Ceremonial Opening of Legal Year in Hong Kong

  • January 14, 2019

Madam President, members of the Law Society, honoured guests: Thank you, President Pang, for inviting me to address this global gathering of leaders of our profession on this august occasion. I am proud to be here speaking on behalf of the more than 36,000 members of the Canadian Bar Association.

I have been asked to speak this morning to the question of what the fundamental role is for lawyers in society, and to discuss the career opportunities other than the practise of law that exist for those who put in the hours to earn a law degree.

To answer those questions, we must start at first principles: What is a lawyer? Franz Kafka once said “a lawyer is a person who writes a ten-thousand-word document and calls it a brief.” But there is of course more to it than that.  A lawyer is an individual engaged in the profession of preparing, interpreting or applying law.  This work involves the practical application of abstract legal theories and knowledge to resolve specific, individualized problems.

What are the implications for the fundamental role of the lawyer in society?  Primarily, I believe that we are singularly entrusted by our respective societies with preserving, promoting and protecting the Rule of Law.  We are masters of process and the processes of government, commerce and civilized human interaction require a vigilant legal profession for their protection.

History is replete with examples of lawyers bravely speaking truth to power, especially when that power has gone beyond the bounds of law.  In the vindications of individual rights and advances of human liberty, the key figures are most often lawyers willing to risk both reputation and future in pursuit of an ideal.  Last month, I attended an exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights honoring one such lawyer, Nelson Mandela, whose pursuit of an ideal cost him 27 years of freedom before he emerged to lead his nation towards that ideal.

Former Chief Justice Warren Burger of the United States Supreme Court wrote in 1975 that lawyers are the “healers of conflict” and “lubricants that permit the diverse parts of a social order to function with a minimum of friction.”  I admit that I had not previously thought of myself as a “healer” and certainly not as a “lubricant”, but these terms are I believe aptly applied to the traditional roles of the barrister and the solicitor respectively.  Perhaps my next business card iteration can list “legal lubricant” as my job title?

We fulfil these roles through the deployment of words, not the application of force.  By doing so, we preserve, promote and protect the ideal that the arbitrary exercise of power should be subordinated to well-defined and established constraints known as laws.  In other words, lawyers on a daily basis preserve, promote and protect the Rule of Law in our societies.

I’d now like to turn to the second question posed about career opportunities.  Legal training supplies an abundance of useful tools.  It shapes our ability to think critically, to organize our thoughts, to absorb a vast array of information and to distil all of it into a cogent arguments supported by fact.  It hones our ability to research and to write.  It refines our ability to speak persuasively.  These skills readily translate into other fields.

A legal education plus appropriate training in specific areas opens up doors to careers in everything from business to journalism to politics to academics, with many stops in between.  The writer John Grisham is a lawyer, as is American TV personality Geraldo Rivera.  British comedian John Cleese earned his law degree at Cambridge.  Castro, Gandhi and Mandela were all lawyers who went on to change their worlds – and ours.  The artists Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky both trained in the law before presenting their genius on canvas.  The names of lawyers who gained their fame in other fields is long, and the list of the not-so-famous positive contributors to our societies is even longer.  Essentially, a degree in law can take you anywhere.

The Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Futures Initiative looked at the ways the practise of law is changing, as our very conservative and traditional profession tries to keep pace with changing times.  Our Futures Initiative Reports say the client-driven law firm of the future will create new types of jobs for legal graduates: among them, knowledge engineers who will build online legal advice systems; legal process analysts to develop architecture within firms to disaggregate legal work; legal support system managers who will develop and deliver tools to clients to help them undertake some of their own legal work; and legal project managers, who will bring project management discipline to the practise of law.  We are limited only by our own imagination how we choose to use the tools we possess of thinking critically, communicating effectively and our knowledge of the legal system.  By extension, people with law degrees who can apply that ability to analyze and think critically will always be needed in many other domains.

We talk a lot about the future of law and legal innovation in terms of technology.  There’s fear that artificial intelligence is coming for our jobs.  I say let the machines do the repetitive work because machines are better at it and this work is hardly soul inspiring.  Lawyers will always be needed to do the analysis of the information found through the research, will be needed to make the arguments, and will be needed to push the law to meet our ever-evolving societal needs in a manner that preserves, protects and promotes the Rule of Law.

Thank you again Madam President for inviting me to speak on the occasion of the opening of the 2019 legal year.  I look forward to hearing all of the presentations.

Thank you.