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CBA undergoing major ‘rethink’

|Written By Yamri Taddese

A comprehensive soul-searching is underway at the Canadian Bar Association as the organization attempts to find ways to become more relevant to lawyers.

‘It seems like there isn’t much strategic direction as perhaps should be,’ says Mark Hayes.

The massive review, triggered by declining membership and “a relevance gap,” will have the CBA ask itself big questions like what it stands for, what it should stand for, and how it should execute its mission.

The review will look at everything from the governance, organizational, and financial structures of the organization to the kinds of services it provides to lawyers.

CBA president Michele Hollins says that at a time when the legal profession is undergoing major changes, “we, too, as an organization should be taking a look at what we’re doing.”

The CBA went through what Hollins calls a brand audit that showed the organization could be doing more to be more relevant to lawyers. Hollins also says the CBA has had “a steady but slight decline in membership” recently in addition to drawing smaller crowds to some of its legal conferences.

“People are looking for, I think, more tailored, specific products and services and offerings,” she says.

“So we want to take a look at those trends while we are still a very vibrant and strong organization. It’s high time that we sort of take a look at what we’re doing and how we could do it better.”

The scope of the review stops at nothing, she notes, adding the leadership at the CBA agrees it needs to look at “everything” the organization does.

“We are asking at this point really fundamental questions: Why do we do what we do? What are we doing? What should we be doing? What should we not be doing? And then operationally, how should we do those things?”

Intellectual property lawyer Mark Hayes says despite his long involvement with both the CBA and the Ontario Bar Association, he has lately found himself “drifting away from it.”

“Right now, I’m thinking about whether I’m going to renew this year,” he says.

Part of his reconsideration is a simple cost-benefit analysis. Like some lawyers and law firms, he’s really looking at whether a CBA membership is worth the annual fee. A regular membership with the CBA now costs almost $800 per year.

“What I find from my particular point of view, because I have a relatively specialized practice, I find there are specialized organizations both in Canada and internationally that are more useful to me in terms of networking and business development and professional development,” he says.

Toronto criminal lawyer Todd White agrees declining memberships at the CBA may be a sign of a trend towards specialization and lawyers choosing to be a part of specialized legal associations.

“Individual organizations that are dedicated to one area of law seem to be doing very well,” says White, who suggests the CBA should look at what those organizations are doing to stay relevant and apply those things to its various sections.

There’s an 18-month timeline to complete the review. The first step for what the CBA calls its “rethink steering committee” is to do a wholesale inventory of how the organization works, what its different parts are, and how they work together.

The review will then move into a consultation phase involving interviews with both members and non-members of the CBA to see what’s working and what isn’t. If lawyers have chosen not to become members or have withdrawn their membership, the CBA wants to know why.

For Hayes, how the CBA’s sections perform is highly dependent on whether there are active individuals on their executive boards.

“It’s a hit or miss. If you had a strong executive one year, the section could be really active and [you] would really feel there’s lots of stuff going on and the next year there wouldn’t be as much,” he says.

“It seems like there isn’t much strategic direction as perhaps should be,” he adds.

Some lawyers are also pitching their thoughts on the overarching question of what the CBA should stand for. For class actions lawyer Dimitri Lascaris, the organization should focus on pushing for reforms that will make justice accessible for the many people who currently don’t have it.

“We must find a way to make legal services affordable to everyone who has a legitimate need for them. I find that far too often, the profession pays lip service to the notion of access to justice but steadfastly resists reforms that would enhance access to justice meaningfully,” he says.

“In my view, the overarching mission of the CBA should be to advocate for, design, and help implement reforms that will finally solve this fundamental and intolerable flaw in our legal system.”

When it comes to speaking out on legal issues, the recent controversy around the CBA’s initial decision, since reversed, to intervene in the matter involving Chevron Corp. at the Supreme Court of Canada is an example of how difficult it can be to represent a very diverse profession. That’s an area the CBA would have a hard time dealing with, according to Hayes, who says it’s difficult to accommodate diverse views without losing the greater impact of speaking in unison.

But perhaps for some issues, the CBA should offer more than one take, he suggests.

Hollins says she’s excited about what could come out of the review but admits it’s “a bit frightening to have this on your plate as the president.”

“But even though it is intimidating in terms of the potential scope for change, it is also really exciting,” she says.

For more, see "Bar divided over CBA withdrawal."

  • Elsa Irwin
    I found membership to be beneficial as a student and new lawyer, but let my membership lapse after 4 years out. It was simply a cost/benefit analysis. The fees, which I pay myself on a public sector income, were simply higher than the value I received for membership.

    And I just now visited the CBA's website and tried to see the membership rates. They aren't posted, and it appears that you have to enter your personal information into several pages of web forms before being told how much membership will cost. As soon as I saw that, I closed the program. Who has time to spend several minutes filling out a form to find out how much something costs? Certainly not most lawyers.
  • CBA Member Services
    Based on the experience you describe, I suspect that you attempted to "see the membership rates" by clicking the "Renew" tab on cba.org which, as I am sure you would agree, must take place in a password protected area of our web site. To see the various categories and rates for CBA Membership by jurisdiction, simply go to the cba.org website, then click on "membership", then "fees & eligibility", the choose your jurisdiction to open the appropriate fee table.

    Thank you for your comments and please don't hesitate to contact CBA Member Services if you have any further questions. We hope to welcome you back someday soon!
  • Joe Simpson
    I have to say from BC that I truly appreciate the focus & overall quality of the CBA family law and other (e.g. wills & estates) webinars that I have attended online in recent times. Have been a CBA member/supporter for 20 years + nd would say that such webinars (especially at special membership price discounts) are generally both affordable & content-rich enhancements in recent years. Good luck with the re-think, by the way! :-)
  • Naveen Mehta
    There can be no fundamental change within organizations unless we understand something beyond the business case for inclusion and grapple with the fundamental issue of internalized individual and organizational barriers. That is a conversation that we have been having at the UFCW Canada and are embarking upon a multiyear engagement of all of our staff including leadership to make fundamental change. Not only with regard to the business case, but understanding the fundamentals of brain chemistry, psychology, sociology, and the dynamics of social oppression. It is quite amazing how we have moved so quickly in a small period of time.
  • Judith Huddart
    I have been a supporter of the CBA (and OBA) for over 32 years. It is critically important that the CBA remains relevant to all members of the profession. As Past Chair of the CBA Women Lawyers Forum I know we will be anticipating a broad consultation to ensure any "re-think" reflects the needs of our diverse profession.
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