We aren’t the sharks. But sometimes, we’re hired by them.
by Tony Wilson
In February, I went to a conference in Nassau. I always scuba dive where the water is warm, but this time, I decided to go on a Shark Adventure Dive, where the dive masters ushered me 40 feet below the dive boat while they fed around 50 large sharks circling a foot or two from my nose. Unlike documentaries on the Discovery Channel, there were no cages, but they did suggest that we not move our hands or pee in our wetsuits. Like other dangerous pastimes such as driving a car or eating too much red meat, there’s a calculated risk that you won’t die doing it, but a minor risk that you might. Of course, the Dive Shop sells you the DVD and the photos of you in your own personal “Thunderball” moment, and I took the bait; posting my 120 seconds of fame on YouTube. I sent the link to an odd collection of co-workers, family members, former girlfriends, old buddies and clients. Shark diving was on my “bucket list” of things to do before I died, and having not died, I felt I earned the bragging rights.
Other than my daughter informing me she officially had a cool Dad, I was shocked at a universal response that I had not expected: “Professional courtesy” said virtually all the non-lawyers.
As a humour writer (this column won an award last year so I can say that now), I’m totally embarrassed that I didn’t think of the joke before they did!
But as a lawyer, I’m ticked off that we continue to have the reputation of “sharks” among those who can never be disbarred because they answer to no one for their ethical transgressions. As lawyers, we do our best to further our clients’ interests within certain rules, but we always risk getting our heads bitten off if our bills are too high or our ethics are too low.
The various lawyers I am fortunate to have worked with over my career have been, with few exceptions, compassionate and dedicated professionals, trying to do what they’re paid to do without debasing their professionalism. Outside work, they volunteer their time for charitable causes, sit on boards, or coach their kid’s sports teams. Some contribute to our democracy by becoming involved in politics. Others seek to create a better world by making us conscious of the energy we misuse and what we throw out.
Our own CBA seeks to promote justice in an unjust world by drawing attention to the plight of lawyers and judges in Pakistan, or the fate of prisoners tortured in Guantanamo Bay. Maher Arar isn’t free because Starbucks or Microsoft rallied around him. He’s free because lawyers took on his cause.
An active and independent legal profession permits us to live in a country where cartoons depicting Muhammad, Jesus, Thor, Zeus or L. Ron Hubbard aren’t criminal offenses punishable by death, but works protected by free speech and the right to offend. In Canada, gays and lesbians can get married because lawyers saw a double standard and decided to fix it. The police can be held responsible for their mistakes, politicians can be accountable for corruption, and religious leaders can be convicted of sex crimes. But without lawyers pushing the envelope, our modern civil society might still be a medieval one.
As I consider Conrad Black and other non-lawyers serving jail time, it strikes me that we are harpooned far too often by those whose ethics are governed only by money. Until they face the equivalent of disbarment, the real sharks aren’t the lawyers. Sometimes they’re the ones who have to hire them.
Vancouver Franchise Lawyer Tony Wilson practices at Boughton Law Corporation in Vancouver, and has written for the Globe and Mail, Macleans Magazine and Canadian Lawyer. firstname.lastname@example.org | www.boughton.ca/people/lawyers/tony_wilson
This article was published in the April 2008 issue of BarTalk and is subject to the copyright by the British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, 2008, all rights reserved.