Pro bono work a boon to job satisfaction

Lawyers shouldn’t look at pro bono work as a sacrifice of time and money, but rather as a boon to job satisfaction, says former Ontario chief justice Roy McMurtry.

McMurtry, currently counsel with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, said at a recent Law Society of Upper Canada panel discussion that lawyers’ view of their role as part of a helping profession was “more deeply entrenched” when he started his career. He says job satisfaction has dwindled with the decline of those values within the profession.

McMurtry referenced Yale Law School Prof. Anthony Kronman’s book, Lost Lawyer, which has created controversy within the U.S. bar.

McMurtry quoted the book, reading that, “The profession now stands in danger of losing its soul. The crisis is in essence a crisis of morale. It is a product of growing doubts about the capacity of the lawyers’ life to offer fulfillment to the person who takes it up. Disguised by the material well-being of lawyers is a spiritual crisis that stands at the heart of their professional pride.” 

McMurtry added that former Harvard Law School dean Derek Bok has expressed similar observations as Kronman in his own writings, “Suggesting that there was evidence of considerable rising dissatisfaction among U.S. lawyers.”

He said Bok has urged big firms to try to “make practice more humane.”

The former chief justice added that he has been inspired by the notion that lawyers should make a strong commitment to their communities, and that failing to do so leads to “the risk and peril of being judged not to have lived at all.”

Said McMurtry: “These few remarks I think, to me, are representative of what I think is the soul and meaning of public service and pro bono work in the broadest application.”

The panel discussion was part of the LSUC and Canadian Association of Black Lawyers’ Black History Month celebrations. The panel members included McMurtry, AON Canada Inc. chief counsel Terrie-Lynne Devonish, Toronto lawyer Marlys Edwardh, Toronto lawyer Paul Erskine, Wendy Miller of Pro Bono Law Ontario, and panel moderator Greg Richards, a lawyer with WeirFoulds LLP.

A reception was held following the panel talk, with a keynote address delivered by Detroit lawyer Dennis Wayne Archer, chairman of the Dickinson Wright law firm and a campaign adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama. To view Law Times’ video of Archer’s presentation click here

At the panel discussion, Edwardh said the province’s current legal aid tariff essentially forces those who work in the system to donate time to clients.

“I believe that the current legal aid tariff is a barrier to bringing more people into that activity - being a criminal defence lawyer,” she said. “Every lawyer who undertakes a criminal case on a legal aid certificate is doing some significant pro bono work.”

Edwardh also echoed the view of Erskine, who suggested lawyers expand their criteria for what is considered pro bono work. Erskine said he considers the advice he gives youths in his community on how to deal with confrontations with police as pro bono. Edwardh said she thinks similarly of the free advice she gives young lawyers who call her with questions on cases they are working on.

“The collegiality of the bar is a way of providing one of the most exciting networks to the issues that are passionate today,” said Edwardh. “I would encourage everyone to build that network, and tie into their community networks.”

She said her passion in the law is focused on protecting the rule of law, and suggested other lawyers choose their pro bono contributions based on their own passions within the law.

“You can network, you can find their expression within community groups, and it’s that way that you open up the opportunity to do pro bono law, and there is nothing you will do that will give you greater satisfaction in your practice,” said Edwardh.

In terms of how to proceed when a pro bono opportunity arises, Edwardh said it’s particularly important for small-firm lawyers not to “commit the firm” before consulting with colleagues on a major case.

“It’s one thing to lend a helping hand for a couple of days, but if you’re going to take a piece of litigation that’s going to go on for years, it’s something that has to be done seriously,” she said. “I think the consensus of the firm is critical to doing pro bono work.”

Added Devonish: “If you don’t have senior people’s buy-in, it’s not going to work.”

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