It may have seemed as if Governor-General David Johnston was taking a shot at lawyers. But he spoke as one who loves the law and has spent a lifetime teaching young people how to be lawyers. Using the authority of his office to exhort the powerful to do a better job of standing up for justice, and for the powerless, is a good use of that authority.
Mr. Johnston's theme in his year as Governor-General might sound a little nebulous – to push for a smarter and more caring nation over the six years leading up to this country's 150th birthday in 2017. He gave that theme some much-needed edge, in his keynote address to the Canadian Bar Association's annual conference in Halifax last weekend.
Some of his most challenging remarks were about what lawyers need to do to maintain the public's trust. In the collapse of Wall Street, "how many lawyers 'papered' the deals that involved fraudulent statements of assets, liabilities, income and valuations? How many lawyers 'sounded the alarm' about conflict of interest in the web of financial transactions and creative financial instruments?" He went on to say that fiscal discipline is so hard to come by in Greece or Italy because "trust is eroded between lawmakers and the public. Many ordinary citizens believe it is the greed of lawyers, bankers and accountants that has brought their society to its knees."
A former law dean, Mr. Johnston challenged the law schools not to obsess over the intellectual qualifications of entering students, but to look more broadly at their "ethical sensibility and depth," personal relationships, wisdom, judgment and leadership. He would also ensure "a broad and extensive focus on ethics in law school."
He criticized lawyers for their role in adding unnecessary delay to legal cases and not doing enough pro bono work. (Canada's Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin also raised the issue of access to justice at the CBA conference, citing a Toronto study that found the average small firm charges clients $338 an hour.) Mr. Johnston suggested law firms aren't allowing for a reasonable work-life balance, and said "the harsh scorecard is how few firms count women among their senior partners. The women simply disappear along the way."
None of what he said was improper. A profession that says it prizes equality before the law should ensure that the principle is applied to women in law-firm offices. The percentage of pro bono work done is minuscule. His comments should seen for what they are – an attempt to spark a debate about what justice and professionalism should mean in law.