Will COVID-19 Kill Legal Professionalism as We Know It? I Hope So.

  • December 07, 2020
  • Catherine Chow

Will COVID-19 Kill Legal Professionalism as We Know It? I Hope So.

As the world evolves in new and uncertain ways, legal professionalism requires more than meeting traditional principles of high competence and specialized knowledge. It requires more of us than being skilled service providers performing a paid-hourly role. We need to be empathetic leaders, enshrining the rigorous ethical and moral ideals in our profession by taking action to connect with and uplift the communities in which we live and serve.

Work as we know it has fundamentally shifted: many of us now work from home, we choose yoga pants over suits, we attend Zoom hearings and we close emails with “Stay safe” and “We are in this together.” The COVID-19 pandemic has removed some of the hallmarks of being a professional lawyer, which has sparked a career crisis for some.

While “crisis” may seem like an exaggeration, at minimum, the pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate the perceived importance of our standard practices. Lawyers have long been known for working long hours, wearing expensive suits and sending terse formal emails. These touchpoints are revered as signs of a professional: someone who professes to conduct themselves to the highest standards of training and education. These signs are now fading—and like many of my colleagues, it has led me to make an honest assessment on what it means to be a legal professional. The results are liberating.

Shedding the daily business suit was my first step. Over the years, I had not questioned the office dress code as a symbol or instrument of uniformity. My peaked lapel and wingtip loafers were sufficient expressions of my individuality, and such details would not upset convention. I would even give law students advice about gaining the trust of clients or potential employers by dressing the part.

The business suit conveyed an alliance to an institutional professionalism—one to which we literally profess under oath at our bar admissions. Chapter 2 of Code of Professional Conduct for British Columbia states that lawyers have a “duty to uphold the standards and reputation of the legal profession and to assist in the advancement of its goals, organizations and institutions.”

I don’t disagree with the goals of law societies and its self-regulation mandates. Indeed, I believe that the duty to uphold the legal profession is the very duty we have oft neglected like a grandparent. And it is what COVID-19 has forced us to re-visit.

Many modern-day law students enter the profession expecting to do work that will make a difference in the world or add meaning to their lives. I myself wrote a law school entry essay that included goals like advocating for the disadvantaged; serving the public; and helping the vulnerable poor, minorities of colour and the underprivileged.

However, well-paying professional employment hasn’t brought about the difference in the world that many of us dreamed of as students. At some point during law school, summer articles, articling or working in private practice, young lawyers quietly sideline those aspirations and settle for job security. It is during these milestones shared by generations of lawyers that the closed historical ideals of legal professionalism remain fixed.

James Schmitt in his book, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives, argues that professional education and employment push people to uniform jobs that do not make a difference:

[T]he intellectual boot camp known as graduate or professional school, with its cold-blooded expulsions and creeping indoctrination, systematically grinds down the student’s spirit and ultimately produces obedient thinkers-highly educated employees who do their assigned work without questioning its goals.

Schmitt’s words resonated me with during the pandemic. Somewhere along the line, many lawyers—like myself—compromised our ideals, and performed less and less community work to make billing targets or just to fit in. We subordinated our identities because the profession seemed to demand it of us in order to be successful.

Yes, legal professionalism defines our esteemed practice of law. We must have specialized knowledge, honesty, integrity, accountability and the trust of the public as a self-regulating profession. In addition, experience has shown us that highly competent lawyers who incorporate emotional intelligence (e.g., self-awareness, relatability, flexibility, stress tolerance and resilience) into their practices become more successful. Such skills have helped lawyers win cases and develop a loyal client base.

However, being a more successful lawyer on paper does not make you a better legal professional or lead to a better profession. While improving your skills, being a more knowledgeable service provider and providing more empathetic counsel are all good attributes, they fall short of the potential we have as a profession.

To elevate legal professionalism and bring to life the aspirations of our younger days, we need to distinguish ourselves from our jobs and act in concerted ways to better the legal system to improve access to justice. We need to connect with non-legal communities, understand their unique context and earn their trust. Modern legal professionalism must respond to the ethical and moral calling that a global pandemic and the events of 2020 has sounded.

It is necessary to be rise beyond our conventions around legal professionalism because the solutions to international crises like global warming, terrorism and human rights, and local crises like homelessness, poverty and mental health need lawyers and the legal profession. What we bring isn’t our legal skills at reading leases, drafting contracts, litigating cases or sitting on non-profit boards. We hold society’s trust as professionals, and we can parlay that trust into developing and advocating for solutions that are reasoned, considered and skillfully crafted as a professional.

We can use our professional training to identify and untangle the sets of laws and legal systems that create, exacerbate or perhaps solve our local and world crises. But we can only do that if we take action and go out to non-legal communities experiencing these crises. We must meaningfully understand the personal and social contexts of the people and places involved.

All of us can be leaders and respected for our rigorous ethical and moral principles, not only in legal circles but also in the communities in which we live and serve. By broadening our professionalism to the wider community, we will accelerate the deinstitutionalization of conventional legal professionalism that began with the pandemic. We will also be more fulfilled and satisfied in our jobs and careers. In short, we will make a difference in the world.

Catherine Chow is Vice-President Legal and General Counsel at Keg Restaurants Ltd, where she manages the legal matters of more than 100 locations across North America. Her proactive approach to risk management has been recognized as an industry-leading initiative, winning multiple awards.