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Reflecting on 2020 and What Lies Ahead

Reflecting on 2020 and What Lies Ahead

By: Teresa Donnelly, Treasurer | January 21, 2021

As we enter the early weeks of 2021, we continue to see the terrible toll the pandemic has inflicted at home and globally. The deaths and infections worldwide are staggering. We have struggled with deaths and illnesses in our families, working from home, our children being educated at home, caring for the vulnerable, coping with isolation, and transitioning our work or education to ensure health and safety of ourselves, colleagues, clients and the public. Our work in the justice system has changed indelibly.

In June, in the middle of the pandemic, I was honoured to become the Law Society’s 80th Treasurer. My work since has been facilitated by a dedicated Law Society staff, led by CEO Diana Miles and the assistance of benchers, LSO members, justice sector stakeholders and partners.

The beginning of a new year provides an opportunity to reflect on some of my key activities since becoming Treasurer. This includes responding to the impacts of the pandemic, outreach to the legal professions, focussing on the importance of mental health and wellness, and speaking about equality, diversity and inclusion within the legal professions.

Uncertain times

The profound effects of the pandemic overshadowed much of 2020. The Law Society, under the strong leadership of CEO Diana Miles and with the support of the Senior Management team, Law Society staff and Convocation, successfully responded to many challenges. Together we worked to ensure that the Law Society was well-positioned to fulfil its mandate to regulate Ontario’s lawyers and paralegals in the public interest. As an organization, both operationally and through decisions made at Convocation, we worked to support our members through this challenging time. We adapted. We pivoted. We transitioned. In person Call to the Bar ceremonies for lawyer candidates and Welcoming Ceremonies for paralegal candidates were replaced with a Welcome to the Professions Ceremony – on Zoom. We presented Law Society Awards to the outstanding 2020 recipients, marked Remembrance Day, held committee meetings and convened Convocation – all on Zoom. Now, we are buoyed, in these early days, as we see the vaccine being rolled out across the country and the world. While there will be much work to do, this news brings a sense of optimism as we welcome in a new year.

Strengthening connections

As we have navigated through the uncertainty of the pandemic, and I have assumed my role as Treasurer, strengthening and building connections across the legal community has been a key focus for me. We have much in common as legal professionals. Our daily challenges, however, can be unique. Engaging with lawyers, paralegals, law students and paralegal students through virtual presentations helps me to better appreciate the range of experiences and perspectives that make up the fabric of the legal community. It helps me understand how the Law Society can ensure appropriate support of members, while fulfilling its mandate to regulate the professions in the public interest. Building connections works both ways. A key focus of the presentations is a discussion of the role and work of the Law Society so that members and students better understand what the Law Society does.

To this end, I have convened roundtable meetings, regional engagement activities and individual law firm presentations. This has included engaging with the Treasurer’s Liaison Group, made up of primary justice sector stakeholders, the Early Careers Roundtable, comprised of cross-section of licensees who are in the first ten years of their careers as well as law student representatives. I have hosted regional meetings with local law associations and other justice sector partners in the Eastern, Central West and Central Eastern regions and look forward to reaching out to the remainder of the regions in the new year. I have made more than a dozen presentations including interactive sessions to legal firms, Ministry of the Attorney General articling students, and paralegal students at colleges across the province, all aimed at strengthening connections throughout all facets of the legal professions. I have presented at the Commonwealth Lawyers Association webinar, the Paralegal Town Hall meeting, the FOLA plenary and the York Region Paralegal Summit. I initiated and hosted a complimentary CPD program entitled “The 12-Minute Paralegal”: Practice Tips in a Pandemic.

The purpose of all these engagements is to hear from members of the professions, share information and updates and to build greater connections within the professions and with the Law Society.

Mental health and wellness: Increasing awareness and reducing stigma

In the course of these engagements, many common themes emerged. One of the most critical is the importance of raising awareness and reducing the stigma around mental health and wellness in the legal professions. This is a priority for me personally as Treasurer.  

In order to serve the public well and to facilitate access to justice, we need to ensure that members of the legal professions are healthy and supported. We need to look after ourselves. We need to look out for and after each other. We cannot continue our important work in the justice system without self-care, our health and being mindful of the impacts individually and collectively.

A key support and resource for Law Society licensees, law students, paralegal students, licensing candidates and eligible family members is the Member Assistance Program or MAP. Since 2013, the Law Society has funded Homewood Human Solutions to provide confidential counselling and other services through MAP. Although funded by the Law Society, MAP is independent of the Law Society. It provides members with a full range of professional, confidential services, including counselling, peer-to-peer support, crisis management services, as well as interactive online resources. As independence from the Law Society and confidentiality are key components of MAP, members can access the program knowing that their personal information and circumstances are not being shared with the Law Society.

To learn more about these and other supports and resources, I urge you to review the Law Society website at LSO.ca/YourSource and to share this information across your networks and communication channels.

Building a more equitable and inclusive legal community

In my first speech as Treasurer in June, I referred to the impassioned cries for justice, following fatal encounters between police forces and Black, Indigenous and racialized individuals. These realities are an important reminder to build more equitable and inclusive communities.

In reflecting on this, I am reminded of the Supreme Court of Canada’s comments in 2018 when it recognized that equal access to the legal professions and diversity within the bar, are all within the Law Society’s scope of duty to uphold the public interest. The court noted that ensuring a diverse legal profession not only promotes the public interest but also furthers access to justice. 

In his Opening of the Courts speech this fall, Chief Justice Strathy reminded us about the prevalence and perseverance of anti-Black racism; the historic effects of slavery and colonialism, and the centuries of racism and discrimination that have followed. His words are powerful motivators for us to take action to effect change.

At Convocation this past November, we were moved by the passionate words of Holocaust survivor and educator Max Eisen who was awarded an honorary doctorate in laws in recognition of his outstanding achievements to the rule of law and the cause of justice. As legal professionals, Mr. Eisen reminded us of our responsibilities in pursuit of justice and of the importance of using our skills to build a better world; to be a part of the solution to the challenges of inequality and racism.

Looking ahead with optimism

As we reflect on the past year, I am struck by the resilience and fortitude that has been demonstrated across the legal professions. Like many other sectors, ours has been undeniably impacted by the effects of the pandemic. The justice system is being modernized with overwhelming speed. We have come together to respond to these uncertain times and rapid changes, and now, in the early weeks of 2021, we look with optimism toward the future.

I wish to once again extend my gratitude to each of our members and justice sector stakeholders for your ongoing participation and for being collaborative partners to the Law Society. Let’s keep this conversation going; participate in the Law Society’s consultations and activities; visit our website, to learn more and access our many resources; follow the activities of Convocation and watch its webcast; send us your feedback; read our Licensee Update; follow us on social media; and, reach out to me at Treasurer@LSO.ca to schedule a virtual visit to your firm, association, paralegal college or law school.

Stay safe and well,

Teresa Donnelly
Law Society of Ontario, Treasurer

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