April 18, 2024

As the culture wars seep into various institutions, law societies have hardly been immune

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In the fight for control of the Law Society of Ontario, a slate of progressive candidates held the line against a group positioning themselves as the “anti-woke” alternative in board elections.

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The coalition, calling themselves FullStop, ran under the slogan “stop bloat, stop creep, stop woke.” In addition to concerns over legal fees and the size of the society’s staff, the coalition also takes the position that there’s ideological mission creep within the law society.

Yet, in voting last Friday, the FullStop candidates were roundly defeated by the Good Governance Coalition, which had positioned itself as a “common sense” alternative to the “extreme” FullStop candidates.

Lawyers are governed by a board of directors, called “benchers,” who meet several times a year in a “convocation.” They make various decisions affecting the legal profession in Ontario, such as participating in disciplinary hearings and developing policy. Forty Good Governance lawyers and five paralegals were elected to the board. While FullStop didn’t have a single successful candidate, one of their lawyers may be able to take a board position vacated by the treasurer.

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As the culture wars seep into various institutions, law societies have hardly been immune. In Alberta, a number of insurgent lawyers attempted — and failed — to change the Law Society of Alberta’s rules to eliminate a specific course in Indigenous history and culture.

“In our view, the Law Society has lost its way,” the FullStop group says on its website. “It has strayed from its core mandate of ensuring competence and ethical conduct in the public interest. Instead, it has increasingly become a political institution with a political agenda.”

In a YouTube video explaining why he was running for re-election as a bencher, Murray Klippenstein, a Toronto lawyer, puts it more bluntly: A “wokeist cult,” he said, has “taken over the law society.”

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FullStop emerged out of an earlier coalition, called StopSOP, which sought to repeal a statement of principles that the law society had adopted in 2016. It called on lawyers to affirm they supported diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

In that, they succeeded: Back in 2019, the statement was repeated, as the StopSOP candidates had a number of seats as benchers. They argued the statement of principles amounted to “compelled speech.”

The group, wrote Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt in the publication Canadian Lawyer, succeeded primarily in “bringing chaos and poisonous politics rarely seen at Osgoode Hall.”

For the 2023 election, the coalition evolved into FullStop.

Lisa Bildy, a London, Ont., lawyer and FullStop candidate, told the Law Times that the other slate of candidates, which she called “the big governance slate” believed the law society should be a political regulator.

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“Its candidates are committed to making the law society a woke institution. They insist the legal profession in Ontario is systemically racist. They expect lawyers to toe an ideological line to be permitted to practice law,” Bildly said.

It had the support of a number of prominent lawyers and pundits, including the National Post’s Conrad Black, who wrote that if FullStop’s opponents won, it would “be a catastrophic disorientation of society’s most influential profession.” (The slate of candidates included Howard Levitt, who writes a legal column for the Financial Post.)

Bruce Pardy, a Queen’s University law professor who worked on the FullStop campaign, said the future of FullStop remains to be seen, noting that such groups could be banned by the law society in the future.

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“It is difficult to see how reform movements could get a foothold in the future. We are grateful to our supporters for their courage and vision. They understood the moment,” Pardy wrote in an email to the National Post.

The battle within the law society in recent years has involved other issues, including a proposal to have an official name reader at the call-to-the-bar ceremony to ensure that new lawyers’ names are pronounced correctly on what is a day of significance for those beginning their legal careers.

The campaign itself, normally a quiet law society affair, was waged on social media, as lawyers dredged up information on competing candidates and their views relating to various aspects of the culture wars. For example, one oft-shared tweet is from Stéphane Sérafin, a University of Ottawa law professor who wrote on Twitter that the “cultural left’s fixation on drag shows for children is weird and, dare I say it, a bit predatory?”

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Chris Horkins, a Toronto lawyer, campaigned vociferously on social media against FullStop’s attempts to gain seats on the board in what was “probably the most important election in the LSO’s history.”

“It’s a vote of confidence for what most lawyers in this province believe — which is that having a diverse bar, having a profession that everyone has equal access to, and opportunity to thrive in, regardless of who they are, is important,” said Horkins in an interview. “And it’s a rejection of these kinds of extreme, fringe beliefs that FullStop was promoting.”

The FullStop group had also raised concerns about the disciplinary action taken against Jordan Peterson by the Ontario College of Psychologists, and warned that lawyers could face mandatory training.

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“The new re-education and public narrative super-powers recommended for (the disciplinary committee) could enable the cancel culture mob to label one of your social media posts as an offensive micro-aggression that somehow brings the profession into disrepute,” wrote Joseph Chiummiento, a FullStop candidate, in a February newsletter.

The Good Governance Coalition has been endorsed by a number of groups, including the Criminal Lawyers’ Association.

“We welcome (lawyers’ and paralegals’) choice of diversity over division and look forward to serving the public interest,” wrote the coalition, in a statement on its website.

— With additional reporting by the Ottawa Citizen

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