Acting “in the Public Interest” – What does that mean?

The Law Society of Alberta declares at every turn that it acts “In the Public Interest”. What do we mean when we say that? And what is the Law Society doing to give effect to that bold commitment?

The principled basis for acting “in the public interest” was explored during the Law Society of Alberta’s plenary session at the Alberta Law Conference on Thursday, January 28, 2010.  Panel members debated how the Law Society should advance this vision through core regulatory functions, and through principled governance of the LSA’s policy work. Specific. Law Society initiatives – the Safety of Trust Property and Alternate Delivery of Legal Services — were analyzed from this ‘Public Interest’ perspective.  

Law Society of Alberta President Peter Michalshyn, QC and President-Elect Rod Jerke, QC were joined by panellists Gordon Turriff, QC, outgoing President of the Law Society of B.C.; Yvonne Stanford, former Law Society of Alberta non-lawyer public representative to the LSA Benchers; and Professor Alice Woolley, Faculty of Law, University of Calgary.

Panel Discussion Summary by Rod Jerke, QC, President Elect

Panelist Biographies

Do you think the Law Society acts “in the public interest”?
How should it give effect to this bold commitment?

Explore posts in the same categories: Public Discussion

9 Comments on “Acting “in the Public Interest” – What does that mean?”

  1. The Law Society acts in the public interest first and foremost to ensure that its members are competent and honest in their dealings with both their clients and the general public – that is the basic role of a self-regulating body like ours. In my opinion, more stringent continuing legal education requiremewnts, more intervention and more frequent audits of law offices displaying signs of administrative failures, and more services from the Law Society itself to assist lawyers needing help are the best way to achieve those goals. Thank you.

  2. Lorne Penner Says:

    I certainly do think the Society is acting in the public interest. Members of the Society, by virtue of their code of conduct, and on the strengh of very simple trust conditions, transfer many millions of dollars throughout the province and the globe on a daily basis. This “transactional efficiency” and “transactional certainty” are two of the key elements that bring security to public members property, increasing speed and confidence in transactions. “Transactional efficiency” and “transactional certainty” are two of the key elements that define the differences in public prosperity and security between Canada and Somolia. The initiatives of the Law Society are generally advancing the core underlying principles that make the difference.

  3. Andrea Riccio Says:

    While it is the mandate of the law society to act in the public interest, it would be unwise for it to ignore the business side of the legal profession especially as it relates to those lawyers who, under the right circumstances, could provide better access to legal services.

    While the middle class has never had a greater need for legal services, it perceives legal services as complex and unaffordable. Consequently, they are more likely to forego legal services than hire a lawyer. Sole practitioners and small firms have dealt with this reality for years. If they choose to meet the client’s price point, they can only generate profit through volume. It is not surprising that these practices are under tremendous stress. The cost of compliance with professional obligations contributes to pushing the fees of many solos and small firms beyond the reach of most middle class individuals and small businesses. Breaches of professional obligations are often the result of the lawyers being forced to choose between economic survival and their professional obligations.

    The law society should devote more resources to specifically supporting solos and small firms. We would see fewer cases of professional violations, lower insurance premiums, more public confidence in the profession and greater use of our legal services. We should create a committee to deal with the issues faced by solos and small firms. We should follow the lead of other professional bodies and promote the profession in a manner that not only informs the public about the role of the law society but educates the public about the benefits of using a qualified and licensed legal professional. We should provide mandatory practice management courses for anyone starting their own practice coupled with a more structured mentoring program for those starting their own firm.

    The law society should work to remove many of the barriers getting in the way of greater access to legal services. Many people are turned off by the adversarial process. We need to get serious about civility and collaborative approaches among lawyers and enforce these principles through the discipline process. We also need to get serious about ridding ourselves of the billable hour and support new innovations in the delivery of legal services by lawyers.

    In this day and age, much of a sole practitioner’s ability to provide competent legal services at affordable prices depends on his or her ability to leverage technology to bring costs down, effectively promote themselves to the public and make it easy and convenient for clients to use their services. There are many instances where the archaic, and frankly protectionist, application of the Rules restrict the use of technology and therefore our ability of solos and small firms to bring down the cost of legal services. The Rules need to be brought into the 21st century.

    In addition to strong enforcement of the trust accounting rules, we must provide real and timely help to those who are struggling before their situations get beyond repair. I know of at least one instance where a lawyer voluntarily requested assistance from the practice review committee and his requests were ignored. Similarly, the material the law society put out in the middle of 2009 on mortgage fraud was simply two years too late to be of any use.

    Sole practitioners and small firms are talented lawyers who care passionately about their clients and have been on the “front line” of these very issues way before the law society made them a priority. They should be made a big part of the solution.

    • Johanne L amonson, Q.C. Says:

      As a now sole practioner, due to causes beyond my control, for the most part, I can say that I agree that sole practioners need more help not more threats or expanded rules from the Law Society of Alberta ( “LSA”).

      I have seen members of the LSA blatantly ignore the rules of conflicts ( in larger firms) and the LSA condone them. It is incomprehensible to me that at this time, with our resources and knowledge, that conflicts of interest and loyalty are not better understood by the LSA and not better dealt with by the LSA, and the rules regarding them are not better applied by the LSA.

      The time and resources required to comply with accounting rules are very significant. Obviously that time spent and the related costs incurred will ultimately be attributable to all clients in the way of fees.

      I am most disturbed that the average citizen cannot readily avail himself or herself with access to the law in an effective way that does not cost thousands—– thousands that many many people simply do not have. These people are disenfranchised from redress to the laws of our land, often by the complexity and prolixity of the rules, in addition to the fact of their reduced financial resources.

      Sole practioners should not be overly burdened with helping these people. I have personally witnessed far larger firms who have refused help in significant cases say, almost in the first instance: ” How are we going to get paid?” That’s an issue but one I think the bigger firms pay far more attention to than sole practioners. I have assumed the burden of real significant issues, where no other firm will step forward. Shame on them! Their bottom line means more than serving justice.

      I know I frequently advise people on many issues and never meet them or open a file or senmd them a bill. They can’t afford it and neither can I.

      The fraud /identity issues have added another element and cost to dealing with a client’s concern. How do we become retained on a quick call from another jurisdiction before a hearing?
      Meeting the rules and meeting the needs of the public is potentially a conflict, if time is an issue.

      Also civility and fairness between lawyers is a real concern, at least to me. Obstuctiveness is a real issue. Playing games with the rules is another ( but also a part of the issue of obstructiveness).

      As far as I know–from my graduating class of 1977 there are only 2 of us female practioners still practising. The rest of them are far smarter than I am, obviously. They are not still in the legal profession.

    • Public concern for access to justice continues to increase. In 2009, the Law Society of Alberta’s Access to Justice committee began identifying issues and reviewing the role of the Law Society as a regulator in enhancing equal access to justice.

      Very recently, the Benchers (directors) adopted a strategy aimed at the retention and re-engagement of lawyers in practices providing legal services to the public. This strategy directs the Law Society to:

      – Continue examining alternative delivery of legal services, including the delivery of such services by non-lawyers.

      – Retain and re-engage lawyers, and

      – Promote diversity and equity in legal work places.

      Retaining and re-engaging lawyers includes: supporting the retention of women lawyers and lawyers from diverse backgrounds in the private practice of law, and supporting sole practitioners, and small rural and remote firms.

  4. Peter Bowal Says:

    There can be no doubt that the Law Society is acting in the public interest. The question is how well, and whether it could do so better.

    When I was practising years ago in small town Alberta, we had a very serious case of a rogue, corrupt, incompetent lawyer in our midst. We all made complaints to the LSA about him. Nothing was done for months. When the bureaucratic LSA finally rode into town, there was nothing left of clients’ interests to save. He was criminally charged, convicted and served federal time. In that case, and many other similar ones, the Law Society was not acting in the public interest.

    • Timeliness of responding to complaints is an issue that is very important to the Law Society of Alberta.

      If the Law Society of Alberta receives a complaint which cannot be resolved, or it discloses a concern that is potentially a significant breach of the Code of Professional Conduct, it is advanced to the formal discipline process. In this process, the Law Society endeavors to act quickly, fairly and thoroughly to complaints about conduct which may harm the public interest. The Law Society may impose an interim suspension in cases where there are reasonable grounds to believe a lawyer is wrongfully doing something or failing to do something that might cause harm to a client or the public.

      In recent years, the Law Society has undertaken several initiatives to assess risks, streamline its complaints review process and conduct hearings, and establish benchmarks to ensure that complaints are brought to conclusion on a timely basis. The Law Society of Alberta takes very seriously the need to conduct a timely, fair and transparent discipline process in the public interest.

  5. Melek T. Williams Says:

    Is the best forum to ask if the Law Society is serving the public interest a link off the homepage designed specifically for lawyers? I think I am doing a fantastic job at telling myself I am doing a fantastic job. I think we all know that we can congratulate ourselves with a pat on the back very well… but it doesn’t do much does it?

    So does the Law Society serve public interest? I think if we look how this was put up for discussion we all know the answer. But let us rest easy and say we are doing a great job. It makes life easier.

    In the meantime I think I will ask the public, the people that have dealt with the law society and lawyers their opinion. I wonder if it will differ from what gets posted here.

    • My understanding of the work done by the access to justice committee and the studies they have commissioned is that the “public” has been given an opportunity to provide input on the problems and possible solutions. I think this blog is a good forum to get input from lawyers who, as far as I am aware, have not yet been given an opportunity to make submissions to the committee.

      Maybe it is because of the way the question has been put on the blog, but what is disappointing to me is that so few people have taken the time to comment and/or respond. Even the reply posted by the law society is just a reprint of what has already been published rather than a specific a meaningful response to earlier comments.

      I do agree that the blog is asking the wrong question. In my opinion, the better question to ask (one that may generate more comments) is “how” can we as a self-regulated professional association better serve the public interest and get legal services to those people who are presently doing without? All lawyers can make a meaningful contribution to that discussion (a) if they care, and (b) if they are given the opportunity.

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