Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Lawyers like history

Chris has graciously given me leave to post about an event we both attended (I on Monday and Tuesday, he on Tuesday): The Chief Justice of Ontario's Advisory Committee on Professionalism's 13th Colloquium on the Profession. The theme of this year's colloquium was History of the Profession: Lawyers, Legends, Legacies and Lessons from Ontario Legal History. I have a number of reflections, so will go the hail o' bullets route:

  • Lawyers like history. Is this as true of other professions? I don't think so. Just one of the many good things about lawyers. :)

  • In his introduction, Jim Phillips, Professor of Law at U of T and editor in chief of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History made clear the professional (historically speaking) approach of the colloquium. This was not going to be an exercise is hagiography. There is plenty that is good in our professional past, and plenty not so much, but in either case to say that we are heirs to the past does not mean we are its prisoners. As I like to think of it, the general public perception is that the present is an end point, and to some extent it is, but it is simulataneously a middle point, and a beginning as well.

  • The alliterative subtitle did not include 'losers' on the list, but three of the lawyers who were the subject of the presentations were disbarred. Moreover the presentations on several 'heroes' of the profession such as Clara Brett Martin, Bora Laskin, and Cecil A. 'Ceasar' Wright were of the 'warts and all' variety.

  • Public history is not a thing. Or at least not one thing, but many things. As there are many publics, so there are many public histories. The audience for the first day of the colloquium was mostly lawyers and judges, for the second mainly students--U of T first year law students for whom the day was part of a week devoted to professionalism. Interestingly and perhaps ironically, I found the presentations for day one to be more traditionally 'academic' in tone and content.

  • I was impressed with how well the presenters were able to add novelty and engaging detail to lives about which I in my arrogance thought I already knew all there was to know. Most of the papers, which will be available on the part of the Law Society of Upper Canada website dedicated to the Advisory Committee on professionalism, were entertaining and enlightening. A particular shout-out goes to Schulich School of Law Dalhousie Professor Philip Girard, biographer of the late Chief Justice Bora Laskin, for two thought provoking takes on Laskin. The first dealt with Laskin's identity and self-identification as a jewish lawyer/judge, or lawyer/judge who happened to be jewish, the second with Laskin as a moonlighting academic. Girard's questions regardng the challenge to the status and integrity of the legal professoriate presented by the extracurricular actiivities of academics like Laskin, and the prerequisite for much of this public glory in the gendered division of labour in Laskin's private life were diplomatically but incisively posed.

  • The colloquium ended with a celebration of the career of former Attorney General and Chief Justice of Ontario (and a bunch of other things) R. Roy McMurtry, who is truly a national treasure for many reasons, not least of which is his not-well-enough-known contribution to history. The Chief (as many of us think of him) founded the Osgoode Society in 1979 and is its current president. He is a cheerleader for the Osgoode Hall Law School History and Archives Project. When he retired as Chief Justice, his interest in promoting legal history was recognized by his many fans with donations to establish the R. Roy McMurtry Fellowship in Legal History to support graduate and post graduate students studying aspects of Ontario legal history (of which I am a past fortunate and grateful recipient.) Something else a lot of people don't know about him is that he's a talented artist. Here he is with a painting he did of Osgoode Hall.

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