By Bruce Pardy | Special to the National Post
I made three big mistakes. I’m not alone. Those three mistakes make the upcoming “bencher” (governor) elections for the Law Society of Ontario matter like never before.
My first mistake? I used to ignore these elections, which happen every four years. I mean, who cared? I didn’t even know who was running most of the time. “Convocation,” the governing body of the law society, was a leisure club for big-name lawyers, and I wasn’t one of those. Benchers rubber-stamped policy, sampled the law society’s wine cellar, and let staff run the show. I paid my outrageous fees, checked boxes on my annual report and figured the law society was irrelevant to my life.
Mistake two? Many lawyers, depending on how long ago they were law students, know that the intellectual rot of critical race theory and social justice nihilism has slowly conquered Canadian law schools. But I — we — believed the legal profession would remain largely immune to its effects. Academic theories opposed to the Western legal canon and designed for an imaginary universe would be slapped down in the real world of clients and courts. Wrong again!
These two mistakes coalesced. Over decades, law schools pumped out generations of new lawyers convinced that speech is violence, equal treatment is oppressive, and Canada is systemically racist. To save their own hides, establishment lawyers and big firms began to spout this rhetoric, too. Eventually, many started behaving as though they believed it. The elites survived the onslaught by becoming activists themselves.
The law society succumbed accordingly. The indulgent largesse remains — the budgetary bloat, the mission creep, the patronizing paternalism — but now it is accompanied by something more sinister. Along with most other public institutions, including other professional regulators, the law society is becoming a political watchdog. Instead of ensuring competence and ethical practice, it is set on establishing ideological requirements to maintain our licences and livelihoods.
Which brings me to my third mistake. I had hoped that many smart, sensible lawyers in Ontario would not allow their professional regulator to go off the rails. When the law society overreached by instituting its “statement of principles” (SOP) requirement in 2018, mandating all licensees to acknowledge their obligation to promote the values of equity, diversity and inclusion in their professional and personal affairs, I thought lawyers might refuse. It turns out, understandably, that individuals are reluctant to resist the might of overseers when they cannot count on others to do the same. When the SOP was first introduced, 98 per cent of Ontario lawyers obediently complied.
The die would have been cast had it not been for 22 rank-and-file lawyers. Four years ago in the previous bencher election, those 22 were elected on a platform of repealing the SOP, and they succeeded in doing exactly that. At the time of that election, the law society was a national leader in politicizing professional regulation. Thanks only to the presence of the “StopSOP” benchers, who in fact hold a minority of seats, it is now a reluctant laggard.
But the SOP was only one small part of an aggressive political agenda that remains in place. Incorporating the substance of the SOP into the rules of professional conduct, tracking and publishing the racial makeup of each firm over 25 lawyers, and requiring licensees to take compulsory re-education programs in EDI are among the many items waiting to be reactivated by a big-governance coalition of establishment benchers who hope to retake the law society in this spring’s election.
In 1977, I was the perfect age for the original Star Wars. It cost me a dollar and 10 cents, and I went over and over again. “It’s not that I like the Empire,” says Luke early in the piece, “I hate it. But there’s nothing I can do about it right now.”
Many lawyers may feel that way about the forces that control the law society, but there is something they can do. Most of the StopSOP benchers will be running again, and they will be joined by a handful of other resolute lawyers as the “FullStop” team, dedicated to de-politicizing the law society. They seek to restore it to its core mandate of regulating competence and ethical practice. Lawyers can vote, in private, to say that the law society has lost its way and must be put right.
Canadian regulators are imposing a new standard of professional practice. It threatens not just lawyers but professionals of all kinds, as well as every Canadian who might someday need their services: embrace our politics or risk losing your licence. This spring, there is an opportunity to repudiate it. I hope we don’t make a fourth mistake.
Bruce Pardy is executive director of Rights Probe, professor of law at Queen’s University, a member of the Law Society of Ontario, and part of the FullStop team.