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Gail J. Cohen

Editor's desk - Lawyers gone mad

Nobody wants to be insulted. Nobody wants to think or feel that they or their colleagues are not worthy. It’s human nature to react when you’re feeling threatened. But the reaction to Maclean’s magazine’s “Lawyers are rats” interview with author Philip Slayton is quite amazing.

I do believe that law associations and law societies should rightfully stand by their members and not let lawyers’ names and reputations be tarnished. But the reaction to the Maclean’s interview is over the top. First of all, the magazine itself completely torqued the comments and, as Law Society of Upper Canada Treasurer Gavin MacKenzie noted, “has decided to fill the yellow journalism void created by the decision of Weekly World News to cease publication.” Over the last few months, all of the magazine’s covers have been sensationalist. This particular one, with its series of clip-art faux lawyers on the front with captions like “I pad my bills,” “I’m dishonest,” and “I take bribes” is just another in a parade of tabloid-inspired covers.

But many of the responses by lawyers, and their associations, have simply added fuel to the fire. Ontario Bar Association president James Morton’s op-ed piece in the National Post was too much when he brought in a comparison to a 1940’s Nazi anti-Jewish movie. He calls the Maclean’s article sensationalistic, but any comparisons to the Holocaust are themselves sensationalistic and entirely overboard. Almost all the official reactions from the legal profession called the Maclean’s interview one-sided and unbalanced. Well, it is an interview with one man about his opinions; it’s not supposed to be balanced.

“Maclean’s allows these few stories to stand unquestioned as representative of the legal profession,” says MacKenzie. Again, it was an interview about Slayton’s books and his opinions. A one-on-one interview is inherently one-sided. There were no libels or smears against individuals; it was simply a portrayal of opinion. The questions were leading and some of the answers quite provocative, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Slayton’s book, Lawyers Gone Bad, isn’t about the lives of everyday lawyers who do real estate transactions or write employment contracts. Neither did he choose to write about lawyers who get suspended for not filing their annual fees or those whose fiddle with their trust accounts. Nobody would want to read that. Of course he cherry-picked the sexiest, most lurid stories. It’s not an overview of the profession. It’s a deliberate look at some of the seamiest lawyers out there. And none of it is really an exposé, as many commentators and mainstream media have called it. The tales he tells are all on the public record, in court documents, in discipline proceedings. He’s rounded them out with interviews and other research, but none of it is secret. It’s now simply all collected in one place.

The reality is there are lawyers who go bad, sometimes of choice and sometimes through circumstance. This month’s cover story on Peter Shoniker illustrates just that. But the same way as there are honest and dishonest mechanics, there are honest and dishonest lawyers. What Slayton does try to bring to the fore are some of the issues that can be instrumental in why some lawyers go “to the dark side.” The pressures of billing and profits are relentless, particularly in large firms. Law societies are relatively conservative and the discipline processes are not as transparent, effective, and as even across the country as they could be. And, as even I’ve heard through conversations with many law students, law schools tend to focus on business law (and big law firms), generating money, and working with the wealthy.

Slayton has said many things that lawyers themselves say. He’s been attacked by critics but at the same time lauded by many practitioners who agree with him. Instead of hurling insults, the profession should take note and engage in debate about the issues Slayton has brought to light. He is not some fly-by-night operator, but a former law school dean and Bay Street lawyer who has keenly observed the profession for decades. Everyone may not agree with him and, of course, the increase in sales of his book resulting from this brouhaha is benefiting him, but his opinions shouldn’t be dismissed. Canadian Lawyer will still run his columns and give him the freedom to express his opinions in our pages.


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