Lunch & Learn: Bencher Elections

By: Roxanne Davis

On May 24, AWL held a Lunch and Learn focused on promoting the upcoming Bencher elections to women who might consider running to become a bencher or supporting other women who stand for election.  AWL is coordinating its efforts in this regard with the Canadian Bar Association’s Women Lawyers’ Forum (WLF) group in Edmonton.

There are a number of interesting issues and challenges facing the Law Society over the next 3 years including innovation in legal services, access to justice, entity regulation, alternative business structures, and review of the articling program. AWL’s mission is to promote the advancement, equality, interests and well-being of women in the legal profession. We believe that having a diverse group of Benchers will greatly advance that mission. Only 39% of eligible Law Society members voted in the last Bencher elections. We need to work to improve that figure in the 2017 elections.

Bencher elections are held every 3 years. There are 20 elected lawyer Benchers and 4 appointed lay Benchers. The President-Elect is automatically elected, leaving 19 Benchers to be chosen by election. Nomination forms will be available from the Law Society beginning on August 15, 2017 and must be submitted by September 15. The election period runs from October 16 through November 15.

Earlier in May, Law Society Bencher Darlene Scott, Q.C. and the Honourable Judge Julie Lloyd (a former Bencher) spoke to the WLF at a lunch in Edmonton. The Honourable Madam Justice Gillian Marriott (formerly President-Elect of the Law Society) spoke at AWL’s Lunch and Learn. The following is compiled from Justice Marriott’s and Darlene Scott, QC’s notes and is used with their permission.

The Law Society’s mission is to serve the public interest by promoting a high standard of legal services and professional conduct through the governance and regulation of an independent legal profession and upholding the rule of law. Benchers must be vigilant in ensuring they are acting in the public interest, which is not necessarily the same as acting in the interest of lawyers. The Law Society has approved a strategic plan for 2017-2019 which is available on its website. Anyone considering running in the Bencher elections should review it.

Current Benchers come from a variety of legal backgrounds (large and small firms, government, in-house, and not-for-profits). Because it requires a significant time commitment (a minimum of 600-700 hours per year), and frequent travel across the province, prospective candidates should seriously consider whether they have the necessary support from their firm or employer and from their family to allow them to make this commitment to the Law Society.  Sole practitioners or those in small firms may find they will need to reduce their case-loads, which is likely to reduce their income. It is hoped that the introduction of non-Bencher adjudicators will significantly reduce the time Benchers sit on hearings.  It is, however, too early to assess their impact as they were only introduced in 2016-2017. 

Most of the work done by Benchers can be divided into 2 categories – the adjudicative function and the governance function. Traditionally, the adjudicative function consumes more time but Benchers have different interests, strengths and experience which will influence which function they devote more of their time to.

Many lawyers tend to view the Law Society in a negative light because of its role in disciplining lawyers. Are there any lawyers out there whose heart doesn’t jump into their throat for a split second when they see an envelope from the Law Society? That was Justice Marriott’s initial experience. Her thinking changed when she served on the CBA executive and in that capacity was able to attend Law Society meetings and served on Law Society committees. Those experiences led to her decision to run in the 2011 Bencher elections. Because of Justice Marriott’s background in litigation, she expected to be more interested in the adjudicative function but found herself enjoying the governance function.

There are a number of ways of campaigning for Bencher elections. Some are elected through name recognition as a result of other roles, or through the support of large firms. Others send letters or emails to lawyers across the province. It helps to have a history of being involved in a number of aspects of the legal profession and to have demonstrated that you can be counted on to be prepared, work hard and get things done. Before the voting period starts, it is important to let all the lawyers in your network know you are running and ask them to pass on your name to their own networks.   

Serving as a Bencher is described by most Benchers as one of the most rewarding experiences of their careers.  Benchers work with intelligent, committed individuals, with diverse backgrounds and interests, who are tasked with addressing interesting and challenging issues facing the profession.  Being a Bencher is an opportunity to give back to, and help shape, the profession.

If you decide not to run for Bencher elections this time, we encourage you to read the profiles of those who are running, seriously consider which candidates will be devoted to the role and do a good job, and vote accordingly.

AWL thanks Bennett Jones LLP for hosting the Lunch and Learn.