Skip to Content

Meet the CBA’s new CEO

Simon Coakeley speaks to CBA National about the future of the association as the legal profession emerges from the pandemic into economic recovery.

Simon Coakeley, CEO, Canadian Bar Association
Simon Coakeley, CEO, Canadian Bar Association Blair Gable

On February 15th, Simon Coakeley began his tenure as chief executive. He replaces Steve Pengelly, who has been the Interim CEO since July 2020. A member of the Law Society of Ontario, Coakeley holds an LL.B and an LL.M and has 25 years experience as an executive in the federal government. He served 14 as an Assistant Deputy Minister. Before joining the CBA, he was the CEO of the National Association of Federal Retirees.

CBA National: As a lawyer, what does it mean for you to be taking on this new role as CEO of the CBA?

Simon Coakeley: I’m genuinely thrilled to be joining the Canadian Bar Association. I qualified as a lawyer in Ontario back in the ‘80s, and then my career took me into the federal government in administrative or executive roles. But it is a return to the source in some respects. For me, the real draw is that CBA, at both the federal and the provincial levels, through the work of its sections and its appearances before parliamentary committees, contributes to making this country the place that it is today. And I don’t think it’s particularly corny to say that I think Canada is one of the best countries in the world to live in, particularly from a governance point of view. The CBA contributes to that.

N: The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a lot about organizations. What can be learned from what we’ve been through?

SC: For one, we’ve learned that what was unthinkable only just a year ago has proven to be remarkably doable. Most organizations had real difficulty imagining how they could manage significant numbers of people teleworking. In many respects, we’ve managed that well. I think the big takeaway is that which is unthinkable bears thinking about, if you’re willing to look at things through a different lens.

N: Looking ahead, what sort of challenges do associations face?

SC: In many ways, the same ones as they always have. For every organization, particularly a voluntary association like the CBA, the challenge is always staying relevant to the members and delivering value for the money they pay. And that changes over time, which is why you constantly have to be in touch with your members — and those who aren’t your members — to find out why they’re not. The sorts of things that lawyers needed help with 20 years ago are not the same issues they face today.

N: Have online conferences replaced in-person events?

SC: I think we’ll learn to find a new balance. We can certainly do many things cheaper by finding ways of delivering services that don’t rely as much on in-person events as we did before. For example, can we provide more flexible modularized professional development that people can take online when they feel like it? And perhaps they can’t afford the travel associated with in-person meetings. But at the same time, in-person events will still have incredible value. You can’t beat human-to-human networking in real life. So, the question will really be, what is it worth to the member spending money to come and attend a meeting or an event? What is it that I’m offering the participants that’s more than what they’re getting online?

N: As you pointed out, membership’s needs change. And some of that is generational. How hard is it to reach out to different generations that think and act differently?

SC: You have to figure out how to serve people differently. But we have to be careful when talking about demographics. There’s age, but Canada being the country it is – multicultural, with different legal traditions, and its geographic distances – there are other demographic spectrums that play out on other issues. The important thing is to find ways of asking them, including the younger generation, what they need. The needs of someone working at a big-city law firm will be different from the needs of somebody who has chosen to strike out on their own.

N: How do you see the CBA positioning itself in terms of advocacy?

SC: The CBA is uniquely equipped to contribute, through its advocacy, to the advancement of law at both the federal level and provincial levels, in part because we can represent different sides of an issue. And our members are able, internally, to synthesize and take a position on an issue that is in the public interest. The CBA is a rare organization that can do that.

But there is also the crucial matter around providing people with the access to justice that they need. Mixed in with that are issues of systemic racism and whether people of less fortunate socio-economic backgrounds can get the best representation they deserve. The CBA has a big part to play in that.