Why Recognizing Lawyers' Great Work Matters

  • November 28, 2018
  • Emily Sinkins

Three years ago, Patrick Shea, partner at Gowling WLG, received the Law Society Medal in recognition of the extensive efforts he spearheaded to see Ontario law students who lost their lives in World War I posthumously called to the bar. From then on, they would no longer be cited in Law Society Remembrance Day services as “never called,” but as full members of the profession they aspired to join before their lives were cut short — one of their dreams realized nearly 100 years later. With that lasting and meaningful an outcome, for an endeavour so close to Patrick’s heart, what could any award add to the profound feeling of pride and personal satisfaction?

“For those who undertake [such] projects, the completion of the project itself is the reward,” Shea acknowledges. “But, we sometimes forget that for our families there is not necessarily a direct sense of fulfillment upon completion; however, seeing their partner, child or parent recognized allows them to understand its importance and validates the commitment and sacrifice made to complete it.”

In Shea’s case, assuming the necessary research and related travel, meant sacrificing time with his family (not to mention billable hours). “My wife supported me the whole way and didn’t once complain,” he recalls. The award ceremony afforded her the opportunity to hear directly from families of the fallen soldiers what the project meant to them. The medal wasn’t just for Patrick – it was for his family, for his firm, and for the wider legal community.

It is this understanding that fuels Shea’s participation as chair of the OBA’s new Recognition and Leadership Development Committee. Part of that committee’s mandate is to facilitate recognition of OBA members for the difference they are making in their communities. The committee provides a list of provincial and national awards available to lawyers from outside bodies and offers a mechanism for members to nominate deserving colleagues with ease.

“We are reaching out to lawyers and encouraging them to look within their firms and within their networks to identify those lawyers who are contributing to the community and the profession, but may be flying under the radar,” Shea explains.

Volunteerism is woven into the fabric of Canadian society. There is an expectation that we will offer service where we can, and a corresponding, prevalent attitude that to collect credit is somehow unseemly; that receiving praise for volunteerism runs contradictory to the selflessness that sparked the giving. But, as Shea notes, there is a ripple effect of positive attention and action.

Among the beneficiaries are the causes and the organizations for which lawyers volunteer — commendations raise awareness of the good work they area doing. “That can result in more volunteers,” says Shea, “and, just as importantly for many charities, donations to fund their work.”

And, then, there is the impact on public perception. “Lawyers are, I think, respected for their knowledge and their skills, but are sometimes seen as being somewhat self-interested,” Shea ventures. “The reality of the situation is that hundreds of lawyers across Ontario volunteer their time and skills to sit on charitable boards without any expectation that doing so will result in billable work.” In small communities, in particular, he notes that there are many charities or community organizations that simply could not function without the lawyers on their boards. 

We also can’t afford to overlook the pro-bono work lawyers undertake if we want to see it continue to provide valuable legal support and ready access to justice. Especially worthy of recognition, says Shea, are pro-bono efforts in the areas of legal representation and law reform that “ensure that those who require the advice of a lawyer have that advice notwithstanding their ability to pay and that the legislation that is developed by government is the best that it can be.” Some of the most influential, albeit unassuming, activism takes place entirely behind the scenes.

There are so many unsung heroes in law who deserve the spotlight shone upon them. And to stand in the limelight for the fruits of your own labour is far from self-serving. On the contrary, celebrating the contributions that lawyers make in their communities inspires similar efforts from others and only amplifies the impact of one person’s good works.  

To find out more about awards and commendations OBA members may be eligible for, email tbird@oba.org.