Diversity and inclusion

By Katya Hodge Web Only

Addressing the challenges that face racialized licensees.

As part its ongoing diversity efforts, the Law Society of Upper Canada released a consultation paper, Developing Strategies for Change: Addressing Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees.  The paper is the result of an investigation into the challenges faced by racialized lawyers and paralegals by Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group in 2012.   This past fall and winter the LSUC held public consultations to gather feedback on the paper and its findings. Raj Anand, former chair and current member of the working group spoke to National about the initiative.

National: Why was it time for this study?

Raj Anand: Because there is an increase of professionals in the legal profession — it’s now about 17 per cent of lawyers in Ontario by our last count — that are racialized and are experiencing challenges on both an individual and systemic level.  But it’s largely anecdotal evidence.  There has been very little study of these issues.  We thought that it was important to the mandate of the Law Society’s acting in the public interest to look into these issues to verify whether the anecdotal evidence was accurate and to determine what would be within the jurisdiction of the Law Society to act upon it.

N: What, according to the study, are the obstacles faced by racialized licensees?

RA:  The study showed that one’s race is a constant and persistent factor at every stage of entry and advancement in the legal profession.  To give you an example of how that came out in terms of statistical evidence, in the survey we asked racialized and non-racialized respondents to tell us whether a set of 17 factors — including racial and ethnic identity — created  a challenge for them in their entry into the legal profession and separately in their advancement in the legal profession.  And the results were quite striking:  40 per cent of racialized licensees said their racial or ethnic identity was a major factor.  For non-racialized licensees it was three per cent.

N: Why is it important for the legal profession to properly reflect the society it serves?

RA: A more diverse legal profession has a lot of clear advantages.  First of all, there is the simple issue of fairness.  There is no reason why an individual should be held back by virtue of a characteristic over which he or she has no control and which is irrelevant to their skill, their intelligence and their ability.

A more diverse legal profession means that there will be lawyers from the various ethnic and racial communities that can better serve those communities.

And the existence of a more diverse legal profession also means that there will be role models.  Role models in professional  associations, the Law Society, the Bar Association and others, which will say a lot to high school students, to university students, to young lawyers about opportunity and their place in society.

From the standpoint of the law firm, greater diversity obviously has marketing and client service implications.  The ability to speak a different language and the ability to understand and be part of different religious and cultural observances is integral to any kind of human relationship.  It’s no different with a solicitor and client relationship.

Diversity is also a very important aspect of the work environment.  Studies have shown that just as a more gender diverse workforce is a more effective workforce, the same is true of a more racially diverse workforce.

N:  Are there solutions to the problem?

RA: The solutions fall into a few categories. The first relates to the organizations that lawyers practice in. and what can be done to make them more welcoming and to create greater opportunity and to assist in advancement.            So we looked at, for example, diversity programs within firms. Many of the large firms have the programs, in part as a result of the continued professional development requirements that we created a few years ago, where they can do this themselves.

Another is the Self-Assessment. The Self-Assessment on Diversity Issues, which is by analogy to what professor Amy Salyzyn spearheaded for the CBA. [CBA Ethical Practices Self-Evaluation Tool]I’ve been working in this area of human rights for a long time and it’s been a sort of a truism. It’s almost not even questioned that avoiding complaints or barriers or challenges is a much more effective strategy than remedying barriers and challenges after the fact. And that includes discriminatory acts and harassment and everything else.

And so how do you do that? Well, obviously one of the ways is through policies and training. The other is with this self-assessment tool. And that’s a possible solution.  And then there’s a question of whether the Law Society should require these tools, use its authority as a regulator.  But that raises issue because the Law Society, generally speaking, doesn’t regulate firms or organizations.  It regulates lawyers. 

These are ideas that have come up, but we are seeking input. 

N: What’s next for the project?

RA: We’re collecting feedback. We originally had 11 of these feedback sessions, and I think we’ll probably get to about 20 or 25.  There’s e been a lot of interest expressed.  In addition to sessions like the one we had in Ottawa, and the webcast sessions from Toronto, we are also meeting with individual firms, corporations, members from the legal community, professors and others.  The feedback will help the Working Group propose next steps and make concrete recommendations for Convocation to adopt.  It will ultimately be the Convocation’s decision as to what is adopted in terms of mandatory or voluntary, or as I say, good offices measures in all these areas.  The will be a debate at Convocation about this and hopefully we’ll get our report passed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Katya Hodge is National’s managing editor.

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