LAWYER ASSISTANCE – A PERSONAL VIEW

We would like to share with you the moving and inspiring words of Andre Gervais, past president of the Canadian Bar Association, spoken at the ABA’s Annual Workshop on Lawyer Assistance Programs in Montreal a few years ago. He expressed his gratitude for the role that the Canadian LAP had played in his life, and emphasized the importance of continuing this work. Since the audience was both French and English speaking, portions of the speech are in each language.

Un grand merci, — , pour ces généreuses paroles de présentation, et je vous remercie, mesdames et messieurs, de m’avoir invité a participer a cette importante conférence. Je suis très honoré de pouvoir vous adresser quelques mots.

Some of you who have heard me speak at this or that Bar Association event will know that customarily I begin any presentation I make with a joke or humorous story. I am a true believer in the theory that a funny anecdote is the best antidote when it comes to blowing away audience reluctance or the invisible barriers that so often come between the person carrying a message and those receiving it. Tonight, I want to break with tradition.

Instead of a funny story, I thought I would begin my remarks with a slightly painful recollection but one, I hope, that will put what I have to say in perspective.

Almost precisely one year ago, at the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference in Ottawa, I made my inaugural speech as association president. I must tell you that it was an important moment for me, a high point in a legal career that began forty years earlier when I graduated from the University of Sherbrooke’s School of Law.

Needless to say, I crafted my remarks as carefully as I could. And I rehearsed. Every morning in the shaving mirror, two or three times a day behind a closed office door and every night as I settled myself into bed, I practiced. By the time out-going president, Russell Lusk, settled the chain of office around my shoulders and stepped back to give me access to the microphone, I was ready. I knew my text cold and I was confident that I would deliver it, if not flawlessly, at least without a major mistake. How very wrong I was. Less than a minute after I opened my mouth, I was in serious trouble.

I began by thanking Russell and the audience, much as I began this speech. I told what I hoped was a funny story and was pleased to hear something more than a polite ripple of laughter in response. So far so good. Then, I moved on to what I saw as the easy stuff thanking my family, friends and law partners for the help they had given me along the way. It wasn’t easy at all. It was the toughest time I’d ever had in front of a microphone because suddenly, as I made this reference and that, the names on the page in front of me became faces on that mental video screen that all of us carry around in our minds, in our hearts and in our souls. I got through the names of my children all right, but when I came to a reference to my brother Paul, I began to cry.

You see, Paul had died six months earlier. He’d been a fine lawyer, a respected member of Parliament and an excellent judge; and, to me, he had been a friend and mentor. I wanted to pay tribute to him. Fair enough and nothing to weep about. After all, I’m not a young man, I’d lost family members before, my mother, my father, I should have had no difficulty giving Paul his due and moving on. Life isn’t that simple.

In the minute or two it took me to come to terms with my own surprise at what had happened and to compose myself so that I could carry on with what I had thought would be the tough part of my speech, I gained a brand new appreciation for the mysteries of grieving and loss and the fragility of the emotional balancing act we call life.

Self-control is a much valued trait, particularly in a profession like the law where the mistakes we make cost others dearly, but is not something we can take for granted and to lose it is not a crime. It is merely evidence, healthy evidence in my opinion, that we are human.

When Adrian Hill asked me to take part in this conference, I said to myself, Andre, Adrian is a fine fellow, you should help him out and accept his invitation. But what have you got to say to an audience made up of Adrian Hills? They are the experts, they’re on the cutting edge to borrow a term from the high-tech crowd. What can you add to their deliberations. What can you say?

Then it struck me. The answer is simple. I remembered my tears for a lost brother and I told myself, You can say thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is the sum total of my message to you today. Thank you. Thank you for the work you do for the programs you set up, for the 800 lines, for the counseling and, most of all, thank you for caring. Life is not an easy journey. Life in the law can be a brutal one. People fall victim to its demands: they drink, take drugs, despair, grieve and some give up. These are not losers. Often they are by anyone’s definition the best and the brightest. Certainly many are remarkably sensitive. You help them to understand difficult phenomena like loss and sorrow, to recover, to heal themselves, to stay alive and for that I am grateful.

On entend souvent dire et déplorer que les avocats sont à présent beaucoup trop nombreux. C’est possible, cependant la perspective de revenir à l’ère féroce de la concurrence au moyen d’une guerre d’usure n’est pas tout à fait ce que j’appellerais une solution au problème. Les chiffres sont une chose, les statistiques en sont une autre, bien différente. On ne saurait résoudre un problème de chiffres en transformant les gens en statistiques.

Yet in a truly distressing way, that is too often what is happening; people are turned into statistics. Perhaps it isn’t anyone’s fault it may simply be the way things have evolved but the practice of law has become a tough business. The hours are long, the results not always clear or satisfactory, the competition both from other law firms and other professions is ruthless. Lawyers, especially young lawyers, find themselves caught up in the service industry equivalent of that Charlie Chaplin classic, Modern Times. The productivity demands keep increasing and not all the gadgetry in the world is enough to allow practitioners both to meet those demands and, as my children say, to get a life.

As I traveled across Canada and to other countries during my presidential year, a lot of what I saw excited and encouraged me. I saw volunteers giving to organizations like this. I saw community-minded individuals and groups of lawyers bringing new meaning to the term pro-bono. But I also saw the darker side of the practice of law in these last moments of the millennium, a side characterized by a gruesome parody of those Olympic goals Citius, Altius, Fortius or faster, higher, braver.

The analogy is not perfect, I admit, but it captures the pressure cooker atmosphere that is common both to competitive sports and to the modern practice of law. Pushed by the fear that if we can’t deliver others will, too many law firms are asking too much of those who service clients on their behalf. The talk these days is of profit centers not offices, of business not professional practices, of billing units as measures of success and of something called quality service, something that has sometimes come to mean never saying no, never saying wait, never questioning a client’s motivation or goals.

Lawyers are sub-divided into depersonalized groupings finders, minders and grinders. We are told to get out there and “eat what we kill’. Those who seek meaning or a sense of purpose are told to find solace in a BMW showroom or a Ralph Lauren clothing shop. Try talking about spirituality or inner contentment and you’ll find people looking at you as though you’d suddenly lost your mind.

Small wonder that lawyers are paying an enormous price on the personal side of the ledger for the record gains they are racking up on the business side. You can relax with a double scotch when you don’t have time to take play tennis or take a walk but over the long haul you pay a price. You can have children but you can’t raise a family when you’re spending every night and most weekends servicing clients. It’s as simple as the old rule that you cannot be in two places at once. Yet circumstances are pushing too many lawyers especially, as I said earlier, younger lawyers to break that rule. They’re paying the price and the currency is divorce, breakdown, despair and, in the worst cases, suicide.

LPAC and its sister organizations assisting lawyers and notaries in Quebec are the thin line of defense between the seemingly insatiable demands of modern practice and the health of the lawyers trying to feed those appetites. Your sensitivity to the human dimension is our best hope of developing a new measure of success, one that is focused less on profit and more on well being. Having sat in on some of Adrian’s programs at annual meetings, I for one am confident that though you face an enormous challenge you will succeed.

Des conférences comme celle-ci ainsi que les nombreuses initiatives que vous lançez en matière d’éducation sont des jalons essentials sur le chemin de la réussite. Et vous êtes mieux placés que moi pour savoir que la première étape de cette évolution, ce sont des avocats sensibilisés aux difficultés et écueils que tant d’autres veulent encore ignorer. ll est impératif de cerner et de saisir l’ampleur véritable d’un problème avant de pouvoir envisager une solution efficace. Une grande part de la bataille que vous menez jour apres jour demeure encore trop souvent dans l’ombre.

I’m reminded when I think of the challenges you face of the story of the three lawyers out for a walk in the country. They come upon a cowboy up to his neck in quicksand and sinking slowly to a certain death. The three lawyers snap into action. They find a fallen tree, and dragging it to the pool of quicksand, use it as a bridge to get to the cowboy. Then they crawl out on the log, reach into the ooze, grab his shoulders and arms and haul. Nothing happens; try as they may, the cowboy continues to sink one millimeter at a time. Finally, the lawyers say, it’s no use, we can’t do it; you’re doomed. Wait a minute, says the cowboy. I just had an idea. Would it help if I took my feet out of the stirrups?

Ladies and gentlemen, your job is like that faced by the three Samaritan lawyers. You’re doing your best but I know how disheartened you must feel from time to time when that 800 line keeps ringing and the problem seems to grow rather than diminish in size. I hope you will not give up, Keep telling us about the goals and the way to reach them. Keep educating us and hopefully someday we’ll understand what you’re trying to tell us and we’ll take our feet out of the stirrups.

Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to play a small part in the good work you and your colleagues are doing. Keep standing up for the human side of the equation and God bless all of you.

 
preload preload preload