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New OBA prez aims for ‘more welcoming and inclusive association’

|Written By Glenn Kauth

Calling himself a “lunch-bucket insurance lawyer,” Lee Akazaki says he wants to make the Ontario Bar Association more accessible to outsiders during his term as president of the organization.

‘We’ve got an OBA right now which is significantly more regionally focused at its highest level,’ says Lee Akazaki.

Akazaki, 46, ascended to the helm of the OBA this month after just six years of volunteering with the organization, a fact he hopes is a sign of greater openness to lawyers of all types and from all regions of the province.

“I think that stands for something,” he says, acknowledging long-standing concerns about the OBA’s reputation as a Toronto-centric organization. “Whether it’s true or not . . . there has always been a perception that the Ontario Bar Association is Toronto-focused.”

A civil litigator with Gilbertson Davis Emerson LLP, Akazaki is a Toronto lawyer himself, of course. Still, he says a few recent reforms should help further his goal of making the OBA a “more welcoming and inclusive association.”

In particular, he notes that as head of the OBA’s governance committee, he was able to lead the imposition of term limits for those serving on section executives.

“That was an impediment in a key area of volunteer activity,” he says, adding the change should allow new people to take more active roles. “Before, we were looking to the same people to do the same things.”

In addition, he points to reforms of the OBA’s council, including an allocation of positions on the board of directors by judicial region.

The change allows for greater regional balance among the directors-at-large by ensuring all of them can’t be from Toronto, Akazaki notes. “We’ve got an OBA right now which is significantly more regionally focused at its highest level.”

Akazaki took over the job from Carole Brown, who had just finished her one-year stint as president. Also taking top roles on the OBA board are Paul Sweeny of Evans Sweeny Bordin LLP in Hamilton, Ont., who becomes first vice president; and Morris Chochla, a partner at Forbes Chochla LLP in Toronto and now second vice president.

Among his priorities, Akazaki says training and education will be key this year as the Law Society of Upper Canada implements its new continuing professional development requirements for lawyers.

“As with many things, there will be a lot of confusion,” he says, noting that while the OBA will likely expand its course offerings for lawyers, there are still questions over how it will deliver them.

According to Akazaki, the OBA will be looking at ways to provide training and education through non-traditional methods.

Currently, while the OBA makes free MP3 replays of its events available online, lawyers should know they need to have another lawyer around to discuss the content with in order for it to count towards their required continuing professional development hours, Akazaki points out.

Involving county law associations will also be key to making it easier, more affordable, and more accessible for lawyers to comply, he adds.

Other priorities for Akazaki’s year as president include working on advocacy to ensure the public has a better understanding of lawyers’ perspectives around ideas such as the rule of law and access to justice.

He’s also concerned about what he sees as the reduction of legal services to a customer service-oriented economy as governments make more efforts to supplant lawyers’ roles by providing legal information through alternate means such as web sites and call centres.

“You end up with unintended consequences,” Akazaki says, noting clients often arrive with preconceived notions of the law that may not fit with their best interests. “This is a challenge for the lawyer because we have a significantly more informed clientele than in previous years.”

For his part, while Akazaki has fairly strong feelings about some of the issues affecting lawyers today, he found himself practising law almost by default.

Although he entered the profession in part due to the inspiration of his father who died while studying to become a lawyer in Japan (Akazaki was four years old at the time), it was also due to the fact that he didn’t feel he was particularly good at anything else.

“I would have been no good as an acrobat because I’m afraid of heights . . . so I just chose what I thought I would be good at,” he says.

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