Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Ontario – June 20, 2013
Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer, Justice Doherty, Justice Feldman, other judicial colleagues, honourable benchers, recently called members of the Bar, families and friends.
It is my great privilege to preside over this meaningful ceremony.
To each of you, I express my sincere congratulations and my hope that every day of your life in the profession of law will be as rich and satisfying as this day.
Your presence here is a milestone event. It marks both an end and a beginning. Nearly four years of dedicated study and hard work are over. If your experience in law school and articling was at all typical, you have likely discovered that you couldn’t have achieved so much without the loving support of your families and close friends.
What awaits you next is many more years of dedicated study, hard work and perseverance. These attributes, after all, are the hallmarks of all good lawyers.
Today’s ceremony is full of significance. It means that hereafter, you will be known as, and deserve to be called, a lawyer. The designation is significant and permanent. It does not end when you retire; it does not end when, for any reason, you cease to practice.
Your stature as a lawyer changes everything. From this day forward, it is as a lawyer that you will present yourself: to the public, to your clients, to your peers, even to your families and friends.
In the few moments that are available to me I want to speak about what it means to be a lawyer, and about some of the weightier responsibilities that attach to that role.
First, and most importantly, you must recognize that being a lawyer is a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege which, along with your reputation, can be lost in a vanishing moment should you fail to live up to the high professional standards imposed upon you by virtue of your entry into this community.
The privilege of calling yourself a lawyer comes with many perquisites. You will be treated with respect and deference not only by your clients, but also by the public generally. You will be recognized as an officer of the court. You will have the distinction of being gowned in court, as you are today. The gown is itself a special distinction, a powerful sign or manifestation of dignity and worth.
The privilege of calling yourself a lawyer also means that even as you practice your craft you will have the opportunity to make a healthy living. And, if your experience proves to be anything like mine, you will find that as you make your living, your work will be interesting and stimulating.
When I became a lawyer some 50 years ago, every day I would marvel at how lucky I was to be able to do the work I did. The truth is that I would have done it for free. Very few people are fortunate enough to work at something that they enjoy completely, all day, every day. Being a lawyer opens up many opportunities for you and you should seek out work you enjoy. No one does a better job than someone who works for the sheer love of it.
However, along with the pleasures and privileges of practice come many responsibilities. Chief among these is the duty to serve the public ethically, diligently, and competently. A lawyer without high ethical standards is an empty vessel, a mere technician whose relationship to the client amounts to nothing other than a casual, superficial commercial transaction.
Were it not for the strict ethical code by which lawyers conduct themselves, they would have no right to command a monopoly over the services they render. Nor would they enjoy the privilege of self- regulation.
Law is a learned and noble profession. So, as you join it today, you do so on the solemn undertaking that you will act in accord with your distinguished office, which is to say that you will act professionally.
Now, as you likely know, “professionalism” is a much debated topic among lawyers, professors, judges, and the public.
However, for me at least, generally speaking, “professionalism” signifies a cluster of values that are palpable, that you can see, hear, or feel. Scholarship, honour, personal integrity, leadership and independence, pride in our justice system, and generous pro bono public service, are just a few of the ways in which, or by which, it is exemplified.
Professionalism is the life force that pulses within and drives through every good lawyer. It is the rock, the foundation upon which the public maintains confidence in the justice system. It is the guiding light to lawyers in meeting their obligations to their clients, the public and the courts.
Being a lawyer, being a professional, means committing oneself to the fair administration of justice and to doing one’s part in facilitating true access to justice.
Ethical lawyering is wholly compatible with the realities of an adversarial legal system. Clients who seek your advice are often overwrought, angry and defensive. When that happens, they expect you to convey their feelings of injustice and outrage. They may also, however, insist that you adopt a position that would require you to relax or ignore your duty as a legal professional. This you must never do.
The demands of practice sometimes require toughness, strength of spirit, not only with opposing parties and counsel, but also, and just as often, with your own clients. The good professional has the wisdom and the courage to refuse to act for a client when the client’s instructions would cause the lawyer to act unprofessionally.
The environment in which many lawyers practice has become increasingly commercial and competitive. There is a pressure to bring in and keep clients. The drive to the bottom line is difficult to resist. But law is, first and foremost, a profession; it is a business only secondarily. You must never fail to heed the distinction between profession and business because if you do you will almost certainly lose your way.
In my view, anyone who enters the profession of law to get rich enters it for the wrong reason, and is bound ultimately to be unhappy and unfulfilled. I don’t wish to demean or trivialize the importance of economic success, but if that is your only or primary goal, then a far more deeply satisfying one, the pursuit of professional excellence, will elude you.
Law is fundamentally a helping profession. In my half-century of legal experience, I have universally found that those who concentrate on doing good for others, do well for themselves. Put more succinctly, do good and you will do well.
You will undoubtedly need help along the way. One modest suggestion I have is that you do not go it alone, even if you intend to be a sole practitioner. You will find everywhere experienced colleagues at the Bar who are more than willing to help you through difficult problems. You only have to ask. And the magic you will discover is that you too, in time, will become someone else’s mentor. And so it goes, in the best traditions of our profession.
My mentor, both as a lawyer and a judge, was the Honourable Robert Montgomery. Much of what I learned from him I picked up just from being around him, watching him and asking him questions.
But three particular instructions stuck with me over the years. He would remind me: “Don’t exaggerate”; “Don’t mislead the court”; “Don’t take advantage of people”. Underlying this was his fundamental message that if I was respectful of other people and our legal institutions, everything else would fall into place. As a mentor, he helped me to stay on the right course.
I would urge each one of you to seek out a mentor, a task which, I regret, is probably not so easily accomplished today as it was when I was called to the Bar. However, I believe the search may well be worth the effort.
Senior lawyers are invariably flattered when they are asked for their advice. They will happily take your calls, field your questions, and help you to work through tough decisions and momentary crises. Don’t go it alone. In a collegial profession, there is no need for you to even try.
You have worked hard to reach this point. You have made real sacrifices and, no doubt, so have members of your family. Your call to the Bar is a defining, proud and pivotal moment. It calls for celebration, excitement, and relief.
To each of you I extend my sincere congratulations on becoming a lawyer. Having achieved this glorious milestone, may your lives be forever enriched.