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The polls are closed, the ballots have been cast and 99 Ontario lawyers are perched on the edge of their office chairs awaiting the results.

The conclusion of one of the most venerable and hotly contested elections in the country -- the race to spend the next four years as an elected "bencher" of the Law Society of Upper Canada -- is just hours away.

After months of phone calls and a blizzard of flyers, 40 of the 99 candidates will walk away with the prize they covet -- an opportunity to spend hundreds of hours per year, largely uncompensated, regulating the 37,000 lawyers who make up the province's fiercely independent profession.

When the vote counting is complete some time today or tomorrow, the top 20 candidates within Toronto and the top 20 outside Toronto will be elected.

"I think I might feel a bit sad after it's all over," confessed candidate Carol Hartman, a Sudbury family lawyer who reached 200 lawyers in a marathon phone-a-thon in the waning days of the campaign.

For all the effort that goes into getting elected and the drudgery of Law Society committee work, elections consistently attract some of the top talent in the bar.

This year's candidates included criminal lawyers Alan Gold, Mark Sandler and Julian Falconer; civil litigators Thomas Heintzman, Julian Porter and Paul Schabas; and former federal justice minister Doug Lewis.

Why do lawyers do it?

"I do it because I really believe in giving back," said Ms. Hartman, who spent several thousand dollars on her campaign. "People fail to appreciate just how much time this profession gives to the community, over and above lawyering."

To criminal lawyer Paul Copeland, being a bencher for 16 years has given him added credibility: "People in the profession give a little more credit to what you say."

Certainly, remuneration is no incentive. Benchers work 26 days for free before a $500 per diem takes effect. They also enjoy the occasional sumptuous meal prepared by the society's exquisite chefs, and bottles of fine wine from its legendary wine cellar.

On a crasser level, being a bencher can help line up a judicial appointment. It also carries undeniable cachet. For blue-chip, establishment lawyers, it signifies their credentials. For establishment outsiders, it shows their willingness to fight and reform the system from within.

Clayton Ruby is an example of both. After 30 years as a bencher, he is about to become the longest-serving bencher in Law Society history. Widely perceived as a left-wing burr in the saddle of the establishment, Mr. Ruby also dwells at the core of the establishment. "It's weird that a perennial critic gets elected year after year, but I'm grateful for it," Mr. Ruby said. "I think that people want to know there is somebody on the inside, questioning authority."

Mr. Copeland said that name recognition and celebrity-lawyer endorsement are invaluable. (An endorsement by criminal-law heavyweight Edward Greenspan is said to virtually guarantee a candidate's success.) It is also widely believed that big firms engage in vote-trading to ensure that their lawyers get elected, Mr. Copeland said.

Among the issues that dominated debate this year:

Disaffection. Many lawyers view the society as being aloof, stuffy and punitive, and promise to return it to its grassroots.

Fiscal restraint. High membership fees chafe many members.

Legal aid underfunding.

Paralegals. Most lawyers want them regulated, but don't want to pay for doing it.

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A glossary of terms

Law Society of Upper Canada: Established in 1797, it governs all activities of Ontario's legal profession, including ethics, disciplinary action and compensation for victims of crooked lawyers.

Benchers: They are elected directors of the Law Society of Upper Canada, a body that regulates, disciplines and governs Ontario's 37,000 lawyers. Forty benchers are elected, while eight are non-lawyers who are appointed by the province. All former attorneys-general and treasurers of the law society are non-voting benchers.

Convocation: A name applied to regular meetings where the benchers vote on policy or deal with conduct and disciplinary issues.

Treasurer: The head bencher. Elected by convocation from amongst their number, he or she serves a two-year term, and is normally acclaimed to a second two-year term.

Kirk Makin