J Gray: Ethics, conflicts of interest focal point for think tank

Published in The Globe and Mail Thursday, Feb. 28 2013, 5:00 AM EST and last updated Thursday, Feb. 28 2013, 7:02 AM EST

 

Jeff Gray

A new think tank being announced next week by the University of Toronto’s law school will take on the ethical issues lawyers faced on Bay Street, where they increasingly struggle with conflict-of-interest rules and other dilemmas.

The initiative, which U of T says will be unique in North America, is called the Program on Ethics in Law and Business, and it counts former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, now senior counsel with Torys LLP, as chairman of an advisory board of prominent Bay Street figures.

In an interview, Mr. Iacobucci said the program is an idea whose time has come, as the world of deal-makers continues to reel from the ramifications of the 2008 financial crisis.

“They are old issues, but they have taken on a greater prominence,” he said, adding that previous crises have always prompted cycles of new regulation.

“History is replete with controversy, a scandal, regulation, then another scandal and regulation. What this program is trying to do, I think, will be trying to say, ‘Look … how can we deal with the questions that involve business and law through the prism of ethical principles?’ ”

The new program comes after widespread concern over the activities of financial market players in the U.S. financial crisis, and amid renewed concern in the Canadian legal profession over ethical questions such as conflicts of interest and the question of how law societies should regulate lawyers’ courtroom behaviour.

Conflicts are among the key issues Mr. Iacobucci said the think tank will tackle.

Recent high-profile court cases have singled out law firms for allegedly failing to disclose that they were acting for clients with conflicting legal interests, a violation of professional rules.

(Mr. Iacobucci would not discuss the Law Society of Upper Canada allegations facing two Torys lawyers over alleged conflicts of interest while they were retained by Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. A disciplinary hearing is under way.)

The academic director of the new program is U of T law school professor Anita Anand, who said it will fund research, host public discussions and advocate for new ethical rules for lawyers in business.

Prof. Anand said the program will aim to “raise the consciousness” of lawyers on Bay Street about ethical obligations that go beyond the letter of the law or the professions rules: “It’s not just, ‘Is this legal?’ but, ‘Is this right?’ ”

The advisory board chaired by Mr. Iacobucci also includes former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hal Jackman, Torys litigator Sheila Block, Toronto-Dominion Bank general counsel Norie Campbell, former Ontario Superior Court judge James Farley, and Ontario Securities Commission chairman Howard Wetston, among other prominent names.

The program will be officially launched on March 5 with a panel discussion moderated by Prof. Anand and featuring Justice Michael Code of the Ontario Superior Court, on the issues raised by the scandals such as Nortel Networks Corp., and YBM Magnex International Inc.

Mr. Iacobucci said his advice to lawyers and law firms about maintaining the highest ethical standards is that it is not just the right thing to do: It is also better, in the long run, for the bottom line.

“If you behave in [an ethical] way, you are in this for the long haul, you’re not in it for short-term gain,” he said. “And showing that you are an institution of integrity and honesty is in fact about as good an advertisement and a promotion for getting business as you can get.”

 

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