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Action items for Canadian lawyers

Like many Canadians, I knew that Donald Trump could get elected on November 8, 2016 – I just didn’t think he would. (I dressed up as a Hillary Clinton campaign volunteer for Halloween, after all).

Colourful lights inside an office building at night

Like many Canadians, I knew that Donald Trump could get elected on November 8, 2016 – I just didn’t think he would. (I dressed up as a Hillary Clinton campaign volunteer for Halloween, after all.) After much cathartic crying, hugging, and talking it out, I placed myself in the camp of those who want to use the election results as a catalyst for increased community involvement. I want to make sure we in Canada strengthen our defences against the kind of intolerance, racism, and misogyny that won the election south of the border.

Most lawyers I know are already incredibly generous with their time and impressively involved in their communities, but as my favourite podcast Another Round reminded me last week, there’s always more we can all do in our own spaces. So without further ado, some ideas, in case you too are ready to start feeling a little more helpful and hopeful, and a little less helpless and hopeless:

  • Do pro bono work. The CBA recommends that lawyers spend 50 hours a year on pro bono files “to establish or preserve the rights of disadvantaged individuals; to provide legal services to assist organizations who represent the interests of, or who work on behalf of, members of the community of limited means or other public interest organizations; or for the improvement of laws or the legal system.” Your own firm is a good place to start, as it may already have a pro bono policy to guide you, and there may even be open pro bono files for organizations that could use extra hands. Refugee law is an area of great need these days; check out the Halifax Refugee Clinic or equivalent in your area, and the national Refugee Sponsorship Support program. You could also check out your local chapter of Pro Bono Students Canada to sign up as a lawyer supervisor.
  • Join the board of a not-for-profit organization. Many NFPs want a lawyer on their board, and lawyers can benefit from exercising their legal skills in a different community setting (as long as all ethical rules are followed). Not sure where to start? Ask around in your workplace to see if any of your colleagues’ board terms are coming to an end; perhaps you can replace them. Your law society may keep a roster of board opportunities as well – the NSBS does.
  • Start your own organization. If you see a void in your legal or wider community, why not exercise some lawyerly leadership and start a new organization to fill it? Facebook especially makes it pretty easy to gather and organize like-minded people. Start small and see where it goes.
  • Act on your ethical obligation to honour human rights. Our Code of Professional Conduct stipulates that: “A lawyer must not discriminate against any person” and includes a commentary stating that: “A lawyer has a special responsibility to respect the requirements of human rights laws in force in Canada, its provinces and territories and, specifically, to honour the obligations enumerated in human rights law.” If we take these obligations seriously, we will call out racist comments when we hear them and point out sexism when we see it. More broadly, we will use our privileged positions to advocate for equity-seeking groups.
  • Develop your cultural competence. Cultural competence is quickly becoming an essential part of overall competence and ethical lawyering. Take advantage of law society resources for lawyers and law students. Organize education sessions on cultural competence in your firm and / or for your local CBA branch.
  • Participate in diversity and inclusion initiatives to advance equity in the legal profession. Does your legal workplace have a formal D&I program in place? If not, it should – there’s even a new podcast about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, by Gowling WLG. If it does, see how you can participate. Your law society may also have ongoing equity-advancing initiatives that need volunteers.
  • Seek out opportunities to speak at local schools. It’s valuable for students to hear directly from lawyers about the kind of work they do – especially when it comes to promoting human rights and preventing discrimination. As part of CBA’s annual Law Day program, Nova Scotia lawyers have been conducting high school visits across the province every April for the last few years, teaching lessons about the Charter and helping to run mock trials.
  • Write op-eds. Newspapers and other publications often publish insightful commentary from lawyers and law professors. It’s a powerful way to make a well-reasoned argument and reach a wider audience.
  • Start and sign petitions. They can make a difference. As part of a multi-pronged advocacy effort, several Nova Scotia lawyers and the Elizabeth Fry Society recently spearheaded a campaign to prevent the deportation of two local women who had come to Canada as children, not been given citizenship, and been stripped of permanent residency and threatened with deportation as a result of criminality. The campaign included a petition as one of several measures (including crowdfunding, traditional media coverage, letters and social media posts to MPs, and on-the-ground lawyering) that combined to effect change. One of these women was released on Friday and will have her permanent residency restored; hopefully there will be a positive result for the other.
  • Complain, if appropriate. There’s been a swell of activism related to alleged judicial misconduct, with lawyers and law professors filing formal complaints with judicial disciplinary bodies. Think of Justice Camp, who (inter alia) asked a sexual assault complainant why she didn’t just keep her knees together, and more recently, Judge Zabel, who wore a “Make America Great Again” hat in his courtroom the day after the election. Of course, lawyers have to be careful when publicly criticizing judges, but following formal complaints procedures can be an appropriate way to address concerns about perceived inequities, partiality, and lack of independence in the courtroom.
  • Use social media wisely. I don’t engage with Twitter trolls, but I do try to share articles and engage in respectful discussion with my actual friends and followers. We can practice what my other favourite podcast calls “critical sharing”. As much as we’d probably like to go offline for a while, the current situation feels too urgent for silence.
  • Look for other opportunities for collective action in places where you’re already involved. Whether it’s through your law society, CBA branch, house of worship, or political party, now’s the time to consider redoubling your commitment to organizations that are trying to advance progressive causes.

There’s that famous quote from Henry VI, Part 2: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” It’s often misinterpreted, but the general consensus is that Shakespeare was commenting on the crucial role lawyers play in upholding the rule of law. That role feels more urgent after November 8. But a little bit of collective action can go a long way.