Many Ontario lawyers think the “The Law Society of Upper Canada” is still a great name for their governing body. They oppose the suggestion — no, the mere possibility — that the LSUC’s Strategic Communications Steering Group might recommend a name change. Read this article in Law Times for the details, especially the comments at the end in support of the current name — they’re a real treat.
I cannot get my head around lawyers’ continuing support for the term “Upper Canada.” The current year, last I checked, is 2017. There hasn’t been an “Upper Canada” on any reliable map since the jurisdiction was abolished through union with Lower Canada in 1841. The term is 176 years old. It predates our entire country.
Google “Upper Canada” and you’ll find links to a private school, a shopping mall, a daycare centre, and a cheese factory, among other notable entities. What you won’t find is any other organization, let alone a professional regulatory agency, that uses the term in all seriousness to refer to the province of Ontario. Including “Upper Canada” in the law society’s name is, on its face, inaccurate — the law society does not govern lawyers in Upper Canada, it governs them in Ontario.
But then again, what does “law society” itself even mean, at least to anyone who’s not a member of the legal profession? To the layperson, “law society” sounds like an exclusive private club with heavily curtained rooms and overstuffed chairs where lawyers meet to discuss esoteric issues of jurisprudence and sip brandy from snifters — or wine from their private cellared collection. So maybe it’s not that inaccurate after all.
Whatever the “Law Society of Upper Canada” might signify to non-lawyers, it does not communicate in any way what the organization is actually supposed to do: Govern the conduct and ensure the competence of lawyers and other legal services providers in the province of Ontario, acting throughout in the public interest. Nothing about the name tells Ontarians, “This organization exists to serve you, to ensure you are treated effectively and fairly by legal services providers in this province.”
Yet many lawyers are ready to storm the barricades to prevent a name change. Here are some of their robust defences, as found in the Law Times article.
- “It’s always been the Law Society of Upper Canada. It has got historical value.”
- “The history of Upper Canada is something to be celebrated and remembered.”
- “The existing name is not offensive and it is historical in nature. “
- “The law society was and is the oldest law society in the Commonwealth and that is a historical fact that I believe should be venerated.”
These are not arguments. They’re statements of opinion: Old is good. Historic is good. Tradition is good. You know what “tradition” means, right? It means, “This is the way my group has always done things.” I don’t need to list for you all the things in Canada and the United States that were ”traditional” even 50 years ago to make the obvious point: “Old” and “historical” and “traditional” are not necessarily positive attributes. Tradition is not prima facie a virtue. And if it’s the only argument you’ve got, your case is unbelievably weak.
An organization’s name tells the world what it is and what it stands for. “The Law Society of Upper Canada” sends a very clear message: This organization is about law and lawyers and tradition. It is not about the people and the province whose interests it as statutorily created to serve. It is opaque and inaccessible to these parties — and as recently as 2012, the organization rejected an opportunity to start changing that opacity and inaccessibility merely by changing its name. You couldn’t come up with a better example of the profession’s institutional resistance to progress in legal services if you tried.
I frequently tell lawyers, when examining their law firms’ business practices, to ask a simple question: “If we weren’t already doing it this way, would we start?” If we were creating an organization today to regulate the provision of legal services in the province off Ontario, would we seriously call it “The Law Society of Upper Canada?” And if we wouldn’t start off this way, then why do we insist on continuing stubbornly down this archaic path?
If this possible name change even reaches the point of becoming an actual proposal (which I suspect it won’t), and if the law society’s Benchers (another enigmatic term) again defeat this motion (which I suspect they would), then they will have given us another data point confirming that they’re more invested in indulging their own fondness for tradition than in being accessible, understandable, and approachable to the people they’re meant to serve.