It is often said that we are our own worst critics.
And so Governor General David Johnston, former dean of law at the University of Western Ontario, said of lawyers—like himself—that they have failed in their duty to improve justice and serve the public good.
In a dynamic speech at the opening of the Canadian Bar Association’s annual meeting in Halifax on August 14, Johnston criticized the direction that the legal profession has taken and beseeched attorneys to make a change.
“We need a new model for professionalism in law,” Johnston supplicated the audience. “To borrow a saying from a sister profession: physician, heal thyself.”
Practitioners of law must abide by certain ethical and other standards of quality, but have, in recent times, neglected to do so, according to Johnston.
In particular, Johnston spoke out about the intense lag time of court cases. Court processing times are lengthy and case backlogs plentiful. Of efforts to reverse the trend in Ontario, Johnston said “the pace (of change) is woefully slow.”
In his speech, the sense of urgency is clear.
It’s easy to think, discuss, and even identify innovative ideas for the workplace. However, it’s hard to find the courage to implement them. Sometimes maintaining the status quo—especially for more conservative law firms—is an acceptable norm.
This lack of action, criminologists call a “court culture” of complacency—a culture that Johnston blames for aspects of the 2008 financial collapse.
Failure on Wall Street is just one example that Johnston singles out as a contributing factor to the collapse of trust between citizens and public institutions in Canada and democratic nations as a whole.
“How many lawyers ‘papered’ the deals that involved fraudulent statements of assets, liabilities, income and valuations?” he laments.
“How many lawyers ‘sounded the alarm’ about conflict of interest in the web of financial transactions and creative financial instruments?
“How many lawyers were silent in the face of a pattern of deregulation which has left the economy naked to excessive leverage, and which any thoughtful observer knew was bound to have its inevitable pendulum swing?”
These questions are an apt reminder to lawyers everywhere of their ethical and professional oath.
Johnston also chastised law firms for not accommodating young mothers, claiming firms had a propensity to “penalize those with a family,” a topical issue that drew applause from the audience.
Learning to manage work and home life is no longer an issue to be addressed by the professional, but by the profession. The legal industry must learn how to accommodate the modern family. And, to retain the best lawyers, that means firms must adjust in terms of competitive benefits for their employees.
“If we wish to avoid having change forced upon us, we must embrace new ideas.”
Embrace new ideas while reinforcing the old, such as, let justice be done.
Read more reactions on the Ottawa Citizen, “Forceful governor general tells lawyers, ‘Heal thyself’: In stinging rebuke, Johnston says it’s time legal profession regains sight of justice, public good.” By Richard Foot.