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Madame Chancellor, Mister President, Deans Grammond and Feldthusen, faculty, graduands, family members, honoured guests.
It is a great privilege to be present at and to enjoy this wonderful and meaningful ceremony.
C’est un grand honneur d’être ici parmi vous aujourd’hui.
To each of the candidates about to receive their degrees, I express my sincere congratulations and my hope that every day of your life is as rich and satisfying as this day.
I am deeply moved to be accepting this honour from the University of Ottawa today. I am a great admirer of this university and its Faculty of Law. It is an institution that justifiably calls itself “Canada’s university,” being North America’s largest bilingual university and graduating lawyers from both its common and civil law programs. It is also a university with which I have a longstanding and special relationship, most recently reflected in hosting the Warren Winkler Lectures on Civil Justice Reform.
It is a particular privilege to be here on the same day that you are honouring the Chief Justice of Quebec, the Honourable Michel Robert. Chief Justice Robert has led a distinguished career, both at the Bar and on the Bench. We have worked closely together as colleagues and friends. I would like to congratulate him on being honoured today and on having enjoyed an exemplary career as one of this country’s finest jurists.
To the graduands: You should be very proud. Your presence here is a milestone event. Three years of dedicated study, hard work and perseverance are over, at long last.
You have passed a major hurdle. Graduation from law school is the penultimate step in becoming a lawyer. Most of you are presently completing your Bar examinations. The next major step for you will be your Call to the Bar in one year’s time. That will mark your entry into the profession of law.
I want to speak with you about what it will mean to be a lawyer, and some of the weightier responsibilities that attach to that role.
I have frequently remarked that to practice law is not a right, but a privilege. It is a privilege that can be lost should you fail to live up to the high professional standards imposed upon you by virtue of your entry into the community of lawyers.
The privilege of calling yourself a lawyer comes with many perquisites. You will be treated with respect and deference not only by your clients, but also by the public generally. You will be recognized as an officer of the court and have the distinction of being gowned.
The privilege of calling yourself a lawyer also means that even as you practice your craft you will also have the opportunity to make a healthy living. And, if your experience proves to be anything like mine, you will find that as you make your living, your work will be interesting and stimulating and challenging.
When I became a lawyer some 46 years ago, I would say to myself on the way to the office every day that I couldn't believe how lucky I was to be able to do the work I did. The truth is that I would have done that work for free. When I told my colleagues this, they didn't believe me. But it was true. Very few people are fortunate enough to work at something that they enjoy completely, all day, every day.
However, along with the pleasures and privileges of practice come many responsibilities. Chief among these responsibilities will be the duty to serve the public ethically, diligently, and competently.
Law is a learned and noble profession. Lawyers are required to carry out their duties in a professional manner. “Professionalism” is a term that is not easily defined. However, for me it signifies a cluster of values that are palpable. Scholarship, honesty, civility, honour, personal integrity, leadership and independence, pride in our justice system, and generous pro bono public service are just a few of the ways through which it is exemplified.
Professionalism is the life force that pulses through every ethical lawyer. It is the foundation upon which the public maintains confidence in the justice system. It is the guiding light to lawyers in meeting their obligations to the public they serve, in defending the rule of law, and in upholding their duties and responsibilities to clients and to the court. Stated differently, being a professional means committing oneself to the fair administration of justice and to doing one’s part in facilitating true access to justice.
This commitment will require you to understand your role in the adversarial process. Clients who seek your advice are often overwrought, angry and defensive. When that happens, they legitimately will expect you to convey their feelings of injustice and outrage. They may also, however, insist that you adopt a position that would require you to relax or ignore your duty as a legal professional. This you must never do.
The demands of practice sometimes require toughness, strength of spirit, not only with opposing parties and counsel, but also with your own clients. The ethical lawyer has the wisdom and the courage to refuse to act for a client when the client’s instructions would cause the lawyer to violate an ethical duty.
Your professional duties must also remain paramount over immediate business interests. The environment in which many lawyers currently practice has, over time, become increasingly competitive and commercial. There is a pressure to bring in, and to keep, clients. The drive to the bottom line is difficult to resist. But I reiterate: Law is, first and foremost, a profession; it is a business only secondarily. If you fail to recognize this distinction, you will almost certainly lose your way.
I do not mean to be critical of the legitimate objectives of the business world. But the objectives of the legal profession are different, and indeed loftier. That is why I remarked earlier that law is a noble profession, the true end of which, for everyone called to it, is to serve, not to profit. It is my firm belief that the law is first and foremost a helping profession. Those that understand it and practice it in this way will not only provide the greatest benefit to society, but will also find the greatest success and fulfillment in their careers.
In my view, anyone who enters the profession of law to get rich enters it for the wrong reason, and is bound ultimately to be unhappy and unfulfilled. If that is your primary goal, then a far more satisfying one, the pursuit of professional excellence, will elude you.
Before concluding, I have one final word of advice. When you enter into the legal profession, do not try to go it alone, even if you intend to be a sole practitioner. You will find everywhere experienced colleagues at the Bar who will be more than willing to mentor you and help you get through difficult problems. All you have to do is ask them. And the magic you will discover is that you too, in time, will be able to become someone else’s mentor. Mentoring and permitting yourself to be mentored are both elements of being a good professional. In fact, the process of mentoring is one of the best traditions of our profession. One of my life-long mentors imparted a kernel of wisdom to me when I was at your stage of becoming a lawyer: “Don’t exaggerate”; “Don’t mislead the Court”; “Don’t take advantage of people.” I have not forgotten this advice and now I pass it on to you.
In closing, I would like to again congratulate you on your achievements. You have worked hard to reach this point. You have made real sacrifices, and no doubt so have members of your family. It is a defining moment, a proud moment. It calls for celebration, and excitement, and relief.
Having achieved this milestone, may your lives be forever enriched.
I wish you the best of luck, and thank you for giving me the honour of being able to speak with you today.
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