The Bar Society’s governing council — ‘We’re supposed to be lawyers?’

Three-hour meetings have turned into seven-hour screaming matches with official agendas abandoned… Confidential deliberations have been leaked to the media before the minutes can be distributed… It’s like high school but not as much fun. Can even Doug Ruck save the provincial bar society from itself?

Three diverse businesspeople smiling while going over paperwork together during a meeting at a boardroom table in an office
Diverse, happy lawyers working together in this stock photo on the bar society’s web page. Reality not exactly as advertised.

It only feels like I’ve been writing about the turmoil inside the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society for forever. For me, it began in 2016 with my fascination with what would become the society’s “longest, most expensive” — and still seemingly never-ended — professional misconduct case involving polarizing now-former lawyer Lyle Howe, an African Nova Scotian.

Then came the fallout from the society’s own foot-in-mouth attempt to reckon with systemic racism by proclaiming itself a role model for the province’s justice system.

Which was followed by a series of controversial disciplinary cases involving white lawyers who’d also run afoul of the society’s rules but had received “kid-glove” treatment compared to Howe.

In between, I wrote more columns, all with distressingly similar head-spinning headlines — The ‘quiet’ turmoil inside the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (May 2021); Turmoil continues at the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (November 2021); Turmoil at the Nova Scotia Barristers Society, Take 32 (April 2022) — documenting a dizzy-making series of resignations, firings and sudden, unexplained, we-wish-them-well-in-their-future-careers departures from the society’s governing council and its senior staff.

For me, the most intriguing aspect of covering this saga has been the surprising-to-me backdoor responses I’ve received from some lawyers, including senior members of the profession, who believe the society has irretrievably lost its way.

When I asked, in a column last month, “Should Nova Scotia lawyers continue to be privileged to regulate themselves?”, a few even answered “no.”

None of them, of course, will go on the record.

But it is possible, from what is said and what is left unsaid, to piece together at least some of the backstory of what is happening inside the bar society.

The problems really began, I’m told, following the retirement of former executive director Darrel Pink in 2018. Pink had spent close to 30 years in the position and become an almost Tito-like figure, successfully keeping its many agenda-driven warring factions — the private-sector fee for service lawyers versus their “made-in-the-shade” public sector counterparts, the old guard white-shoe lawyers versus the independent young Turks, the privileged white establishment versus the small but increasingly demanding cadre of lawyers of colour — in line and away from each other’s throats.

“Darrel Pink kept things very distant from the council,” suggests one close observer. “If something needed to be done, he would just do it and then come in and tell the council what he’d done. But that also meant there was not a great deal of transparency or accountability.”

Perhaps partly as a result, being the part-time president of the bar society or a member of its governing council came to be seen by too many lawyers as a resumé-buffing professional opportunity — a steppingstone to a judicial appointment, for example — rather than as a leadership obligation.

“They would come and be polite and never challenge anybody,” one member recalled. “I’ve seen members on council for three years not say one word at a meeting. ‘Don’t rock the boat.’”

That culture began to shift after Pink’s departure. “There was a changing of the guard with a different generation of lawyers and more diverse lawyers looking for more accountability and transparency.”

The results weren’t always pretty… or productive.

The newly empowered council attempted to micromanage Pink’s replacement — Tilly Pillay, the first woman of colour to head the organization — often treating her as more of an “admin assistant” than an executive director. Relations between Pillay and the council became “absolutely horrendous,” and she left after less than two years.

Pillay still hasn’t been replaced. On April 28, in fact, the society again posted a “career opportunity” — a call for applications for the ED position, which it described as a job “charting a progressive path forward for Nova Scotia’s legal profession, enhancing societal and professional impact.”

With no clear leadership from a permanent executive director and a revolving door of council presidents during the past few years, scheduled three-hour meetings of the 21-member council often turned into “seven-hour screaming matches with the official agenda totally forgotten and ignored,” one member who was there reports.

There were jaw-dropping moments, as when one council member challenged a racialized colleague: “What is it you people want anyway?”

“It was like high school with everyone yelling past each other,” marvels an observer. “You looked around and you asked yourself, ‘We’re supposed to be lawyers?’”

To make matters worse, “even before the minutes were out, there’d be [a story] in,” the business news site, or other media outlets. “Someone was leaking from inside that room. So, you have to ask yourself, what was really going on? Whose agenda was being pushed and why?”

Within days of one meeting last fall, the Examiner published “confidential” resignation letters from two council members, including Josie McKinney, an Indigenous lawyer, Nova Scotia’s first full-time human trafficking prosecutor and the co-chair of the society’s racial equity committee.

In her letter, McKinney wrote she was resigning “as a result of the direct and systemic racism and discrimination that I have experienced during my time on council.”

Racism certainly is a thread that runs like a raging spring river through much of what has been happening inside the bar society — it’s the issue I’ve tended to focus on — but some have suggested to me the real issues are more nuanced than that.

The council’s many committees — gender equity, racial equity, disability equity, truth and reconciliation working group — make the society more diverse than most other professional organizations in the province The society’s current president is Tuma Young, the first Mi’kmaq speaking lawyer in Nova Scotia.

Tuma Young

But critics say Young, whose term will end after next month’s AGM, not only failed to provide the leadership his revolving door of presidential predecessors had equally failed to offer, but he also sometimes exacerbated tensions. After one particularly rancorous meeting, he allegedly took to social media to call an unnamed fellow council member a liar. The post was later deleted, but the harm was done.

All sides have become entrenched. “The equity-seeking groups wanted to be heard,” explains one former white council member. “The Barristers’ Society needs to change. It’s racist, it’s sexist. All that is very true. But I don’t think they were really good at building alliances. It was like, ‘Burn the place down.’”

In desperation, the society last April appointed Doug Ruck, a respected former provincial ombudsman, to review *our regulatory policies and processes to identify and address any areas of systemic discrimination that exist within the Society,” and then come up with findings and recommendations for “improvements and changes to the Society’s policies and processes. It will also provide short-and long-term goals, solutions and changes required to eliminate or mitigate systemic discrimination in the Society and encourage an organizational culture free of bias.”

Perhaps optimistically, the society initially “estimated” it would take Ruck “at least eight to 10 months” to complete his work and submit interim and final reports. So far, he has interviewed more than 175 people with more interviews scheduled.

In an update to the council in March, Ruck said his aim is now to submit his final report in “four to five months.”

“We are not yet aware of any delays in this timeline,” the society’s acting interim executive director, Jacqueline Mullinger, explained in an email to the Examiner on May 13. “However, we recognize… that the review has captured a lot of interest and delays may be possible.”

The one thing everyone seems to agree on is the significance of Ruck’s report for the future of the self-regulating Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society.

“I think it’s an opportunity for the Barristers’ Society to really get out of this mess and rise… or it may sink it,” says one observer. “It could go either way. It’s really going to depend on the leadership, both the [new] executive director and the [new] president as to where they go with that. There may be uncomfortable points and conversations. Is the organization really ready to have those uncomfortable conversations?”

If the process fails — and even if it doesn’t — it may be time to ask again whether lawyers should have the privilege to regulate themselves.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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