consulting with the public on their needs, wants and expectations. We should also be educating the public about the role of lawyers in the legal system and the importance of lawyer and judicial independence to the maintenance of a free and democratic society. We need to be accessible to the public, and that does not mean simply having a permanent office in Vancouver and maintaining regular business hours so the masses can come to our doors with their requests.
This year, I will be launching a program aimed at building relationships with community groups and getting the Law Society’s key messages out to the public. This type of initiative is already partially underway under the leadership of the Equity and Diversity Committee, which last year hosted a first public forum at the Law Society on citizenship and the rule of law (see page 10 for information on the spring public forum). A similar initiative aimed at strengthening the Law Society’s relationship with government is also underway.
Accountability is a frequently used buzzword these days. What I mean by accountability is that the Law Society, in all of its internal and external processes, must demonstrate responsibility for its actions with a view to ensuring the public continues to have faith and trust in the institution.
To achieve this, the Law Society must have a governance structure that facilitates Bencher decision-making and ensures timely implementation of those decisions. This includes ensuring long-term financial stability for the organization. Right now, the practice fee and financial budget are set on a yearly basis. Our Past President Rob McDiarmid, QC has, however, suggested that we ought to be moving towards a multi-year practice fee and budgeting process. The goal is to put the Law Society on a path that will assure members that their fees will not suffer wild swings from year to year while at the same time ensuring core Law Society programs are adequately funded. This is an idea I would like to explore further.
Enhanced Lawyer Competence
Lawyers tend to believe that, after having proven their competence by completing law school, PLTC exams and articling, they can be assumed competent until proven otherwise. This is either sheer lunacy or tremendous hubris on the part of the profession. I believe the public would be astounded if told lawyers are not continually improving their knowledge and competence and are not required to do so. All other professions, from doctors to accountants to airline pilots, expect (and most require) their members to engage in continuous improvement. Why are lawyers any different? As most of us know, laws change and evolve, new areas of practice emerge, old ones shrink, and yet lawyers are not required to upgrade or maintain their skills, knowledge or competence from the moment that they are called. How reassuring is that to the public?
If we are to continue to have the right to self-govern, we must be satisfied we are keeping up to date with changes in the law and continually enhancing our competence and skills. Moreover, the public has a right to expect that we will do so to ensure we are providing the best possible legal services.
The Law Society has, through the excellent work of the Small Firm Task Force last year under Bencher Bruce LeRose, QC as Chair and staff lawyer Kensi Gounden and others, already made inroads to address this issue through the implementation of the Small Firm Practice Course. The course, launched in January 2007, has already drawn positive comments from many lawyers, including a few who normally regard the Law Society as largely irrelevant to their practice.
That is not enough, though. We really ought to be looking anew at mandatory continuing professional development, limited licensing certificates and specialization as ways of enhancing lawyer competence and service delivery. This is not “Big Brotherism.” It is simple, common sense if we are to continue to be able to successfully compete with less qualified but cheaper quasi-legal service providers in today’s global market. Don’t forget, Canadian lawyers are no longer just competing with Canadian lawyers. We are also competing with American lawyers, some of whom are already subject to mandatory continuing professional development requirements by their Bar associations. If we do not keep pace in this area, we risk being left behind. That would be a real shame for our legal profession, in my view.
These four themes (Responsiveness, Accessibility, Accountability and Enhanced Lawyer Competence) will guide what I and the Law Society will do this year. Obviously, some of the initiatives we are considering will require broadly based consultation with our members and others, and I pledge that, with your help and support, the necessary consultation will take place. We all have an important interest to protect, namely, the right of lawyers to self-regulate for the public good.
I want to conclude by reminding you that we continue to work on three initiatives that are carry-overs from our Past President, Rob McDiarmid, QC. The first is to bring about key legislative amendments to the Legal Profession Act to improve our ability to carry out our regulatory function. The second is to continue our efforts to obtain free, online public access to up-to-date BC statutes and regulations. The third is to successfully implement and operate the Law Society’s Trust Assurance Program and the new Custodianship Program. These continue to be important initiatives for the Law Society and the public in 2007.
With the help of all of you, our dedicated Benchers and our wonderful Law Society staff, I am confident that these objectives can be fully met in 2007.
As I end my first column as President, I thank you, all, for giving me this opportunity to serve you, our legal profession and the public. I leave you with my pledge for this year, “to leave the campground (in this case, the Law Society) in a better condition than I found it when I arrived.”