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ABA meeting seeks to cement ‘special relationship’ with Canadian bar

|Written By Michael McKiernan

The American Bar Association is returning to Toronto this week as lawyers converge on the city for the annual meeting for the first time since 1998.

‘It’s not just American lawyers meeting in a foreign country. It’s tailored for the local bar as well,’ says Bernard Amyot.

The event, which runs from Aug. 4-9, is based primarily at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre with some events spread among a number of hotels and venues in the city.

ABA president Stephen Zack, who came to Toronto the last time the event was in town, says the return to Canada helps cement the “special relationship” between the Canadian and American bars.

“The relationship between the U.S. and Canada is one of the most important in the legal universe. It will continue to be strengthened in the future and this is part of that process. This is a chance to renew old friendships and make new ones. We face similar issues and there is a lot of cross-border practice, and I think it allows that to grow if we’re able to continue to share ideas.”

Zack says he’s hoping the list of speakers and programs will prompt a large turnout of local lawyers as well as from Americans crossing the border.

Indeed, high-profile Canadians are out in force for the event. Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin shares the headline bill for the opening assembly on Aug. 6 with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and will also pick up a special award the following day to celebrate trailblazing women in the legal profession.

McLachlin’s Supreme Court bench colleagues Rosalie Abella and Marshall Rothstein are also featured speakers. Abella will give the keynote address at the Thurgood Marshall award dinner on Aug. 6 to honour civil rights lawyer Elaine Jones, while Rothstein is giving talks to the ABA’s administrative law and intellectual property sections on Aug. 5 and 6.

Retiring Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie will participate in a session comparing the U.S. and Canadian top courts. Former Canadian Bar Association president and ABA litigation section co-chairman for the annual meeting Bernard Amyot also recruited former prime minister Jean Chrétien for a question-and-answer session during a luncheon on Aug. 5.

“He often says that the only thing he misses about politics is question period, so it’s going to be a lot of fun,” says Amyot, a partner at the Montreal office of Heenan Blaikie LLP. “He’s always a good speaker.”

That event will honour yet another Canadian, former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour. The Brussels-based president and CEO of the International Crisis Group has also served as the UN high commissioner for human rights and was chief prosecutor for the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“It’s not just American lawyers meeting in a foreign country,” says Amyot, who urges local lawyers to attend. “It’s tailored for the local bar as well. There’s a lot of value you can get from that. You save the price of the airfare and the hotel. It’s just the price of registry. We’re becoming a global profession, and our largest trade partners are just south of the border, so for Canadian lawyers it’s a great opportunity to mingle.”

Amyot says a number of ABA sections have taken the opportunity to put together continuing legal education programs with a strong comparative element to them. In addition to the Supreme Court session, he highlights the one on trial practices and tactics in Canada and the United States on Aug. 4 that will revolve around a hypothetical wrongful termination case and give lawyers the opportunity to talk about how it could proceed in their respective jurisdictions. On Aug. 5, a session on the Omar Khadr case will present perspectives from both the defence and prosecution sides on the high-profile trial.

John Campion, who came into contact with Zack during his tenure as president of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, was happy to give the ABA president some local knowledge when he came scouting for venues and event partners. “I gave him suggestions on what I thought would be appropriate,” he says. “You want to show off Toronto well.”

According to Campion, large Toronto firms have embraced the event with a number of them hosting reception events during the week it’s in town. “In some of the main areas — litigation, financings, corporate transactions, and business advice, all the major law firms recognize immediately that they have a vested interest in knowing about and understanding the American market as best they can,” he says.

But he notes lawyers at smaller firms or younger practitioners looking to establish a reputation for themselves have plenty to gain from an event like the ABA meeting. “As a young lawyer going to the CBA or the ABA, you’re nobody. Nobody knows who you are, and you don’t have any contacts. There’s a lot of lonely beginnings, but you slowly find your place and find a way to contribute. It is imposing, there’s no doubt about it, but you’ve got to start someplace. And how much better to start in your own town.”

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