One Profession, one Public and oneself
Among the Canons of Legal Ethics—that earnest list of 'shalls' and 'shall nots' comprising the first chapter of the Professional Conduct Handbook—you'll find time-honoured practical criteria mixed with aspirational principles to which each BC lawyer is beholden, stated to the benefit of five key groups: the state; the courts and tribunals; the client; other individual lawyers; and oneself.
Oddly absent, at least from explicit mention, are the public and the legal profession. Strange, since these are the groups that many, many BC lawyers dedicate countless hours in service to, whether in pro bono clinics, serving CBA committees and sections, teaching CLE conferences, or any number of pursuits that underscore the inherent collegiality and service-mindedness of the profession. Strange, at least until one realizes that, in fact, accountability to the profession and the public lay at the heart of canons otherwise embedded awkwardly in the class of duties owed to oneself.
You'd be forgiven for assuming that self-owed duties would involve more self-interested ones, such as collecting ample retainers, billing clients regularly, and not letting the pressures of practice drive you into the office on Sundays. For better or for worse, a lawyer's self-owed duties are not of self-interest. Rather, they are to protect the profession, and, yes, serve the public.
Specifically the legal ethical canons pertaining to guarding the profession speak to the lawyer's obligations to root out dishonest and incapable characters from the profession, respect oneself and one's oath, and espouse the "time-honoured virtues of probity, integrity, honesty and dignity". OK, some of the language directed at purifying the profession is a shade McCarthyesque in tone. You are to "expose without fear or favour", "accept without hesitation a retainer against any lawyer who is alleged to have wronged the client" (really? not even hesitation for a conflicts check?), but you can also tease out of this fervent language and rectitude a keen desire to ensure the profession thrives. And it is nice to see that for the most part the bar proactively pursues this through mentorship, peer-to-peer education and leadership by example. A glance at the list of contributors in any CLE publication, or the long list of names serving as executives for CBA sections, is proof of that.
As for the public, ethical canon 5(3) demands that lawyers "make legal services available to the public in an efficient and convenient manner that will command respect and confidence." Rarely has as much focus been placed on this issue, and the underlying issue of access to justice, than as of late. There is a hardly a chief judge who has yet to speak on the failure of access to legal services in the past year, nor a report that has failed to opine on the gap between the need for legal assistance and its supply, nor a lawyers' organization in this province who has not made it a priority to improve awareness on the decrepit state of access to justice in BC.
Volunteerism, helping others alongside Courthouse Libraries BC
It's encouraging to see commitment to public service renewed by a large group of volunteer contributors in new initiatives, such as with last week's launch and announcement of the third edition of the public legal information guide Legal Help for British Columbians, which now takes the form of a Clicklaw wikibook. Over a dozen lawyers and key staff with legal organizations have joined to make a new edition of this popular guide that promises to remain up-to-date even after the first copy is printed off.
You can check out the wikibook here, which combines a familiar online experience (as it is powered by an instance of the same wiki software platform that powers Wikipedia) with the promise of accessibility that is only possible when you can print a resource to hand out in person at clinics, doctor's offices, community centres, libraries, and other places people with limited income and all-too-common legal troubles often go for support. The wiki platform also makes the Guide easier to update, enabling multiple contributors to update content as soon as the law changes, giving it an advantage over print-only publications that risk being outdated from the date of printing.
While you may have caught the news release, or maybe have already learned about the wikibook through the Clicklaw blog or through Access ProBono or Povnet (or on Twitter, where a number of folks, including CanLII's Colin Lachance, Steve Matthews, Legal Aid BC and others tweeted the release), we wanted to pass along direct thanks to the editors, writers and reviewers of the Guide (see here for a complete list of contributors) for exemplifying the principle of public-service—at a time when it's needed most.
Courthouse Libraries BC and Clicklaw will be developing more collaborative resources of this type in the near future, using platforms like the Mediawiki platform behind this Clicklaw wikibook, to bring legal information forward in efficient and convenient ways. Doing so in conjunction with practitioners is part of our vision of partnering with the legal profession to accomplish more in the realm of legal information and shared knowledge, for the good of the public and the profession.
If you are a lawyer interested in knowing more about ways you can contribute through upcoming initiatives, please let us know!