Reputation, public service and balance are essential

Dennis O’Connor, associate chief justice of Ontario, is one of the best known names in Canada. He has a reputation for honesty and for delivering the straight goods on such controversial issues as the Walkerton Inquiry and the case of Maher Arar. As a pillar of the Canadian legal fraternity, O’Connor came to York on Friday to accept a doctor of laws honoris causa.

Right: Dennis O’Connor. Photo by CSi/

In his characteristic style, O’Connor once again delivered the straight goods to students. His simple, yet sage, advice to the graduating class of Osgoode Hall Law School was to build good professional reputations, contribute to their communities and lead balanced lives that counter the pressures associated with their careers.

"Reputations are earned, not conferred. A good reputation is built layer upon respected layer," said O’Connor. "At the end of the day, the kind of person you become will be a more significant measure of your success than your other accomplishments."

O’Connor challenged students to put the welfare of the public ahead of their own. His advice was based in his long and productive career as an academic, as a magistrate in Canada’s north, as a jurist and, most recently, as commissioner of both the Walkerton and Arar inquiries. "Become involved in activities that benefit the public interest," said O’Connor. "Successful lawyers recognize the importance of giving back to the community through public service. The opportunities are endless ranging from volunteer work, involvement in professional associations, teaching and politics.

"Canada’s legal profession has a long tradition of giving back to the public. It is hard to imagine what a poor and very different country Canada would be if members of the legal profession did not contribute to public service. Economic pressure should not be allowed to reduce your appetite for community and for contributing to public service," he said. "Public service can raise a flagging and tired spirit." 

"Balance is also important. There is more to life than law. Pursue your interests and allow them to flourish. You cannot serve your clients well if you do not look after yourselves," said O’Connor. "In looking back at my career, I would not be as successful a lawyer and judge if I had not pursued balance in my life." 

O’Connor also paid tribute to his alma mater. "Osgoode Hall has a remarkable record of producing, year after year, people who become leaders in the public and private sectors," O’Connor said to graduands. "For me, Osgoode provided what I have always found to be an excellent legal education with sound grounding in the law and legal thought that, even now, over 40 years later, I still draw upon on a regular basis. Osgoode also provided me with an appreciation of what is involved in becoming a member of a very honourable profession."

Left: Dennis O’Connor (left) is congratulated by York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden (right), while York Chancellor Peter Cory looks on. Photo by CSi/

A strong and independent legal profession is essential to the protection of the rule of law which is the very core of a free and open, democratic society, said O’Connor. "In a country like Canada, we need lawyers who are knowledgeable in the law, who are skilled in applying the law to actual problems and situations and who are courageous in the pursuit of fairness, justice and the protection of their client’s interest," he said.

"But we also need a strong and skilled legal profession to do more than just protect the rule of law and individual and personal rights. A properly functioning society requires a legal profession that is dedicated to fighting for clients with all manner of legal problems," said O’Connor. "Whatever the nature of the problem, it is essential that the public have access to legal assistance and that the lawyers who provide that assistance be committed to serving their clients’ interests in a competent, professional and honourable way.

"In Canada, our law schools train our future lawyers in the law and also in professional skills and ethics that will enable their graduates to serve the public in a world that presents increasingly complex legal problems. For law schools, this has been a significant challenge, however, my observation is that Canadian law schools generally, and Osgoode Hall Law School in particular, have done a remarkable job in providing Canada with a legal profession that is second to none. It is therefore very meaningful to me to be honoured by Osgoode and York University in this way," said O’Connor. "Thank you."