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Ensuring OBA’s relevance key for new president

New plans in the works as Ed Upenieks takes the helm
|Written By Tali Folkins

While he may be coy with the specifics, new Ontario Bar Association president Ed Upenieks says making sure the organization stays relevant at a time of fast change for the profession will be a top priority for the coming year.

Civil litigator Ed Upenieks became president of the Ontario Bar Association earlier this month.

“You’ll have to stay tuned for that,” says Upenieks, a lawyer at Lawrence Lawrence Stevenson LLP in Brampton, Ont., when asked what measures the association will be taking to make sure it stays relevant to its members.

“That’s being developed; it’s being rolled out,” he says. “We have conducted surveys and interviews of our members and also non-members. . . . There’s many things that we’re working on in that regard.”

The comments come as the Canadian Bar Association has been touting its Rethink effort aimed at reinvigorating the organization and making it more relevant to the profession.

But while professional associations across the board have been seeing declining membership, Upenieks, who took over the role from Orlando Da Silva earlier this month, says both the CBA and OBA have done relatively well. “It’s something that you have to keep an eye on. It’s crucial, it’s important, but so far, and especially last year, we did a very, very good job of it,” he says.

Although the OBA wasn’t able to supply figures for previous years as of press time, it noted its net membership had increased over the past year by one per cent.

Upenieks says his biggest priority for the next 12 months will be to help the OBA’s members find ways to connect with both their professional and local communities, to “guide them, mentor them, make them aware of the value, the opportunity and the rewards, the personal satisfaction of making a difference, and opening the eyes of other members to what can be done.”

In concrete terms, Upenieks says he plans to further expand the OBA’s mock trial program. He also wants to further promote the OBA’s new Speakers Bureau that links community and business groups to legal experts in Ontario and its tool kits launched last November aimed at helping lawyers educate their clients about wills.

“We want to raise awareness of the problems that arise when individuals don’t prepare wills or they do their own cut and paste,” he says. “It’s a benefit to the public to educate them about the need for a proper will and also the consequences if a proper will isn’t prepared because that can lead to expensive, messy litigation.”

The son of Latvian war refugees, Upenieks grew up in Toronto and studied at Osgoode Hall Law School. He has focused on civil litigation since his call to the bar in 1983. One of his most memorable cases, he says, involved Kenneth Au Yeung, a Toronto high school student who jumped to his death from the Bloor Street viaduct. The school’s parent council retained Upenieks to represent it at the coroner’s inquest. He also gave recommendations to the coroner’s jury, including the construction of suicide barriers along the viaduct.

“I’ve had many memorable cases,” he says. “But I would say for me, it’s ones where you really felt like you made a difference. Acting for the underdog, that’s more significant to me, and acting on interesting, unique files.”

Upenieks is a long-time member of the OBA, having first joined it, he says, in 1979 as a first-year law student. He started to become more active in the association about 10 years ago, at first as a member of council for the association’s central west region. He was elected second vice president two years ago and then, as the OBA governance rules specify, became first vice president for a year before assuming his current position. Along the way, Upenieks has been active in numerous CBA and OBA committees, serving as chairman, for example, of the national membership committee. Fuelling his work with the associations, he says, was an appreciation for people who encouraged his involvement earlier in his career and a desire to do the same for others as well as a desire to help younger lawyers and those belonging to equity-seeking groups see the difference they can make.

Jordan Furlong, a legal industry consultant who worked for the CBA for 10 years, says staying relevant is often the driving concern for bar associations today. However, relevance may not necessarily be a driver of membership, he says.

“Part of the underlying assumption is if we are relevant to lawyers, they will join,” he says.

“I’m not sure if that’s an accurate assumption.”

Many lawyers may be aware that they benefit from advocacy and other activities their associations engage in, but that may not be enough to actually get them to buy a membership, he says. Associations, he says, should look at lawyers much as businesses look at potential customers: as prospects they can convert.

To do this, bar associations need to look closely at their purpose and the audience they serve, says Furlong. Part of this means not trying to be all things to all lawyers, something that may simply not be possible, he says, given the diversity of the profession.

For example, he says local law associations or those serving lawyers in particular fields are better able to provide relevant legal education to their members because they’re able to tailor it much more closely to their needs.

“They have an advantage in that they know exactly who they’re serving and can focus,” he says.

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