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Skills Set # 21: Professionalism

Skills Set # 21: Professionalism


Posted August 16, 2021

One of the best pieces on professionalism, Elements of Professionalism, was released 19 years ago. This excellent paper (hereafter “Elements”) remains untouched in its elucidation of what professionalism means, or should mean, to all members of our profession, and importantly, our more junior colleagues:

Professionalism as a personal characteristic is revealed in an attitude and approach to an occupation that is commonly characterized by intelligence, integrity, maturity, and thoughtfulness. The expectation among lawyers, whose occupation is defined as a profession, and in the public who receive legal services, is that professionalism will inform a lawyer’s work and conduct.

The Building Blocks of Professionalism

What are the building blocks of professionalism? In Elements they are laid out as scholarship; integrity; honour; leadership; independence; pride; collegiality and civility; service to the public good; and a balanced commercialism.  Years earlier (1979), Morris Schumiatcher’s examined professionalism in his entertaining survey of the attributes lawyers should necessarily possess, listing, in addition to professionalism sapience, omnitude, ambivalence, expedition, artistry, charisma, obligation, judgment, and humour (Morris Schumiatcher, Man of Law: A Model).

When we look at what we do and how we do it, the building blocks identified in Elements remain an essential skillset.

It is not sufficient for our new and junior calls to simply appreciate the building blocks of professionalism, it is important that they be stimulated (by us) to put them into practice. As Elements suggests, professionalism cannot be falsified or patronized, it must be lived. Seniors will recognize that this requires dedicated mentoring.

There is (not surprisingly) no lack of advice on how to mature professionally.  Some commentators emphasize tips for self-development:

  • Focus on Objectives
  • Manage Obstacles and Distractions
  • Make Learning a Habit
  • Set Boundaries
  • Make Every Minute Count
  • Learn at Your Best
  • Find Your Own Learning Style
  • Collaborate With Others

Others, not unlike Elements, emphasize core characteristics of professionalism:

  • Professional appearance
  • Reliable
  • Ethical behavior
  • Organized
  • Accountable
  • Professional language
  • Separates personal and professional
  • Positive attitude
  • Emotional control
  • Effective time management
  • Focused
  • Poised
  • Respectful of others
  • Strong communicator
  • Possesses soft skills

Many other entries can be found.

The Best List of All

The point I wish to raise is that Ontario lawyers often lose sight of the fact that the Law Society’s Rules of Professional Conduct (“the Rules”) wrote the book on professionalism.

All of the building blocks are found and expanded upon in the Rules.  I will emphasize two of them here, and two others in a further blog.

  • Integrity Ch. 2 of the Rules addresses integrity: A lawyer has a duty to carry on the practice of law and discharge all responsibilities to clients, tribunals, the public and other members of the profession honourably and with integrity. Among other things, the commentary emphasizes the special responsibilities a lawyer has by virtue of the privileges afforded the legal profession and the important role it plays in a free and democratic society and in the administration of justice, including a special responsibility to recognize the diversity of the Ontario community, to protect the dignity of individuals, and to respect human rights laws in force in Ontario.
  • Independence Ch. 5 of the Rules addresses independence: When acting as an advocate, a lawyer shall represent the client resolutely and honourably within the limits of the law while treating the tribunal with candour, fairness, courtesy, and respect. The commentary inter alia notes provides in adversarial proceedings a lawyer has a duty to the client to raise fearlessly every issue, advance every argument and ask every question, however distasteful, that the lawyer thinks will help the client’s case and to endeavour to obtain for the client the benefit of every remedy and defence authorized by law…When defending an accused person, a lawyer’s duty is to protect the client as far as possible from being convicted, except by a tribunal of competent jurisdiction and upon legal evidence sufficient to support a conviction for the offence with which the client is charged. Accordingly, and notwithstanding the lawyer’s private opinion on credibility or the merits, a lawyer may properly rely on any evidence or defences, including so-called technicalities, not known to be false or fraudulent.

Elements references the following words from the late, great David C. Scott, Q.C. in this regard, and so will I:

The Bar is independent of the State and all its influences. It is an institutional safeguard lying between the ordinary citizen and the power of government. The right to counsel, which as mentioned, is inter-related with the law of privilege, depends for its efficacy on independence.

In order to fulfil the heavy responsibilities imposed on lawyers as officers of the Court, a meaningful and practical environment of independence is essential. It is always within the framework of this relationship that the commercial interests of the client and the lawyer’s interests must give way to the overriding duty to the court. This is not an obligation shared by other professionals…. Our duties as officers of the court could not possibly be discharged other than in an environment of total independence. [From Law Society of Upper Canada Report to Convocation of the Futures Task Force]

Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog, which will follow shortly.

This blog post was written by K. Scott McLean, General Counsel and Director of Practice Development.  He can be reached at (613) 369-0375 or at

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