Why do regulators present awards?

Last week, in Nova Scotia, the medical regulator, the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Nova Scotia, presented a whole series of ‘best doctor’ awards. It made me wonder why does a public interest regulator do this? Is it a relic from days when regulators, acting like professional associations, focused on promoting the profession? Is it seen as a means of earning ‘member respect’? Or is it simply an example of mission drift that results when someone has a good idea and then another  with the result being the expenditure of time and resources (awards need award ceremonies) on matters having nothing to do with regulation of the profession.

Since my focus is on legal regulation, I ask, Why do Canada’s law societies bestow honours, awards and other prizes? Why is it fairly common for them to recognize ‘long service’, a synonym for remaining as a lawyer for 50,60 or more years? Why has ‘distinguished service’ become the basis for most to recognize one or more lawyer’s contributions to the profession and the community?  What part of  ‘public interest regulation’ drives or supports this work?

As I reflect upon the evolution of law societies over the last 20 or so years, there is no question that most have made great strides in enhancing their focus on ‘regulation in the public interest’. As part of that process they have divested themselves of the traditional work of bar associations – speaking on behalf of or advocating for the profession. That is now done admirably by the CBA and a growing list of lawyer focused organizations which have as their mandate the promotion of an area of practice, the welfare of lawyers and addressing government and legislative issues which may have a significant impact on lawyers and law firms.

In spite of the maturing of law societies and the clarification of their public focused roles, most continue to be lawyer centric in many of their activities and in how they are structured.

Nowhere could I locate an explanation for why awards are given. The explanation for them, to the extent it is apparent, relates to promoting the ‘reputation’ of the legal profession by demonstrating the good, important and valuable work that some lawyers do. Given that most law societies are frequently in the public sphere speaking about the bad things lawyers do, it is seen as a welcome shift in focus to emphasise and celebrate the good. A public recognition, some promotion among the profession and maybe every once in awhile the media might pick up on the awarding of something to someone. More often than any genuine media interest is the paid advertisement from law firms about the recognition. So do these awards enhance the profession’s reputation and public respect for lawyers?

Some law societies suggest that awards are a means to allow for positive engagement with the profession, something a regulator wants  to enhance member respect for the regulator. Calling for nominations for ‘outstanding achievement’, ‘exceptional contribution’, ‘advancing the rule of law’ and similar superlative characteristics hardly seems like a means to appeal to the masses. Some might suggest that such awards and medals reinforce the image of ‘an old boys club’ rather than appealing to populist sentiments among the profession. A scan across the country does not show that there are awards for ‘fighting in the trenches’ or for ‘proficient conveyancing’ or anything that is the mundane work of the majority of lawyers, especially those who perceive they are unfairly targeted by the regulator in their crosshairs[1].

In addition to the societies’ own awards, there remain in much of the country a remnant from colonial times – the Queen’s Counsel – where regulator involvement runs from actually making a nomination, with an elaborate process for vetting, to simply naming individuals to the committee that makes or recommends the appointments. It may be something for later discussion, but one must ask whether this historic award, no matter how deserving some recipients are, properly belongs in the dustbin if we really are in an era of reconciliation. The very same leaders whose behavior we now question were the same one who perpetuated the QC designation as an appropriate recognition in Upper and Lower Canada and the Atlantic colonies.

Awards to lawyers are one thing. But most law societies also present awards  and scholarships, often in substantial amounts to students. Many of these carry the name of a distinguished Canadian. A bequest or something similar originated the award and now the law societies continue  them with the associated costs and effort. No award is given, especially by law societies, without substantial process –  clearly published criteria, written applications or nominations with deadlines, committees to vet the materials supporting the candidates and often interviews or something similar. This is time and effort that is not available for other work of the regulators.

Awards and recognitions require parties. Celebrations too take time, effort and money. Like the award recipients, attendees at such events tend to come from the same places as the award recipients. In the case of students, the celebrations often involve parents and families who appreciate the recognition for educational accomplishment. But are these events and the audiences they attract what law societies should be doing and to whom they should be appealing? Many in Manitoba have asked that question in light of best laid plans  going awry in the dinner where their long service awards were presented in 2017.

It is noteworthy  that recently a number of  awards have been created in new areas of law society focus – equity and access to justice. These are laudable causes but the CBA has awards in those areas as well. And they were years ahead of the law societies in their recognitions. Their list is extensive, almost completely duplicative of what the law societies do, and very focused on good lawyering. They do it because as a member organization, they need to both involve and celebrate members to keep them engaged.

That then is the crux of the issue for law societies.  If  awards ae given to engage the regulated profession or to enhance reputation by celebration, is this work that truly advances the public interest? If law societies believe this, do they actually know that it does so?

My perspective is presenting awards and honours is legacy work from an era when the line between regulator and bar association was blurred or non-existent. Because it is ‘feel good’ work for law society leaders and a long way from the hard work of  regulation and policy development relating to credentialing, complaints and discipline, there is no one who is likely to raise the policy question or  to interrogate why they continue to be given and whether they  should. For the same reasons, law society staff are unlikely to challenge their elected leadership or question them in relation to relevance and mission focus that should be the basis for all law society work.

There are no end of hard issues for law societies to grapple with today, Awards and honours may not be seen as one of them  though their symbolism and what they  realy represent should put them on that pile.  Just because it would be difficult to extract law societies from presenting awards and honours does not make them the right thing for public interest regulators to do.

[1] The LSBC’s award for legal aid work is a notable exception.