© 1997 Karen Selick
Uncle CBA Wants YOU!
An edited version of this article first appeared in the September, 1997 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Uncle CBA Wants YOU!

A few years ago, I wrote a column in this space explaining why I was a dissatisfied member of the Canadian Bar Association.  My complaint was that the CBA had been taking public positions on political issuesógun control, reproductive technology, the right to health care, etc.  My opinions on these subjects had never been canvassed, I disagreed with the positions being advocated, and I objected to being counted among my opponents on these issues by virtue of my membership in the prestigious CBA. 

I wanted to belong to an organization that would provide me with benefits for my law practice:  continuing legal education, news about developments in the legal world, and group discounts on products and services.  What did gun control or reproductive technology have to do with being a lawyer anyway?

Nevertheless, I recognized that there was a solution for people like me: quit the CBA.  This was what distinguished a voluntary organization from a governmentómembers were free to leave.  It wasnít a very happy solution, because it would also entail the loss of those benefits I had joined for, but sometimes principled choices have to be made.  After weighing the alternatives, I let my membership lapse. 

Lawyers in British Columbia didnít have that option, however.  The rules of their law society make membership in the CBA mandatory.  My column suggested that the existence of these captive west coast members was a good reason for the CBA not to take public stands on political issues.

As far as I can tell, the CBA ignored this suggestion.  Not only that, but it is now proposing to place Ontario lawyers in the same situation as our B.C. colleagues.  Its Ontario branch, the CBAO, proposes to merge with the County and District Law Presidentsí Association (CDLPA).  The plan then calls for the merged organization to enlist the cooperation of the Law Society of Upper Canada in making membership mandatory for all Ontario lawyers.

There are about 22,600 practising lawyers in Ontario.  About 11,700 of them are members of the CBAO.  This means that 52 percent of the Ontario bar will be trying to coerce the other 48 percent into joining their organization, even though the latter have demonstrated by their past actions that theyíd prefer not to.  In fact, the percentage of lawyers actually in favour of this plan may well be less than 52 percent, since in this as in other issues, the CBAO has probably taken a stand that not all of its members support.

Richard C. Gates, chairman of CDLPA, wrote recently that "lawyers need a body which can speak for us all with one voice." Sorry, Mr. Gates, but Iíd like to pipe up with a dissenting voice.  The truth is that we donít all speak with one voice on many issues.  This column is proof of that fact.  The effect of forcing everyone to become members of an organization which will then purport to speak on behalf of all lawyers is that weaker voices--minority voices, dissenting voices--will simply be drowned out.  They will not merely be unrepresented, they will actually be misrepresented.

A few months ago, I was invited to speak to a meeting of the CBAO council about why I had quit.  After my remarks, one lawyer suggested that the way to address my concerns was not simply to take my marbles and go home, but rather to become more active in the CBA.  If I participated in the committees studying various issues, she suggested, my views would then be represented and I would feel less alienated. This idea sounded plausible at first, but I later realized it was the worst thing I could do. 

Time is a scarce resource that must be deployed where it will be most effective. I know my political views are generally those of a minority.  I could spend long hours debating them in CBA committee meetings, only to find myself outvoted and unrepresented when the CBA took a public stand.  Or, I could use my time to write newspaper articles, or make presentations to parliamentary committees, where my views would reach a much wider and more powerful audience.  The efficient choice is obvious.

Maybe Iím just being unimaginative, but Iíve found it hard to think of any issues on which it is crucial for lawyers to speak with a single voice.  One CBAO memo gives as an example the right to charge contingency fees.  Many lawyers couldnít care less about this, and arenít willing to pay dues to a group to lobby for it.

I donít perceive myself to have any conflict of interest with the public that requires an advocacy organization to speak for me.  In fact, I suspect that if such a conflict did arise, I would be more inclined to take the side of the public than the side of the legal profession.  I was not a lawyer for the first 24 years of my life, and I donít expect to be a lawyer for the last 24 years either.  In this as in other issues, my long-term interest is in promoting voluntary trade, not forced trade unionism. 

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June 18, 2000