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What do benchers do?

|Written By Carolyn Gruske
What do benchers do?
Jacqueline Horvat says time considerations have played a factor in how she participates in Convocation.

Being a bencher can involve costs and sacrifices in terms of both time and money, but people who have done the job say there are potential benefits as well.

“It’s a damned sight more work and time than I ever imagined,” says Peter Beach of Ottawa-based Beach & Starkie Associates. “Realistically, it’s four to five days a month, I would say, if you added it up into one block. So, it is quite a significant part of your time.”

Beach, who has served one term as a bencher and was regional bencher for the East electoral region, is running for re-election. That’s despite the fact that the type of commitment required to undertake his duties in the way he thinks is necessary — travelling to Toronto for Convocation (which occurs every month except July, August and December) and committee meetings (which typically take two days per month), doing the preparatory reading for Convocation (which involves about 700 to 800 pages) and the committee meetings, as well as going to local law association meetings and events — requires a complicated juggling act, especially as he tries to maintain his business.

“Trying to run a criminal practice like mine is difficult because obviously you have court dates that are fixed months and months ahead of time. And you have to stick handle around them. It’s a lot of time commitment,” says Beach.

He also admits that the amount of time spent acting as a bencher has hurt his bottom line, even though he doesn’t really like the idea of quantifying just how much it has cost him.

Heather Joy Ross, on the other hand, has run the numbers. The founding partner of The Ross Firm, a practice that defines itself as a regional law firm with offices in Goderich, Stratford and Kincardine, Ontario, is wrapping up her time as a bencher. She is retiring at the end of June, after winning four consecutive elections and then electing to become a life bencher in 2011. Her son, Quinn Ross, is running for a seat in this election.

She says that, when she first began as a bencher in May 1995, she wanted to understand exactly how much time she was spending on bencher-related duties.

“Starting in that first and second year, I kept track of my time. And then I calculated what that meant to me as a member of a very small firm. At the legal aid rate, which was then about $90 an hour, I figured I was losing between $40,000 and $50,000 a year,” says Ross.

At the time, Ross says, benchers weren’t compensated for their attendance, only reimbursed for their out-of-pocket expenses. While that has changed, she notes that benchers aren’t paid for the time they spend reading the Convocation material or preparing for committee work.

“I like to know what's going on everywhere, because that informs what you're doing in your own committee. I wanted to be able to read all of the material from the other committees. So that's how the time [spent on bencher-related activities] came to be about a week per month,” says Ross.

Benchers are eligible to receive $585 per day and $355 per half-day (under the 2018 rates), providing they have already “contribute[d] 26 attendances (an attendance is a half-day or a full day) to law society activities before being eligible for remuneration.”

Both Beach and Ross say benchers need to be better compensated for participating in Convocation.

“I think we have to get a balance between what is some fair remuneration for what you do and no payments at all. This is pro bono work, yes it is. It’s payback to the profession, but it’s not quite the same as being the social convenor in your local law association for one or two days a month,” says Beach, who sits on the remuneration committee but doesn’t speak for the committee, which is currently studying the payment issue.

“It is a serious commitment, which is why it's so important that benchers be compensated because not all of us are earning six- and seven-figure incomes. And we need a variety of diverse groups of voices at Convocation. For a number of people, the cost of the volunteerism, which was a little bit insane, when you weren't getting compensated for any of your time, that price was too high to pay or was just not possible for people — people who would have otherwise been wonderful benchers,” says Ross.

Of course, it’s up to each individual bencher to make the decision regarding just how much time to devote to the law society and how involved to get in its activities.

Windsor, Ont.-based Jacqueline Horvat, a founding partner of Spark LLP, which has offices in Windsor and Toronto, says time considerations have played a factor in how she participates in Convocation. The two-term bencher, who is running again, says she used to sit as a member of the law society tribunal, adjudicating discipline matters, but she has moved away from that role in part due to the major time commitment it involves.

Now, she serves on a number of committees, including chairing the proceedings authorization committee, the professional regulation committee and the technology task force. She is also co-chairperson of the professional development and competence committee (where she co-authored the minority report that called for abolishing articling) and participates in other committees.

Horvat says that, while an individual bencher can have direct influence on what gets accomplished in the committees and at Convocation, benchers have to be flexible and vary their working style based on the situation.

“Nobody’s going to come in and change the world when they’re elected as a bencher. I think, to get things done, you have to work positively and co-operatively with your colleagues. And that's just based on my personal experience,” she says.

“In certain issues on certain circumstances, working the backroom is the way to get things done. In others, it is forming alliances. I’ve never done this myself, but I've heard of my colleagues trading issues: I'll support you on this issue if you support me on that issue,” she says, adding that, if a bencher feels passionately about an issue, they can express that to their fellow benchers directly and work on the best course of action to take to accomplish their goal.

François Baril isn’t a bencher yet, but the partner in Gowling WLG’s Ottawa office is running in his first election. He is, however, past president of the Association des juristes d’expression française de l’Ontario, and he thinks the negotiation and management skills a lawyer develops in such a position are crucial for anybody wishing to become a successful bencher.

“I think a person can be influential. I wouldn't be doing it [running] if I didn’t think I could make a difference. Personally, I think it’s like any other type of organization in that you have to cultivate relationships, understand how the organization works and then figure out what the pathways forward are and then work those pathways,” he says.

Baril says the key to being successful in a complicated and diverse organization is having the “ability to find consensus from different positions, having the ability to listen, having a good understanding of how governance works [and having] a good understanding of how to make files that appear large and impossible to move progress in small incremental steps. That is, that is often how it works with these big organizations.”

The challenges of working within an organization may be something not all lawyers are expecting, says Beach, explaining that as a criminal lawyer he’s not used to working within large groups. Mostly, he just deals one on one with a Crown during pretrial discussions and then argues things out in front of a judge.

“You don’t sit there in a committee room for two or three hours chewing the fat about various issues. I found that to be quite difficult,” he says.

“I think the other thing I wasn’t very good at, because I’m not the most collegial of people, is that you really have to interact with your fellow benchers. A lot of the things that get done are in informal discussions between the benchers themselves. I’m just not very good at that, but I’m better than I was. I learned over the years how to be able to interact with other people and discuss the issues in a more social setting rather than standing up in court and arguing things.”

In fact, Beach has become so used to working with others that his goal is to organize all of the East region benchers into a “phalanx” so they can travel together and work together to bring the concerns of Ottawa and eastern Ontario lawyers to what some consider to be a Toronto-centric Convocation.

In addition to developing negotiating and interpersonal skills, Beach, Ross and Horvat all say that being part of Convocation has allowed them to meet people they are happy to have in their lives.

“It’s a very interesting thing to do and part of the reason I did it was because, although I go to court every day and I still enjoy being a criminal lawyer and I’m not going to retire, it was a totally different experience. You meet a lot of people, particularly lawyers who you wouldn’t meet in the ordinary course of business,” says Beach, adding that many people he met through Convocation are now good friends.

“This is going to sound corny and cheesy. But the friends I've made and the people that I've met being a bencher are people I would never, ever have encountered in my practice or in my daily life. And I've made such amazing friends and met such wonderful people that to me, that's been the part [of being a bencher] that's most worth it,” says Horvat.

Looking forward into the future, Ross says she knows she’s going to miss being a bencher.

“I’ll miss the exciting work. The work for me is really interesting and exciting — absolutely, totally engaging. Very absorbing. The nature of the issues and the interesting, diverse, dynamic, amazing people in our profession that I've had the privilege of getting to meet and know — I'm going to miss that immensely,” she says.

“It has been an ongoing life education, so that’s been such a treat, such a pleasure.”

Poll Question

What do you see as the top issue that prospective benchers need to address if they are elected?