Interview with CBA President Stephen Rotstein
The new CBA President discusses his priorities for the year 2021-2022, his focus on well-being and the challenges facing the legal profession as we emerge from the pandemic.
CBA National: This is a challenging time for the profession. The pandemic has forced lawyers to reconsider the work environment, how they deliver services. The courts have also had to adjust to new realities. With that in mind, can you tell us what you've identified as your priorities for the year ahead?
Stephen Rotstein: I want to align my priorities with the issues that our members are dealing with. First and foremost is how they're adapting to the new realities of the post-pandemic world—how they want to operate as lawyers in their workplaces, how they are to be prepared for the future of law, and how they can take advantage of opportunities that present themselves because of those changes. With that in mind, my priority for our association is to provide our lawyers with education and tools about how to succeed in a virtual world. Our goal is to help them adapt their practice and their services to client demands, if they're in private practice, or if they're in-house, to the evolving expectations of their employers.
Part of that – my second priority – is focusing on the well-being of lawyers. I hear a lot, anecdotally, about lawyers being successful professionally. Their practices are busy, and their firms are busy. But they're not feeling a sense of overall satisfaction because work-life balance disappears when you work from home and have meetings that start early and some that go well into the evening. Well-being and mental health will be a crucial priority for me as a president. We have to make sure that our members have the tools to be successful professionally and personally.
Along with that, we must continue to be a powerful voice on the advocacy front, on issues of law reform, and how our whole system of justice responds to post-pandemic realities. The judiciary is obviously working very hard on these issues, and the government is working with the judiciary. As the largest association representing the legal profession in the country, the CBA must be at the table for those discussions, as we were last year when we launched our Task Force on Justice Issues Arising from COVID-19.
Finally, we need to focus more on where the professions should be and how it can give back. It's a personal priority that I feel strongly about. Lawyers have a valued position in the community, and we have a skill set that many organizations are looking for. We need to be volunteer leaders within those communities. For some, that may mean doing pro bono work; for others, it's getting involved on community councils and community boards. You can be a volunteer in a whole bunch of different capacities. The important thing is that legal professionals contribute to their community. I'll be talking a lot about the importance of volunteerism and looking for ways the CBA can help its members build pathways into that world.
N: What are the other challenges you see facing the legal profession in Canada today?
SR: We're in a time of unprecedented change and the legal profession is in the process of adapting to that. Not just in how we deliver services, but also in understanding that clients are likely to want to engage us in different ways. We also have to think about challenges in the workplace. For instance, how will we mentor young lawyers, many of whom don't want to return to the office? They want to work; they just prefer to work virtually or their priorities have changed. Still, we need strong relationships among junior lawyers and partners, or employees and managers, if you're in an in-house environment. We need to focus on how to develop young lawyers so they can be successful and be exposed to opportunities to advance their careers.
N: The pandemic is hardly behind us yet. But looking to the future, what can legal professionals focus on to recover in the post-pandemic world?
SR: You're right, we're not in a post-pandemic world yet, but they'll need to focus on adaptability. We talk about the "new normal," and I'm not sure I love the expression. But it's fair to say that when we all return to our offices, if we ever do, we will have to change a lot of things. The good news is that the legal profession has shown itself to be exceptionally adaptable. The CBA has too. Our conferences and most of our professional development used to be in-person, for instance. And yes, we want to return to having some in-person events, and human interaction is important. But we have also been successful at producing digital offerings. We have created online symposia and other online products, which have been very well received. People can now access them from their homes or their offices without the time and expense of traveling to other cities.
N: As the courts and the profession adapted to life during the pandemic, access to justice improved for some people, but not everyone. What must we focus on to improve the Canadian legal system for everyone?
SR: We need to focus on the public. The judicial system is there to serve the public, and the judiciary and the lawyers are servants to achieve this. Now, it's true that the pandemic has provided additional access to justice for some, especially in remote communities where there is good access to the internet. Those people can access some judicial services without having to drive two or three hours, which is great. The flip side is that moving services online poses a new challenge for those who don't have great broadband access or aren't technologically savvy. So, the CBA is advocating for better access to justice on different fronts at the same time. It's important that people have access to justice in the sense they can hire lawyers to represent and advise them. But they also need access to the judicial system itself.
N: Tell us more about the CBA's advocacy efforts.
SR: The CBA is a big-tent organization involved in a lot of different advocacy efforts. There's one I want to highlight because it's one that my predecessor, Brad Regehr spoke passionately about, and I share his interest, and that is truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Brad has done great work drawing attention to issues around the Truth and Reconciliation's calls to action, the need for improved education for legal professionals and how law firms and law departments can be better allies to Indigenous clients. The CBA's advocacy will continue to advocate forcefully for those measures. There's another part to it, which is pushing for diversity and inclusion within the legal profession, particularly as it relates to the judiciary. The appointment of Justice Mahmud Jamal, the first person of colour appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, was a landmark appointment. But that's just the starting point. Our legal system and our judiciary need to reflect the population they serve. We will continue to talk about the importance of a diverse and inclusive bar and judiciary.