Skills Set # 22: Good Works for Good Reason
In assisting our new and more junior calls in developing their legal practices, we are always careful to note that they will not reach the levels they are capable of reaching without becoming involved in charitable or voluntary activities. Volunteer work “starts the clock”. I was reminded of this axiom at a recent seminar conducted by Primerus, an international network of top-rated, independent law firms to which our firm belongs.
In 2018, almost 22.7 million people volunteered informally – accounting for 74% of Canadians aged 15 and older. They devoted roughly 3.4 billion hours to their volunteer activities, a volume of work that represents approximately 1.8 million full-time year-round job equivalents, a statistic which when published attracted attention and commentary. Volunteering in Canada: Challenges and opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawyers volunteer for good works and for good reason. As suggested below it is a mistake to expect that the reasons will be free of self-interest, and important to find opportunities outside the law. Volunteering will make our colleagues better lawyers.
When we provide and promote engagement, we should keep in mind the following collected wisdom which will assure success:
- Volunteering involves our new and junior colleagues in interaction with the non-client public, an interaction of the most serious kind which invokes governing rules and associated guidelines. Ch. 2.1-2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct provides that “A lawyer has a duty to uphold the standards and reputation of the legal profession and to assist in the advancement of its goals, organizations and institutions”. The ways in which a lawyer can observe this rule are set out in the Commentary, and include “participating in legal aid and community legal services programs or providing legal services on a pro bono basis; and acting as directors, officers and members of non-profit or charitable organizations”. A lawyer can never forget that she/he, 24/7 and regardless of the activity, is nonetheless a lawyer (and see below).
- A former Regional Senior Justice of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice reminded me at a firm seminar a few years ago that there is nothing wrong with doing good works and being seen doing it. While we can agree that volunteer work is an accepted and in fact common method of directly or indirectly leveraging exposure and client development, we must assist our colleagues in understanding that it has little chances of succeeding in that respect if it lacks sincerity. “Ticking the box” without real commitment or a sense of purpose will not promote anyone’s goals. Chances of attaining the requisite level of commitment will be (i) enhanced if the lawyer becomes involved in an outside charity, board or association where the subject matter is of real interest (ii) assured if the lawyer has adequate time and opportunity to participate to the required degree, and (iii) energizing if the lawyer enjoys the opportunity to contribute in this way. If the lawyer is going to be seen doing good works, but fails by reason of a lack of commitment in the attempt, the unfortunate truth is that that failure will be the enduring record of an otherwise salutary effort.
- The following point comes from Brian L. Wagner, an attorney at the Florida firm of Mateer & Harbert: “do not join an association unless you plan to become the president of that association someday” (Primerus seminar lead by Mike Vercher, an attorney with Christian & Small, Birmingham, Alabama). There is undeniable logic to this aphorism. Committed and therefore successful volunteers are not only willing to lead but prepared to take that role when opportunity presents itself. There can of course only be one president at any point in time, but attitude is everything.
- As pointed out in the commentary to Rule 2.1-2, there are many ways in which our colleagues can serve their community interests and themselves. One of these is by sitting on a board to a community association, a professional or trade association, or a charitable institution such as a hospital. They should know however that sitting on a board comes with additional considerations. The first is confidentiality, and the second is the apprehension, appearance or reality of conflict of interest arising from a conflation of their board activities and their professional activities. (I recommend a careful reading of Section 3.4 of the Code).
- Finally, when participating in community activities, lawyers should also be mindful of the possible perception that the lawyer is providing legal advice and a lawyer -client relationship has been created. As stated in the commentary to Section 3.4 “Lawyers should carefully consider the propriety, and the wisdom of wearing ‘more than one hat’ at the same time”.