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