Who are you calling sleazy?

A cover story in Maclean’s entitled, “Lawyers are Rats,” is generating
much controversy and attention from Canadian lawyers — which of course
is the point of the provocative heading. The story is a full-on attack
on the sleazy aspects of the legal profession. The Canadian Bar
Association instantly demanded an apology then called the story a
distorted, one-sided and sensationalized picture of the legal
profession that tarnished every lawyer’s reputation.

material in the kerfuffle is easily accessible (linked below) and makes
for an interesting case study of journalism ethics. Is it the
proverbial tempest in a teapot? Sensationalist headline writing by a
once-respected newsmagazine that’s turned tacky? Fair comment? Is the
Canadian Bar Association overreacting, ducking a legitimate debate or
justly protesting?

Judge for yourself, and chime in with your comments, below.

Here’s the original story published Aug. 6: “Lawyers are Rats.

Here’s an excerpt of the press release with the initial reaction from The Canadian Bar Association :

Canadian Bar Association has condemned in the strongest possible way
the cover story in the Aug. 6 edition of Maclean’s magazine that paints
a distorted, one-sided and sensationalized picture of the legal

cherry-picking the worst cases of lawyer misconduct, the article has
tarnished the reputation of thousands of professionals who are honest,
hard-working, and community-minded people,” says CBA President J.
Parker MacCarthy, Q.C. of Duncan, B.C. “Lawyers defend their clients’
interests on a daily basis, and there are countless examples of lawyers
who provide pro bono legal services in their communities.”

Maclean’s article is a broadside against the legal profession that
doesn’t tell the whole story. In Canada, provincial law societies are
vigilantly maintaining standards of professional conduct and
disciplining lawyers who fail to meet them. Law societies look out for
the interests of the public, by investigating complaints and taking
necessary disciplinary action.

Here’s an excerpt of the CBA’s latest response, which was published in Maclean’s (PDF):

The truth about lawyers
Imagine, for a moment, how you would react if this magazine ran a cover that read:
“Firefighters are pigs,” or maybe, “Doctors are butchers” or “Soldiers are dogs.” And
imagine that the sensationalist cover was based not on any in-depth investigative report,
but solely on the opinions of a disaffected member of one of those groups who was
promoting a new book. Would you feel that Canada’s firefighters, soldiers or doctors had
been blindsided and vilified? 

Here’s an excerpt of Maclean’s rationale for publishing the story — and the headlline, in response to the CBA:

Last week, we published as our cover
story an interview with Philip Slayton, an ex-Bay Street lawyer and the
former dean of law at the University of Western Ontario, who, after 41
years of teaching and legal practice, has written a book accusing his
profession of failing its cherished ideals and working to the detriment
of society.

Mr. Slayton describes the world of
Canadian law as miserable, amoral, obsessed with making money, rife
with fraudulent and unethical activity, poorly regulated, and
indifferent to issues of justice. In plain language, he argued that
lawyers are rats, a phrase we chose as our cover line for the issue.

In all honesty, we had misgivings
about the headline. Before we go to press, we always ask ourselves
whether our cover will engage a reading audience. It wasn’t difficult
to imagine dismissive reactions to that particular line: “it’s
redundant,” or “it’s not news,” or “at least they’re not journalists.”

But we looked again at the interview
and concluded that the line was a reasonable reflection of Mr.
Slayton’s views, and that what he has to say is newsworthy — it’s not
every day that an intelligent, sincere, and accomplished individual who
has given his entire working life to legal work and education takes the
trouble to call out his profession. Even before the magazine had hit
newsstands across Canada, the Canadian Bar Association issued a release
condemning Maclean’s for publishing the interview. It launched a
countrywide campaign to combat the “outrageous” accusations in the
interview, and to dismiss them as the rantings of a lone disaffected
practitioner. The president of the Ontario Bar Association, evidently
believing the CBA had wimped out, followed up by comparing us to Nazis
and suggesting that lawyers are all that stands between civilization
and tyranny.