Profession of Power

A critique of Bob Tarantino’s celebration of the legal profession

In a new post over at his blog, bad platitude, Bob Tarantino continues his defence of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s right to exact ideological conformity from its members. His focus is on Jonathan Kay’s National Post op-ed that tied the Law Society’s demands to a belief  in the “myth that lawyers comprise a moral vanguard within society, with sacred duties that extend beyond the daily humdrum of litigating divorces and drafting contracts”. Mr. Tarantino concedes that Mr. Kay “correctly diagnoses … the profession’s seemingly inherent vainglory” ― and proceeds to defend thinking of law as a profession, not “‘just’ an occupation” in a way that demonstrates just how vainglorious this profession can be.

Before getting to the point, I pause to note Mr. Tarantino’s rather remarkable appeal to the forces of the market in an implicit attempt to justify the Law Society’s right to force lawyers to come up with, or at least copy-and-paste, “Statements of Principle” acknowledging a purported obligation to promote equality and diversity. Contra Mr. Kay, Mr. Tarantino observes that some clients ― he mentions Facebook ― want lawyers to take these things seriously. Mr. Tarantino also insists that he has “the right to decide not to spend [his] money at businesses that espouse views [he] find[s] unpalatable, and even to enthusiastically encourage others to avoid spending their money there”. Very well ― though at least some human rights statutes (including those of Quebec and New Zealand) include political opinion among the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination, which suggests that even enlightened individuals like Mr. Tarantino might disagree with some instances or applications of such legislation. But how exactly does Mr. Tarantino justify the coercion of lawyers whose clients are not as enlightened as he or Facebook, or indeed those lawyers who do not have any clients? At best, this is not a free-market argument, but a paternalistic one. The Law Society knows better.

On now to Mr. Tarantino’s main argument, which is that “it is precisely in law’s status as a profession and as a locus of power in society that the importance of collective value-setting arises”.  A profession, says Mr. Tarantino, is distinguished by involving the application of “a body of specialized knowledge and subordination of the practitioner’s interests in favour of three ‘others’: the client, the profession, and the public”. Lawyers, even more than the members of other professions, wield power over “our society and over the affairs of their clients, and if they adopted a self-interested ethic, a sort of syndicalism, they could quickly become a manifest danger to the rest of society”. For this reason, it is essential to make lawyers “virtuous” ― “so that their power is channeled in favour of others”. This is what both the Law Society’s latest demands and the oath lawyers are required to swear upon entering the profession (to which these demands bear a close resemblance, as I have noted here) are supposed to accomplish. Mr. Tarantino adds that it is very important that these exercises in “collective identity-formation” are “voluntary”; that they “do not find their origins in the government [but] arise from lawyers themselves.” He sees the legal profession as “in some ways just a big club … that gets to set its own rules about membership”, and there is nothing “illegitimate” about that, is there?

It is as if the last 250 years of history and political thought had not happened. As if it were possible to believe, after Smith and Madison ― not to mention Robespierre ― that public good is achieved by virtuous agents rather than by competition and ambition counteracting ambition. As if it were possible to claim, regardless of Constant and Berlin, that rules that a majority imposes on a minority not really an imposition and an interference with liberty. As if it were possible to maintain, despite Friedman and public choice theory, that a state-backed monopoly is not self-interested and syndicalist, working to exclude competition and raise prices for its services. Or, if Mr. Tarantino does not actually believe that such things are generally true, he must then suppose that lawyers, of all, people, are uniquely immune to the fallibility of other human beings. This is the sort of presumption, as self-serving as it is vainglorious, that Mr. Kay rightly decried.

Moreover, Mr. Tarantino’s argument involves a rhetorical sleight of hand. The lawyers’ power, of which he makes so much, is mostly not collective, as he suggests, but individual. It is not the legal profession acting as a united whole that drafts statutes, prosecutes alleged criminals, adjudicates disputes in administrative tribunals, or handles the personal and financial affairs of vulnerable clients. It is individual lawyers or, at most, firms. In any litigation, there are two sides ― normally, though admittedly not always, each with its own lawyer. When lawyers draft or apply rules that bind citizens, other lawyers are ready to challenge these rules or their application. If a lawyer mishandles a client’s case, another can be retained ― including to sue the first. (This is not to make light of the possibility and cost of mistakes or incompetence, of course. Still, the point is that a mistaken or even incompetent lawyer does not represent the profession as a whole.) The one circumstance when lawyers do act collectively is when they act through the Law Society. When the Law Society exacts compliance with its demands, that is the profession exercising power ― backed up by the armed force of the state. That is where we really ought to worry about power being exercised unethically. And in my view ― though perhaps not in Mr. Tarantino’s ― the exercise of power to impose ideological conformity on those subject to it is unethical and indeed oppressive.

Unlike many other defenders of the Law Society, Mr. Tarantino has the merit of not trying to minimize the seriousness of what is going on. His first post contained a forthright admission that the Law Society’s demands amount to a values test for membership in the legal profession. His latest doubles down on this admission, and makes clear that it the Law Society’s actions rest on a conception of public power that is paternalistic, confident both of its own moral superiority and of its ability to make others virtuous, and takes no notice of disagreement or dissent. Those who do not like how this power is exercised can simply get out and leave the legal profession ― and find some other way of making a living. Many of those who support the Law Society seem to be surprised by the force of the opposition which its latest demands have provoked. Perhaps, thanks to Mr. Tarantino’s posts, they can understand better.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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