An IP practitioner and partner at Aikins MacAulay & Thorvaldson LLP in Winnipeg, the new president has been involved with the CBA for more than 22 years. He talks to Canadian Lawyer about his plans for the association over the next year.
Q. What are your priorities for the coming year?
A. What I would like to do is to continue building the membership of the Canadian Bar Association. Not only throughout Canada but, because of my background, particularly in Quebec, and I’m following Bernard Amyot and, historically speaking, it’s a first for the CBA to have two francophone presidents and a first to have a national president that’s a francophone from outside Quebec, so I want to seize that opportunity to grow membership in Quebec but also in other parts of the country. I think every association wants to grow its membership. Every association wants to be the biggest and the best, but for me it’s doubly important for the Canadian Bar Association because we do have the two solitudes within the legal profession in Canada. You do have, on the one side, the law societies, and, on the other side, you have the association. In order to have a really strong association in this country, we need to have a very strong association that not only represents the jurists’ interests but is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to defending those rights but also when it comes to defending the rights of the public and dealing with other issues that are critical to any legal system, such as the rule of law and those kinds of things. Membership is fundamental so that’s one of the main objectives I want to pursue.
Q. What would you say are the benefits for lawyers in joining the CBA?
A. Law is a second career for me. When I went to law school, it was a lifelong dream of mine. But to become a real professional you have to become involved in your profession. You have to. You have to commit to lifelong learning and you have to commit to the profession and be a part of it. You’re required to be a member of the law society but you do need to become a member of the Canadian Bar Association because that’s the other half of the equation. So the benefit is that you become a member of your profession. You belong to a national organization that is there to defend your interests and take care of your interests on a national basis, to not only represent your interests not only before the government but before the public.
Q. Do you have any membership numbers that you are aiming for?
A. That would really vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. What we’re after generally is to grow the membership. We now have a new strategic plan that sees us focusing on membership and working hard to increase membership. So we don’t have a particular percentage. If we grow members by x per cent in Dauphin, Man., that would be great if we had a lower rate of membership. That might mean growing it by one, two, or four people, depending on the size of the region. It all depends. The point is to grow membership, which is demonstrating to non-members that the CBA is relevant and showing them the kind of things we’re doing and also at the same time that we’re doing that, we’re showing our existing members why they need to continue to belong. We are also working on the retention aspect of the membership-building. Those two would go hand in hand.
Q. Does the CBA have any other big projects it will be working on during your tenure?
A. Absolutely, and this is linked to membership. We have commissioned a working group that has been looking at conflicts of interest. It arises out of some recent Supreme Court [of Canada] decisions that touch on the duty of loyalty and also some of the questions relating to the duty of confidentiality. There’s been some confusion within the legal community as to how to apply those standards. So what we’ve done is we’ve gathered together a formidable brain trust of individuals from across the country that have been working on this project. They’ve analyzed the cases and they are poised to submit a report that will be tabled at the annual meeting in Quebec this August that will deal all of the issues. And also they will be submitting a tool kit that will contain things like retainer letters and checklists and those kinds of things that are very practical that lawyers from small-town Manitoba all the way up to a lawyer in the largest national firm in the country can go through and know what to do and how to handle certain conflict situations. So a valuable tool for our members. A very important project but at the same time something that’s very useful to the public at large because it deals with conflicts of interest that affect our clients at large and affects the public.
Q. What do you feel is the biggest issue facing the profession at the moment?
A. We’ve recently conducted a survey and it’s a segmentation survey where we’ve analyzed the concerns and the issues facing members and non-members in various categories. And one trend that’s come up deals with this whole work-life balance issue. That’s not only an issue for younger lawyers coming up the ladder who are the future of our profession, but it’s an issue that’s important for firms because they’re faced with a higher turnover of young associates. Obviously firms invest time and energy and effort in training young lawyers. One project we’re focusing our attention on is how we can deal with that and better understand what needs to be done in order to address the concerns of the younger lawyers and also to address the concerns of the firms. One of our organizations within the CBA, the young lawyers of the Canadian Bar Association, have been appropriately mandated to study this particular issue in more detail. We’re looking forward to receiving their findings in due course.
I also think another one — and I think it’s facing the legal profession but more so the public — is the whole question of legal aid. As you may be aware, we currently have been involved in a case out of B.C. about the right to legal aid [Canadian Bar Association v. British Columbia]. We currently have sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court on a decision out of the B.C. Court of Appeal. The position of the Canadian Bar Association is that we had taken a systemic approach to that case and at both court levels in B.C., they said you can bring this on a case-by-case basis but the systemic approach is not the correct one. The CBA’s position was that a lot of people that need legal aid and would want to take this case of the fundamental right to legal aid all the way to the Supreme Court can’t afford it in any event. So the approach is the systemic approach, so hopefully it will be heard before the Supreme Court.
Q. What are your thoughts about the prime minister’s new system for choosing Supreme Court of Canada judges?
A. The CBA’s position on that is that the process needs to be transparent but the process also needs to be non-partisan. That’s always been the concern of the Canadian Bar Association when this issue first came up for the last Supreme Court nominee. It continues to be the CBA’s concern that it will become highly political and it would become an opportunity for partisanship.
Q. Does the CBA have any role in the new system?
A. At this stage, my understanding is that we don’t. Historically the CBA has had a role to play in that when the list of nominees [was] prepared, the CBA had an opportunity to comment. My understanding is that at least, at this stage, that we do not have a specific role.
Q. Which of the current laws proposed by the government do you think need the most work or should be scrapped altogether?
A. I really can’t comment on this. I know we, on a regular basis, work with our national sections as laws come up. They’re not necessarily laws that need to be scrapped. We work through our national sections when legislation comes up that may require some adjustment, on a positive side — the government maybe needs to consider adding things to the law — or reconsider taking away things from particular pieces of legislation. Generally speaking, it’s not a question of which laws ought to be scrapped but of working with government, because they’re obviously a major stakeholder in this country, and expressing our particular expertise and our particular point of view.
Q. Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share?
A. Just one comment and I think it’s rather interesting. One of the objectives of our strategic plan is to create a centre of expertise at the Canadian Bar Association national office. What we’ve been finding over the last few years is that there is a real scarcity or paucity of information or statistics relating to the legal profession. Stats Canada’s last bit of information they have dates back, I think, to the ‘50s, so there’s really not much information out there.
I’ll give you a startling example: there’s the whole rural and remote regional access to lawyers. We’ve been receiving anecdotal evidence that some regions are in dire straights, where younger lawyers are not interested in taking over practices in rural or remote areas and they are moving to larger centres. This could be part and parcel of the work-life balance thing, but people in remote and rural areas are having problems accessing lawyers or they can access the lawyer but there’s a conflict because that lawyer acted against your wife or husband. The long and short of it is that we’ve been receiving this information on an ad hoc basis and so what we’ve tried to do is gather the information to better understand, to get that empirical information. Virtually, it’s next to impossible. We’ve contacted the law societies. We’ve given them a sort of format to follow, but of course all the law societies are independent. They collect information in detail but differently. We’ve received the information back from the law societies and we’ve collated it and we have synthesized it and are trying to come to some conclusions. We have not arrived at those conclusions yet, the committee is scheduled to meet in [July]. That’s just one example of there’s an issue out there that’s important, it’s a public concern, and it’s obviously a concern to the profession but it really impacts the public.
So the commitment of the CBA is that they will become the centre of expertise, they will become the central repository of all of that information that will be made available to other stakeholders within the country. So that way when projects and issues come up, that information is readily available so people and organizations can make informed decisions. I think that in and of itself, that particular centre will then be the hotbed for many, many future projects of the CBA because that information will be there and we will be able to use. It’s a work in process. We are gathering information. The project has been launched and it’s in its infancy. The CBA has information already — we’ve done countless surveys over the years. The idea is that it’s going to be centralized, organized, and catalogued.