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gary mason

Last week, my son was called to the bar.

A regular occurrence, his friends might say, but this time was different. The bar, in question, was the Great Hall at Vancouver's law courts, which, for the afternoon, was turned into a real courtroom, Justice Catherine Wedge presiding. It is a momentous day in the life of any young lawyer; receiving the certificate that allows you to practise in a particular jurisdiction.

The ceremony has its origins in Middle Ages England when a wooden bar, literally, kept the public separated from the judges and those who had business with the courts. Getting "called," as it is widely referenced, can be highly emotional, both for the young lawyers who have worked so long and hard to get here, and their families, who have witnessed, up close, the strain, sweat and toil that has preceded this moment.

Lawyers, as a group, aren't held in high esteem; there are unscrupulous attorneys who have contributed to that reputation. Some of it is the nature of the job itself. Much of it is a stereotype that is easily nourished in today's world. Words you don't often associate with those who practise are heart and compassion.

On the day my son was called, the ceremony included a speech by David Crossin, a Vancouver lawyer and chair of the Law Society of British Columbia. It was beautiful and profound in many ways, one informed, clearly, by decades in the business. He talked about the invigorating, intellectual challenges newly minted lawyers would face. He referenced, too, the monetary benefits that can come with the job. "But a word of caution, an invitation of reflection," he said. "Enjoy the financial rewards but don't let the business of law kill your soul. It can creep up on you. Be alive to that."

The line reverberated with me. It harked instantly to the lament penned by a young lawyer writing in The Globe and Mail recently that spoke to this very thing. She talked about how many of her fellow, like-aged barristers and solicitors were literally depressed by the insane pressure to meet billable-hour targets, an age-old payment system in the legal community that can create untold stress and anxiety.

"Sometimes, it can take a toll," Mr. Crossin said, referencing this fierce, endless pursuit of legal work. "If you find yourself in difficulty, reach out your hand, one of your colleagues will take it. If you see a colleague in difficulty, open up your heart and reach out your hand. Your colleague in distress will take it."

He urged the new recruits to leave room for the opportunity to see, hear and understand that many live in the shadows of our justice system.

"They are the disenfranchised, the desperate, the displaced, the dispirited," he continued. "They are always poor; often poor women. They are our fellow citizens without hope; without opportunity. They live, as has been said, on the outskirts of opportunity." He urged the new lawyers to make time in their schedules to help those who so desperately need their help.

He couldn't leave the stage, he said, without asking those about to join the profession to acknowledge and confront what he termed "one of the most profound justice issues of our lifetime."

"That is, the human despair of our many First Nations communities left in the wake of the regime of residential schools," he said. "Our justice system failed our indigenous community. I ask for your help, in the years to come, in redeeming our justice system in this regard." He said this would not happen without the full engagement of the judiciary and the young lawyers of the future.

"It will not be a familiar emotional path for many of us," he said. "There is a risk. And so, in the circumstances, and on this day in particular, I can do no better than to remind you of the words of our iconic hero Muhammad Ali: 'A man not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.'

"Take the opportunity to offer your skills, your dedication and your heart in these matters," Mr. Crossin said. "Take that risk. In the end, it is our hearts that define the spirit and soul of our profession."

When he was finished, I couldn't think of better advice that those entering the field could receive. Lawyers play an important and vital role in our society, one rife with often insane pressure and extraordinarily long hours. It's a job that tenders the prospect of immense fulfilment and the chance to make a difference in our society. But it also offers the opportunity to extend a helping hand to those who need it most.

I hope my son was listening.

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