Jeff Leon recently completed his one-year term as President of the American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL). He was only the second Canadian to serve in this role. The College is an invitation-only fellowship of 5,700 preeminent trial lawyers in the United States and Canada from all areas of trial practice. The mission of the ACTL is to improve the standards of trial practice, professionalism, ethics, and the administration of justice.
What was your role as President?
|Jeffrey S. Leon L.S.M.|
It was a great honour to serve as President. With other Executive Committee and Board members, I had general oversight over the work of some 35 General Committees and the state and province committees of the College, along with dealing with general College business. I travelled over 150,000 miles to attend and speak at ACTL meetings in about 45 states and 9 provinces. I learned a lot about the legal and corporate culture of the U.S. in its different regions. We formed a Task Force on mentoring of young trial lawyers, including how we can create more opportunities for young trial lawyers to appear in Court. The report of this Task Force has been approved and will be released shortly.
I was the spokesperson on public statements by the College, including in support of judicial independence, promotion of respect for the Rule of Law, the important role of defence counsel in providing legal representation in criminal proceedings and in opposition to cuts to funding of pro bono clinics for low-income litigants. I also furthered the efforts of my predecessors in working to make our organization more diverse.
My term ended at the end of September. I am now back to focusing on my business litigation practice at Bennett Jones. I also make myself available as a neutral for mediation and arbitration.
What part does Canada play in the College?
I made it one of my goals to further weave Canada into the fabric of the College. Canadians are now on almost all of our Committees and we look for "Canadian aspects" to projects that are undertaken. At events I spoke about cross-border relations and told attendees that there is significant goodwill for the United States and its people here in Canada. Americans asked and cared about the Canadian view of them. When I traveled across the U.S., I looked into the history, economy, notable features and personalities of the city and state I visited, and began and ended my remarks by talking about these things. There were often interesting connections to Canada, given our shared democratic principles and our related cultures.
What are the key issues facing trial lawyers in the United States? Are there cultural differences with Canada?
The big issues trial lawyers face in the U.S. are similar to the ones we have here. The cost of the trial process, the difficulty in getting cases to trial and civility in the litigation process are common concerns. There are procedural differences, such as the extensive time spent deposing experts in the U.S. American lawyers are also much more committed to trial by jury. Promoting the rule of law, judicial independence, high ethical standards, professionalism and collegiality are fundamental principles of the College, shared by both American and Canadian trial lawyers. I spoke about the importance of promoting judicial independence, mentoring, creating access to justice and teaching civility at every opportunity.
You're a long-time advocate of civility in the litigation process. How did you promote this as President?
Civility in the litigation process is an issue that's close to my heart. I have always believed that lawyers can be forceful and passionate advocates for their clients, while still being civil to each other, the court and others involved in the justice system. There are some lawyers, particularly younger lawyers, who don't seem to understand this. We have two of our Committees working on creating visual aids for teaching civility and on establishing pilot projects to promote civility in different locations.
What messages can you give young litigation lawyers? How can they grow and succeed?
The most important thing young trial lawyers can do is seek out opportunities to get into court. They should talk with their firm's senior lawyers about this. It should be the responsibility of senior counsel to mentor and teach younger lawyers, and to be generous in sharing time in court.
Young lawyers can create opportunities on their own by working with pro bono organizations and accepting different types of retainers. Appearing in court is really the only way to learn to be a trial lawyer.
What Canadian initiatives were launched during your term as President?
The College, for the first time, presented its newly created Beverley McLachlin Access to Justice Award (named in honour of the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada) to Justice Lippman from New York. It was a privilege to witness this as a Canadian. Chief Justice McLachlin made improvement of access to justice central to her quest to advance the rule of law and advance the administration of justice in Canada.
Canadian Fellows, along with our American colleagues, also became part of our Distinguished Senior Fellows Pro Bono Program, which pairs senior trial lawyers with access to justice organizations to promote their work in creating access to justice. The Indigenous Human Rights Program of Pro Bono Students Canada was recognized by the ACTL for its groundbreaking proposal to create two pilot Indigenous Human Rights Clinics in Ontario. Pro Bono Students Canada received the College's Emil Gumpert Award (named after our founder) which included a US$100,000 grant to establish these clinics.
What are your final thoughts on your year as President of the ACTL?
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a truly unique experience. People in the U.S. and Canada made me feel most welcome and graciously demonstrated appreciation for my efforts and travels, which means a lot to me. I now have good friends and colleagues in every state and province and that, as the saying goes, is priceless. The College's mission matters deeply to me and it was a privilege to represent and help lead the organization. Whatever stage you are at in your career, giving back to the profession is important and rewarding.
More information on the College is available here.