A long look in the mirror

I don’t have much to say about “the Maclean’s cover” that hasn’t already been said, eloquently and accurately, by the CBA’s current and past presidents. The CBA was right to defend lawyers’ good name against an offensive piece of hack journalism. The less said about that article and the book that inspired it, the better.

But here’s the problem. Look beneath those shallow and cynical diatribes against our professional conduct, and you’ll find a few uncomfortable truths. Read the more legitimate but equally disturbing article about large firm life in the September 2007 Toronto Life. Hear the speakers at the CBA’s Canadian Legal Conference last month describe women lawyers who hide serious illnesses in order to protect their careers.

We damage our profession when we pretend that everything’s just fine in the practice of law. I’ve spoken informally with any number of lawyers and heard countless stories of frustration, worry, heartache and exhaustion. Big firm or small, urban or rural, many lawyers suffer from ineffective business models, uncompetitive practices, unfulfilling tasks, punishing workloads, and unacceptable behaviour by colleagues and bosses.

None of these issues has anything to do with the fundamental nature of being a lawyer — we’re no more susceptible to these sorts of problems than are accountants, architects or investment bankers. So much for the lie that lawyers are inherently unprincipled or miserable.

What these problems do have in common is a broken business culture. Compared to today’s successful organizations, the way lawyers structure their businesses, sell their services, treat their employees, market their practices and relate to their clients is obsolete and harmful. The poor workplace culture that afflicts many law offices can be traced to our outmoded approach to business — and our refusal to admit it.

National has been exploring these business and cultural problems for years. But the stories we’ve published are outnumbered by the ones we’ve had to abandon, because we couldn’t get enough lawyers to talk on the record.

Those lawyers who shared their stories with me informally were adamant that they would not be interviewed on these topics, not even under assumed names. They’re afraid to speak the truth, afraid for their jobs and reputations — and that’s as damning an indictment of the current system as I can think of.

We can summon the courage and honesty to address these problems ourselves — or we can continue to hide behind our professional walls and wait for more outside attacks to bring them down altogether. Which sounds like a better option to you?

This post first appeared as the editorial in the October 2007 issue of National magazine.