/This lawyer was determined to stop the law society’s forced ‘statement of principles’

This lawyer was determined to stop the law society’s forced ‘statement of principles’

Something changed in Ontario this month. Most people didn’t notice. It happened at the Law Society of Ontario, a body that few realize even exists. The society had in 2017 started compelling lawyers and paralegals to state their adherence to the dogma of substantive equality, diversity and inclusion in order to be in compliance with requirements for their licence. Such pledges have become commonplace — even university applications now require a diversity statement — and getting rid of them is unheard of. Once social-justice ideology takes hold of an institution there is little to be done. But in a stunning vote by its members, the LSO’s compulsory equality/diversity/inclusion statement was rejected. In today’s cultural landscape it is a small but impossible victory.


Lisa Bildy.

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When I first met Lisa Bildy, I did not imagine that she could do the impossible. It was January 2018 and I was debating the law society’s social-justice diktat. The rule, adopted the previous year, required all licensees to “adopt and abide by a statement of principles” (“SOP”) that acknowledged their obligation “to promote equality, diversity and inclusion” in all of their affairs, both professionally and personally. After the debate a pleasant, articulate lawyer introduced herself. What can be done, she asked, to push back against compelled speech and authoritarianism at the Law Society of Ontario? This month, that same woman ousted the law society’s prevailing order and turned the self-regulatory body on its head.

Her first attempt failed. In the fall of 2017, shortly after the policy was announced, Bildy and a small group of other concerned lawyers in London, Ont., put up a website called “StopSOP” (“Stop the Statement of Principles”) to encourage lawyers to resist by refusing to adopt the sort of declaration the law society was trying to compel. Instead, 98 per cent complied — even though the society had said there would be no suspensions imposed the first year on those who refused. Still, any fear of losing one’s livelihood is a powerful deterrent.

Bildy and her small group of supporters were undeterred. Every four years the profession elects 40 lawyers and five paralegals as “benchers,” the quaint name for those who sit on the law society’s governing body. Winning candidates are typically high-profile lawyers with money and backing, or incumbents with name recognition. A year out from the election scheduled for spring 2019, with no money and few connections, Bildy led a decision to run a slate of candidates to repeal the SOP from the inside.

Who in their right mind would be a StopSOP candidate? In today’s highly charged environment, running against equality/diversity/inclusion initiatives risks personal and professional grief. The politically correct who promote tolerance and diversity are highly intolerant of dissent and diverse points of view. Yet, 22 courageous lawyers and one paralegal stepped forward. We warned them of what they already knew: backlash from social-justice activists would be vicious. And it was. Those of us publicly affiliated with StopSOP were called bigots, racists and Nazis. “If you are (against the SOP) then I humbly invite you to f*** yourself up the a**” said one lawyer in a social media post, “and stick your ‘compelled speech’ arguments there as well.” Yes, this — and worse — from lawyers.

Bildy ran the StopSOP campaign from her dining-room table on a shoestring budget, soliciting small donations from rank-and-file lawyers fed up with ideological regulators pushing them around. She co-ordinated mass emails and media hits, and when the lawyers on her team inevitably disagreed, she was able to herd the cats. She reined in her team members when some were tempted to engage in Twitter wars, insisting on the high road and ignoring the venom directed her way. Beneath the calm exterior was a fearless fighter made of steel. When the dust settled and the vote was announced on May 1, all of StopSOP’s lawyer candidates had won (including, remarkably, the top 10 spots in Toronto). Defeated incumbents and high-profile candidates were shocked.

We won 22 of 40 lawyer seats, which does not amount to an overall majority on the board once five paralegals and eight lay benchers are added in. Nothing is guaranteed, but turning the page at the law society is at least now a possibility. Our benchers are not a political party and do not agree on all issues, but they are of one mind that the SOP must be repealed. They also aim to rein in the Law Society of Ontario’s ever-expanding regulatory agenda, bureaucracy and budget, so large now that it now rivals that of the city of Oshawa, Ont.

One defeated incumbent observed that the election was “the first time in the history of the law society that you’ve seen a well-organized, obviously well-funded, group of individuals run as a slate on a single issue.” In truth, there was no well-funded electoral machine. We had Lisa Bildy, her computer, a dining-room table and a team with a conviction about what was right. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, there is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit — but here’s to giving credit where credit is due.

Bruce Pardy is Professor of Law at Queen’s University, a member of the Law Society of Ontario and part of the StopSOP team.

pardyb@queensu.ca

Twitter.com/PardyBruce

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