This article originally appeared in the National Post.
By Ryan Alford, April 17, 2023
Throughout Ontario, great alarm is being raised in elite legal circles. Eight former treasurers (chairs) of the board of the Law Society of Ontario (LSO), which regulates the legal profession, wrote an open letter saying they are “gravely concerned” about a slate of candidates, myself included, that are running in the upcoming bencher election. According to these grandees, the FullStop slate will pare down the LSO, forcing the provincial government to react by seizing control of the legal profession. This is the sort of counter-intuitive thinking that only the cream of the legal profession can manage.
In case you are wondering who our legal eminences are so worked up about, FullStop is the continuation of the slate that formed in the 2019 bencher election to stand up to the Law Society’s statement of principles, an unconstitutional provision mandating compelled speech in support of the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, as a condition of practising law.
FullStop is now running on a platform that would prevent similar abuses by returning the LSO to its proper role as a neutral regulator focused on competence and integrity, rather than the expense of social engineering and policing speech. Needless to say, the elites and the bureaucrats are apoplectic.
During my service on the board of the LSO over the past four years, I’ve met only a minority of these former chairs. One appointed me vice-chair of the tribunal committee, which monitors our disciplinary regime. Former chairs have the right to attend board meetings for the rest of their natural lives (and to be compensated and reimbursed for it), but after I was elected, the wine cellar was liquidated and most meetings were moved to Zoom, which likely diminished my chances of making their acquaintances.
I sometimes feel that I know the chairs I’ve never met, though. I attended numerous meetings under the watchful eyes of the large portraits that the LSO commissioned to, in its own words, “immortalize” them (at the Law Society’s expense, naturally). Every time I visited Osgoode Hall, I walked past a remarkable triple portrait of Allan Rock — the self-appointed spokesman for the former chairs — in which he was painted from three different angles, like Anthony Van Dyck’s study of King Charles I.
Perhaps the three Rocks in his portrait represent three phases of his storied career. In addition to the board of the LSO, Rock served for a decade in the cabinet of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. His official biography boasts that he was responsible for endowing the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation with $125 million of taxpayer money. It’s proving to be quite an accomplishment.
Rock’s third act was his service as the president of the University of Ottawa, where he distinguished himself by approving a letter warning a visiting speaker that her speech “could in fact lead to criminal charges.” Rock admitted, in his own words, to “using intemperate language in exchanges with colleagues” — that is, with those who disagreed about the value of free speech. Two separate controversies involving free speech and academic freedom led to complaints about Rock’s conduct from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
Rock now presents himself as a pre-eminent voice among those seeking to restore good board governance and civility at the LSO. I cannot help but wonder why anyone with a passing familiarity with his history would put any credence in his views. He apparently thinks he is better than you, as do many others of his ilk.
My colleagues and I are challenging the ever-expanding bureaucracy at the LSO. The legal elite’s response has been to form a supersized electoral coalition, the Good Governance Coalition (GGC), which seeks to fill every single elected position on the board. In short, it would have no opposition. This, in their view, would constitute a return to normalcy. And in this, they are quite right: the legal elite has traditionally claimed the exclusive right to cultivate and select their successors, a system that ensures that its privileges can never be threatened.
According to the current chair, my slate is “unfit to govern,” while members of her coalition are paragons of civility, decorum and fiduciary responsibility. In short, they are just better people. Accordingly, they ask voters to abandon any thought of voting for some, but not all, of their candidates: the former chairs assert that “unlike bencher elections in the past, you must vote for each of the 40 GGC candidates.”
One might interpret that imperious statement as an indication that the electoral regulations were changed; rather, the GGC means to say that they are asking lawyers to vote for all of their candidates as a matter of course, rather than to consider their individual merits. It is quite telling that they phrase this request to the voters as a command.
The elites are entirely in accord with the idea that if you just let the best people select the best people, then you will be governed accordingly. The Greeks had a word for that: aristocracy. It is fundamentally incompatible with the ethos of a learned profession, which is defined by the freedom to exercise one’s own judgment. It is because we are a society comprised of professionals that Ontario’s lawyers are entitled to choose the members of their regulator.
Our self-appointed elite do not think it is legitimate for members to vote for candidates simply because they believe their professional dues are too high, or because unnecessary regulatory burdens prevent them from representing their clients to the best of their abilities, or because they think they deserve to know the salaries of LSO executives. That much has been said. What is left unsaid is even more important: members should not have the right to elect people who believe that the views of rank-and-file lawyers matter.
From April 19-29, each lawyer in Ontario will have the right to choose between dramatically different visions of the legal profession and its regulator. The elite regards one of those choices not just as wrong, but as illegitimate. Aristocracy cannot abide democracy. Unfortunately for them, every member of our learned profession is entitled to make up his or her own mind — for the time being, at least, and pending the result of this election.
Allan Rock said that he and the other former chairs “share a real concern about what’s been happening at convocation over the last four years.” I am not sure how he came to the conclusion that convocation, the Law Society board’s monthly meeting, has changed so much in the past four years, since I don’t believe he ever showed up. For me, the highlights were repealing the statement of principles requirement, preventing dues from increasing to new heights and blocking ever more intrusive regulations.
I have no doubt that convocation is somewhat less refined than in Rock’s day, since we have the sort of serious disagreements that stem from taking lawyers’ views seriously. If one prefers to turn Osgoode Hall back into a clubhouse for self-important people, by all means, vote for the GGC. If lawyers want to preserve self-governance for mere mortals, they are free to vote FullStop. Its members are looking forward to serving the public interest by helping the Law Society get out of lawyers’ way.
Ryan Alford, a professor in the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, is a candidate in the upcoming Law Society of Ontario bencher election.