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New benchers eager to govern

|Written By Michael McKiernan

The Law Society of Upper Canada has elected 15 fresh faces among the 40 benchers heading to Convocation following this year’s elections.

Janet Leiper is looking forward to starting her new role at Convocation.

Twelve incumbents didn’t run, including seven forced to step aside as a result of governance reforms passed in 2009. A further three sitting benchers failed to make the cut this time around, according to results released on May 2.

Avvy Go came in 22nd in Toronto, while Carl Fleck fell in the southwest region. Ottawa sole practitioner William Simpson, who ran for treasurer last year against Laurie Pawlitza, is also out after 12 years as a bencher.

The number of new faces will possibly rise to 16 later this month should Pawlitza formally step aside as an elected Toronto bencher to reassume her position as treasurer. Peter Wardle, who finished in 21st place in Toronto, would be another novice at Convocation.

New Bencher Janet Leiper is looking forward to getting started in her new role. “It’s a great time to join the panel, partly because of the fact there are a lot of new people coming in who will bring a new set of perspectives,” says Leiper, who will be joined by Toronto newcomers Wendy Matheson, Barbara Murchie, William McDowell, John Callaghan, Malcolm Mercer, and Howard Goldblatt.

Outside Toronto, eight new people won election: Robert Evans (central east); Joseph Sullivan and James Scarfone (central south); Virginia MacLean (central west); Adriana Doyle and Robert Wadden (east); and Michael Lerner and Jacqueline Horvat (southwest).

In Toronto, 13 of the 20 elected benchers come from firms with more than 10 lawyers, compared with six who practise at smaller firms. Outside Toronto, small firms are better represented, taking nine of the 20 elected positions there. Six of the benchers from those regions are in private practice at firms with more than 10 lawyers.

Other candidates, including Lerner of London, Ont., were keen to play up their sole practitioner roots in their materials even when they’ve since moved on.

Lerner, now a partner at Lerners LLP, started out his practice in 1974 at a one-person branch of the firm before moving to the main office in 1988.

“I certainly have the ability to sympathize with the small and sole practitioners who still have to be a jack of all trades,” he says. “In this era of electronic and Internet overload, I sometimes wonder how they manage.”

Lerner isn’t the first person from his family at Convocation. His uncle served during the 1970s, while his own father was a bencher for 16 years between 1975 and 1995. He later became a life bencher.

Lawyers at both ends of their careers are a priority for him as he heads to Osgoode Hall. Lerner says he wants the LSUC to help law students get practical experience before they’re thrown into practice following an increasingly truncated articling period and a bar admission process he feels is “nothing more than a correspondence course.” He also thinks senior practitioners could have a role to play.

“I know several lawyers in smaller communities who are unable to get out of practice because they can’t find anybody prepared to take over their practice on any basis,” he says.

“There’s a real responsibility for us to match and marry young graduates and young lawyers to these senior practitioners who are trying to wind down because it’s the public who is going to suffer if we aren’t able to replace them.”

At 18, the number of women benchers elected tied 2007’s record for their highest representation at Convocation. Three of them claimed the top spots overall. University of Ottawa law professor Constance Backhouse finished highest with 5,534 votes.

That means she got a vote from more than 35 per cent of all of those who cast ballots. Pawlitza followed closely behind with 5,421 votes. Toronto litigator Linda Rothstein came third with 5,393 votes.

At the other end of the spectrum, Nicholas Pustina won re-election with just 731 votes as he remains a northwest regional bencher.

In each of the eight regions, the candidate with the most votes from his or her own region becomes a regional bencher. With 65 per cent of the 160 voters in the northwest region opting for Pustina, he was elected despite an overall total that placed him 46th out of a total of 53 candidates from outside Toronto.

The law society also managed to arrest a declining trend in voter turnout. The rate has been on the plunge since 1987, decreasing at every election until this year. The 1987 peak was 56 per cent, but by 2007 that had fallen to 34.5 per cent. In 2011, 15,592 lawyers cast ballots for a turnout of 37 per cent.

Former treasurer Derry Millar put the rise in part down to a switch to electronic voting away from the old paper ballots and materials. Just 100 lawyers requested paper packages after Convocation made arrangements to accommodate those who preferred the old system.

“I think that electronic voting made it a very simple and easy process to participate,” Millar says. “It’s the way of the future and it worked very well.”

He also believes the governance reforms, which limited bencher terms and created a host of new vacancies this time around, helped get lawyers interested in the vote.

“Of course, we’d always like to see more people vote, but hopefully as changes in the governance process work through, that will help with increasing voter participation. We also had an excellent group of candidates from all over the province, so that helped.”

But Goldblatt believes the electoral process may need some reform itself. Voting was open for most of April when the campaign was already almost two months old.

“It’s a longer campaign than the federal and provincial elections combined,” says Goldblatt, a founding partner at Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP. “For people at small firms and single practitioners, it’s a very difficult exercise and it’s possible we’re missing some very good people simply because they haven’t got the time or the money to enter into the campaign.”

Sole practitioner Monica Goyal was one candidate who used social media and technology effectively to raise her profile, but it wasn’t enough to win. She came in 29th in Toronto with just under 2,000 votes but was pleased with the result. That was enough to pass Ontario Bar Association president Lee Akazaki, who amassed 1,400 votes.

“Considering everything, I’m relatively unknown compared to a lot of the people who were running,” Goyal says. “Many of them have very impressive legal resumés.”

Despite the number of new benchers, she worries that the fact that few younger lawyers got elected may leave some issues off the table for the next four years.

“It’s a different legal landscape for lawyers starting out now than it is even for people even 10 years out. It’s difficult to get an articling position, and the job landscape is very different.

“I think there was a good discussion about some of these issues, and they can’t ignore it. Hopefully, we can keep some of the momentum going and maybe start having some of the dialogue outside, if not at, Convocation.”


For a full list of benchers, see lsuc.on.ca/bencher_election.

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