Corporate counsel are not currently represented as benchers at the Law Society of Ontario, but three Toronto-based lawyers running in this election are hoping to bring the in-house voice to Convocation.
Julia Shin Doi, general counsel and corporate secretary of Ryerson University, Jayashree Goswami, senior legal counsel at Intact Financial, and George Begic, assistant general counsel Deloitte in Toronto, are all running in the City of Toronto electoral region.
Access to justice is a primary area of focus and the “most pressing issue facing the profession,” according to Goswami, who has been a practising lawyer for 12 years. She practised at Heenan Blaikie LLP for five years before going in-house. She has been a member of the Equity Advisory Group at the law society since she was a first-year lawyer and is also immediate past president of the Roundtable of Diversity Association.
She is also concerned about “access to the profession” and the trajectory of lawyer’s careers and what she sees as a need to find ways to level the playing field in terms of representation of racialized lawyers. She says inclusion “starts at Convocation.”
“It is at Convocation that perspectives are brought forward, and we need to hear from the various kinds of people, groups and demographics represented in the population,” she says. “I’m happy to see there are many candidates running with less than 15 years of practice and in-house counsel and more racialized candidates are running than ever before.”
Goswami is running a joint campaign with bencher incumbent Isfahan Merali. When Bencher Janet Leiper decided not to run for a third term, she indicated she would be sponsoring Goswami and Merali.
“It’s a three-way partnership — a story of sponsorship and mentorship by women, of women. Our platforms are similar although we have independent views on a number of initiatives. Running with Isfahan is a unique campaign and we are able to amplify our presence in the community,” she says.
“I was very honoured when she reached out to me and asked if I would run with her,” she says. “I am running because I think I represent a demographic and perspective currently somewhat underrepresented.”
Goswami says it’s “extremely expensive” to run a bencher campaign without the assistance of firms or organizations, but she feels it’s important that in-house counsel gain a voice at Convocation.
“Because they haven’t been represented in Convocation, in-house are very isolated from the law society. There is a general problem of lawyers not being engaged enough in the profession, and I feel in-house counsel feel disconnected from what’s happening in the profession and, in my view, the law society has to make more of an effort to reach out and better represent in-house counsel,” she says.
In-house bring a unique perspective that involves balancing different interests and making tough decisions, says George Begic, assistant general counsel Deloitte in Toronto, who is also running for bencher this year.
“I am in a position, given where I am in my career, I think I can make a meaningful contribution as a bencher into the governance of the profession in Ontario,” he says.
While corporate counsel are enablers of the business, he says they are also “gatekeepers and protectors.”
“We’re ensconced in the business and we have to put our foot down and challenge our leadership and sometimes object to what people are doing for the greater sake of the organization,” says Begic. “That kind of mindset is valuable from a governance perspective and bencher perspective. We also have to step back and protect the larger organization and consider what is not just sort of compliance with the technical aspect of the law and is what we’re doing ethical.”
Julia Shin Doi, general counsel and corporate secretary at Ryerson University, is also running for bencher with an eye to trying to bring an in-house perspective but also improve the diversity at Convocation.
“It’s an important time in our profession,” says Shin Doi. “I realized there were no elected corporate counsel as bencher and less than 50 per cent women elected as law society benchers and I wanted to support equity, diversity and inclusion.”
Shin Doi says that with Raj Anand and Avvy Go finishing their terms as benchers, there was a need for more champions of equity, diversity and inclusion. She is encouraged by what she calls a “generation coming of age” in this bencher election who are saying “this is our profession and we want to take part in the governance of it.”
Pointing to the voting blocks that have formed around issues such as the Statement of Principles, Shin Doi says it’s important that corporate counsel, the public sector and diverse bar come together and vote in what is an “important election” due to the turnover in benchers and changing nature of the profession. She hopes that the engagement being seen on social media has a positive impact on voter turnout.
“I think it’s important to say we should all have a voice, but we all need to vote, too,” she says.
As Ryerson is home to one of the two Law Practice Programs in Ontario, she says that, if elected, she would not participate in discussions around it. Ryerson has said it is pushing forward with its plan for a law school to open in 2020 despite the Ontario government rejecting a request for funding. She also teaches at Osgoode Hall Law and the University of Toronto.
Begic says he views the coalition forming around and against the statement of principles seems to him to be “not an important governance issue” compared to the bigger policy issues around licensing and competency and of access to justice to serve both lawyers and the public.
“There is a tinge of a freedom of speech aspect to that [statement of principles], but all in all, given what the profession is facing in the next four years, I wouldn’t think that’s a big priority,” says Begic.
“The mandate of the law society is a public interest mandate to govern the profession in the best interest of the public. The big issue is access to justice and how do we govern the profession in a way that is meaningful for lawyers but also addresses this real sense that there is a whole segment of the public in Ontario that can’t afford lawyers, combined with the fact we also have a year-over-year influx of young lawyers struggling to find articling positions and where the profession is struggling to make sure they are competent.”
Begic says he likes what the December Convocation decided, which was to continue with articling and the Law Practice Program with certain enhancements. He says the LPP, although not perfect, combined with articling does provide a more realistic program that encompasses everybody.
“I’m supportive of that because, for now, the law society and province is committed to having an experiential component to the training, which has traditionally been articling, but when you have a situation where 10 to 15 per cent of students graduating can’t find articling positions and law school graduating classes [are] increasing and internationally trained lawyers [are] wanting to come to Ontario, there is a glut of people who need to be licensed, so articling alone doesn’t do it,” he says.