When my law partner, John Craig, asked me if I would make some remarks about law and faith, I took the opportunity to review the mission statement of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society. Your mission statement is very powerful:
"We affirm the strength brought to the law by a lawyer's personal religious conviction. We strive through public service and professional excellence to promote fairness and virtue founded upon the rule of law."
This mission statement caused me to reflect on my own journey of more than 38 years of practice, 18 of which were in the senior management field at a major Canadian international law firm, Bennett Jones LLP. From 1995 to 2011, I had various management positions, including Litigation Department Head, Lead Director and Chairman. In reflecting on how I would approach this topic, it became clear to me that faith and personal religious conviction are, and always have been, one of the ways that I and others of the firm have discharged our obligations.
When I reflect upon the landscape of the legal profession today, more than ever, there are opportunities for faith and the need for strong moral codes to guide law firms. To begin, I want to give you some background that led to my career. In giving you my background, I invite you to think of your own background, how you got to where you are, and how, in most cases, we are unlikely candidates for the roles that we fill.
In reflecting on my background, I thought of Biblical references to the calling of the 12 Apostles when Christ used fishermen and tax collectors to spread His Word. Christ uses us no matter how unqualified we think we are to do His will, and He bestows on us the grace and tools to perform the job.
My background is modest to say the least. My father grew up in Cape Breton, N.S., the third of 14 children. He served in the Second World War as a gunner with the Fourth Canadian Army, which was the second wave of Canadians to land in France two weeks after the D-Day Invasion. His father died when he was overseas, and his mother was widowed with 11 children at home.
My father was a man of great faith. He suffered some damage in the war, which we did not know about as children; but after his death in 2005, we retrieved his records. We found out that he had many harrowing experiences. After the war, he went to work in a bank and eventually found his way to Timmins, Ont., where he met my mother.
He later moved to Montreal, where I grew up. My father was not a professional man. His highest pay was under $30,000 a year working security at a construction company.
My mother was a Slovenian immigrant who came to Canada when she was seven years old. She did not meet her father until she arrived in Canada. He had left Slovenia for Canada before my mother was born and had headed there with the intention of bringing his wife and child over. Politics intervened and they were unable to immigrate.
Her father worked in the mines in northern Ontario and never earned more than a dollar an hour. Despite this, in the 1950s, he raised enough money to start construction of what is now the Slovenian Catholic Church in Toronto.
Both my parents were people of great faith. Resources were scarce, but they raised eight children while we lived in a three-bedroom apartment in the East End of Montreal. My mother used to say that all she had was "a bunch of kids and God."
My parents took us to church every week, where I served Mass for six years. We knew nobody of influence, but we always had people of faith around us. My father had two sayings, both of which revolved around his faith and our futures. One was: "If you put one foot in front of the other and do the right thing, you will be where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there." We used to look at each other, puzzled as to what this meant. The second was something he used when we faced disappointment. After going through what we might or might not have done and whether we had put one foot in front of the other, he always commented: "God is always right, on time and never makes mistakes."
I cannot tell you how this allowed us to get through difficulties when things did not go our way. In the 1960s and 1970s, I got caught up in the culture and did not do very well at school. My last two years were excellent at Loyola College, but I had to make up for some bad years. I did not get into law school the first year. I shipped coats for $95 a week and licked my wounds. The second year, I got into two of the 12 law schools I applied to. I entered McGill University.
When I entered law school, I did not know what corporate law was except that my father worked for companies that paid him money. I did not know what a share was. I remember on the first day of school asking a friend what this word "statutes" meant.
I wanted to be a lawyer because I wanted to help people and I seemed to be pretty good at talking and getting my point across, which was something you had to do in our house because everyone had opinions on everything. My background was not really conducive to becoming a Senior Partner, Chairman and Lead Director of a 400-member law firm with 800 employees in nine cities in Canada, the United States, the Middle East and China. But later, I would learn this background and my faith were a blessing that I could use to assist people.
I began practising law in 1976 after graduating from McGill and moving to Winnipeg to get a new start. I was quite successful. There, too, I noticed there were always people of faith around me. In Winnipeg, I met my wife and came into contact with my father-in-law, who was a high school principal and very active in the Anglican Church. My father-in- law was a prodigious worker and always did the hard work. At his funeral, he was compared to Saint Bartholomew: always working in the background to help people. As a practising lawyer, I learned from my mentors that my clients had entrusted important matters in their lives to me and that I had to do my best. Rewards would come by doing good work and helping others; and at the same time, I would earn good money.
I came to Bennett Jones in Calgary after being introduced to the firm by a friend while we were curling one weekend in Winnipeg. I had never heard of the firm but thought it somewhat large with 40 lawyers at the time.
That is my background.
In the early 1990s, the partnership of Bennett Jones elected me to lead. From 1995 to 2011, they honoured me by electing me on secret ballots 14 times to various management positions. I quickly learned that other leaders in our firm were people of faith. They told me that leadership cannot be taught. It must be lived. While it can be learned, it cannot be explained in a neat package or formula. It was best described in an article titled "Leadership as Muddling Through" as a messy mixture of people, passion and constraints pushing and pulling in different directions. It was more a matter of living with vision, character and integrity in the midst of a network of relationships.
Several convictions as a Christian guided me and my mentors over the years at the firm. In Mac Jones, Bill Britton, Jack Major, Cliff O'Brien, Hugh MacKinnon, Don Sabey and Dick Low, I had mentors in faith as well as leaders. Both Don Sabey and Dick Low served as bishops for the Latter Day Saints. Simply put, my faith is that I have been blessed by God to serve others, and if I do my best, He will provide the tools to guide me to proper decisions. My mentors in leadership had a similar outlook. Central to our faith were:
- Leadership is exercised in the service of God.
- Leadership is always about service to others; whom you choose to follow in that service will define your leadership.
- All persons have value, personal worth and potential. They deserve respect, space and opportunity to realize that potential. Leadership serves this truth and uses it in its decision making.
Today more than ever, this grounding and faith prepare us for the important jobs we carry out. I know that on many occasions the intersection of my background and these two convictions allowed me to make meaningful decisions. One that comes to mind was in 2008, during the last recession, when we did not lay off any employees.
The 2008 to 2010 period was a difficult time for many businesses. The recession struck hard and leaders were attempting to deal with the financial issues. Our board got together to discuss our response. The usual business principles were discussed, but we concluded that we were going to do something unusual. We were going to tell our staff right then that there would be no cutbacks as a result of the recession and that they should go home and tell their families that they had a job. This was seen as controversial at the time, but the grounding for it was several directors' personal experience growing up when their parents faced the loss of jobs. This included my own father in the 1970s.
How comforting, we thought, it would be for people to know they had jobs and that we were behind them—that we were all in it together. Without our backgrounds and sensitivity to others, we could not have made such a decision. While controversial at the time, we received our answer later that year when we were recognized by the Globe and Mail. Through surveys, our employees had voted Bennett Jones the third best employer in Canada. It is a source of pride to us that every year for the last 12 years, our employees have given us that recognition.
This was just one of hundreds of decisions we made with our leadership values of service and the dignity of people.
Over the years, the law and the delivery of legal service by law firms has changed. While it has always been a stressful job, never has it been what it is for legal professionals, their families and the staff today. If you google "lawyers and stress," you'll see there are many articles, and it starts at the beginning of a career with law students at university.
In 2010, the University of Sydney in Australia funded research into stress among law students. Here are some findings published in "Lawyers Must Learn to Manage Stress" by Fran Metcalf, in the Courier Mail, June 2010:
- "The psychological distress starts at university with 35 per cent of law students suffering high to very high stress loads."
- "‘When law students start [university], their mental health is the same as the general population, but by the end of the first year, they are going downhill,' [according to senior law lecturer Rachael Field]. ‘They are becoming depressed.…' [This] psychological distress was caused by the ‘competitive, isolating and adversarial learning environment' of the law schools."
- "‘The prevalence of emotional distress among lawyers is one of the greatest ethical challenges facing the profession,' [Queensland Legal Services Commissioner John Briton] says."
There are similar findings in American research, where students report that law school is alienating and a place where they lost their self-confidence, motivation and passion for learning. Until 2000, I was actively involved in the recruiting process and, at that time, attempts were made to evaluate the whole person. Would they be a fit for the firm? The top students were always top students, but there was always room to give someone a break and take a flyer. I would say that I was a flyer.
Today that is very rare. When I looked at the resumés of some of those 25-year-olds, I was staggered by what they had done to get admitted to law school. I remember asking one, years later, if he had done anything in his life other than build a resumé. He told me that things were competitive, it's a different world, and it wasn't the world I had grown up in. How true that was.