Wellness: Is LSO election a win for the profession? | Darryl Singer

By Darryl Singer

Law360 Canada (May 8, 2023, 11:40 AM EDT) --
Darryl Singer
Darryl Singer
Well, another Law Society of Ontario bencher election is complete and we will have a new governing council. To refresh those who forgot or who just did not vote, this election campaign was dominated by politics rather than issues which should have mattered. On the left, we had the Good Governance Coalition (GGC), those who espoused equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) principles; on the right, we had FullStop Team, mostly a rehash of the StopSOP group from four years ago, made up of those who thought EDI had gone too far. There were also a number of independents, doomed from the start since they were endorsed by another coalition.

Despite a near split amongst the two camps in 2019, this time around it was a romp for the GGC. The renegades, rebels and rogues (to quote a country song) were trounced, including almost all the FullStop incumbents.

My personal votes went to a mix of candidates from each slate as well as some very qualified independents. I have always felt that in Canada, regardless of one’s political leaning, a minority government is the best for the most people. It has a built-in check and balance that is important in a democracy, and I feel the same about regulatory bodies such as the LSO.

The new iteration of Convocation is, sadly, nothing new at all, and there is no check and balance. It is a group of people who appear to have groupthink. It represents the law society through most of its history, minus the interregnum of 2019-2023. By this I mean, mostly Bay Street or Bay Street adjacent benchers who mean well but for the most part have no real understanding of the trials and tribulations of small town, solo practice, or marginalized lawyers. And without independent voices or a counter-slate of opposition across the table, I fear we can expect more of the same old same old from the LSO for the next four years. What do I mean by more of the same? Here are some examples:

1. The LSO spends a lot of time and money trumpeting equity and diversity. But what has really changed for marginalized lawyers? Racialized lawyers outside the protection of the big firms are still more likely to be investigated, more likely to have the investigation move on to discipline and when penalized have harsher penalties imposed. If you doubt this, see the recent tribunal decisions in Law Society of Ontario v. Guiste, 2023 ONLSTH 59, and Law Society Ontario v. Barnwell, 2021 ONLSTH 50, both involving Black sole practitioners.

2. The LSO has a mental health summit every year. They fund the Members Assistance program. They say all the right words. Yet, when lawyers in mental crises fall into arrears with their filings, accounting or client management, the LSO is quick to investigate and move to discipline. A high percentage of these lawyers end up getting a 30-day suspension for failure to co-operate, because, well, they simply couldn’t. I have been asking prosecutors, staff and benchers for years why the LSO cannot help lawyers in crisis at the front end instead of going the investigation/discipline route. The answer is always: “We don’t have the resources.” Well, in fact the LSO does have the resources. It would be a question of reallocating some of the investigation/discipline budget to a new, lawyer-focused stream, which would, in turn, reduce the back end costs of discipline.

3. Young lawyers enter the profession with more student debt than ever, higher competition than ever, and less chance of making a living. Women lawyers are leaving the profession in droves when they have to make choices between work and family. We need some form of debt relief for new calls and subsidies for women who want to take leave. We need to introduce a locum system that would help any sole practitioner who needed a leave for any reason. Too many are afraid to take time off for fear of losing their client base and income.

4. We have a serious access to justice issue in this province. We need lawyers (and paralegals) who will go to underserved communities and charge reduced rates. But the economic and career reality of that is limiting. To encourage it, the LSO needs to find creative ways to address this. Subsidies, reduced fees and insurance and day-to-day practice supports are some of the things which could help.

The society governs with the mandate of protecting the public. Yet, it is quick to throw lawyers overboard in the public pronouncement of that aim. However, a lawyer-focused approach to the issues raised above would translate directly into better protecting the public while also providing access to justice.

The newly-elected benchers, in my opinion, do not appear to be the group to effect this sort of change. But I would be very happy to be proven wrong, and I wish the new Convocation all the best. Should they strike any committees or working groups where they seek to include non-benchers, I would be pleased to serve.

Darryl Singer is head of commercial and civil litigation at Diamond & Diamond Lawyers LLP in Toronto and continues to hope for real change.

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