Associations in Canada provide the basics but fall short

Cheryl Foy

There is, predictably and understandably, more interest in specific issues than in the profession as a whole. In-house lawyers are not unique in focusing on more immediate matters: Have I fulfilled my mandatory continuing professional development obligations? Do I have the information and skills I need to do my job well? Do I feel part of a community? Are my professional networks intact? As I look around however, I see relatively few of us are interested in the evolution of the role of in-house lawyers and I’d hazard a pretty educated guess fewer still care about the political organization of in-house lawyers or the associations and other groups that represent in-house lawyers.

There are lots of places to get the basics . . .

There are two main groups in Canada vying for the membership of in-house lawyers — many still confuse them (too many Cs and As in the acronyms, I guess). On top of the two associations, there are myriad industry-based lawyer associations. Examples include in-house insurance counsel, retail industry counsel, and the group I recently rejoined — the Canadian Association of University Solicitors, a group of lawyers who work for universities and colleges across Canada.

The latter groups are typically focused on exploiting the efficiencies associated with shared knowledge, circumstance, and experience and not at all on the in-house counsel professional role.

On top of those groups, you have law societies, bar associations, law firms, publishers, and professional education providers all vying to meet the more immediate needs of in-house lawyers for skills training, education, networking, and that sense of community we all want to have.

So, although it’s messy for in-house lawyers to sort through so many different sources for their education, skills-training, and informal networking needs, we generally are able to get what we need, particularly now as many courses are offered via webinar and we can view them wherever we reside. Although the courses are often free, we all obviously pay for all this “free training” as part of the fees we pay firms and other third parties.

I’m not sure it works for the providers — law firms and others spend a lot of money on free training and I question the return they receive — but that is for law firms to assess and regardless of their assessment, they are caught on the “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” hamster wheel.

Who is thinking about the bigger in-house picture in Canada? Where’s the in-house voice?

If we elevate the discussion to look at the big picture, things appear quite bleak to me. What about the broader organizational issues affecting Canadian in-house lawyers? What about the role of the in-house professional within business and society and as a legal professional? What about those issues that matter just to in-house lawyers? Who is thinking about them? Who is speaking on behalf of in-house counsel? Are in-house issues on any law school agenda or curriculum in Canada?

This is the last of three columns in which I share my views on whether in-house lawyers in Canada are getting what they need. In my last column, I pointed out law societies are virtually irrelevant to in-house lawyers and suggested how that relationship might be revitalized. In this column, I’ll share my views on how the associations that purport to represent in-house lawyers in Canada are doing.

The picture for in-house counsel and their associations in Canada is bleak too and has worsened over the past several years as two associations — the Association of Corporate Counsel and Canadian Corporate Counsel Association — share the market. I don’t think either can claim to be the voice of Canadian in-house counsel.

In-house counsel association economics are fairly basic — main sources of income are membership fees and fees from third parties with a keen interest in access to in-house counsel, such as large law firms. While association membership numbers are important to these third parties, who the members are is equally important. The general counsel of the big companies (with all of the big work to hand out) top the list of the types to which third parties want access and exposure.

ACC has fewer members but has had success establishing grassroots chapters in the biggest Canadian markets and has some very high profile Canadian members. The key advantage that ACC has is its clarity of purpose — it only allows in-house members and it only serves in-house lawyers. The ACC offers excellent free programming, has great online resources, and has a sophisticated handle on advocacy solely for in-house lawyers. For example, and perhaps most famously, the ACC was quick to understand the implications of and become visibly involved in Akzo Nobel Chemicals Ltd. and Akcros Chemicals Ltd. v. European Commission.

The ACC (through its former CEO Fred Krebs) has also facilitated the adoption and development of in-house programming in U.S. law schools. ACC’s key disadvantage for Canadian in-house lawyers (who don’t have a significant nexus to the U.S.) is its U.S. origins and base and thus its focus on U.S. laws, and how global laws affect U.S. businesses. Despite its growing Canadian membership, the reality of the in-house market is the Canadian membership will always be a fraction of the total and so getting focus on Canadian issues will continue to be a challenge.

The CCCA’s main advantage is it appears to have a larger number of in-house lawyers as members and seems to have been pretty effective at implementing a strategic plan that has it meeting the basic skills, knowledge, and networking needs of in-house lawyers. It has maintained its international relationships but what the benefit of that is to its members is unclear and its vision for those relationships (other than creating a bigger network) is unclear.

As far as I can tell, on the big picture issues of advocacy for the in-house bar and the development and professionalization of the in-house role, the CCCA has no vision. The CCCA is a brand controlled by the Canadian Bar Association. Governed as the CBA is by private practice lawyers, the CBA is in a classic conflict of interest when it comes to advancing any of the interests of in-house counsel that are contrary to the interests of the private bar. Without fundamental change there, I don’t see how the CCCA can become a visionary or an advocate for the in-house profession in Canada.

Prove me wrong

I would love to be proven wrong about either the ACC or the CCCA but I won’t be if most of you continue to be primarily interested in getting your CPD and being part of a nice in-house community. If you have any vision for the role of the in-house lawyer as an effective societal change agent and you want to see the profession develop to achieve that potential then give these things a little more thought and perhaps a little more time. Encourage whichever association you prefer to bring its best game for Canadian in-house counsel.

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