In their shoes
Stories of systemic racism from the legal profession.
Recent events in the United States have highlighted the prevalence of explicit, individual, and systemic racism in American society and its devastating impacts on Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC). Police brutality, mass incarceration, disproportionate rates of unemployment and homelessness, and the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 are but a few examples of such racism. Although it may be easy to deny, racism is prevalent in Canada, particularly anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. Whether or not racism is highlighted on the evening news or on social media, it is entrenched in society.
It is true in the practice of law as well, which is why we have invited legal professionals to share their stories, anonymously, about their experience with racism. The idea is borne out of a similar effort by Joshua Sealy-Harrington in 2016 to compile stories focused on inclusivity and equality in the profession. Given the current events, these stories focus on the experiences of BIPOC. Just as the stories published in 2016 are still relevant today, the stories published here will be relevant until real change happens.
They are also a reminder of how many candidates in law encounter that elusive phrase "firm fit” — one of the many examples of racism in the legal profession because, often, the decision-makers are non-BIPOC. These decision-makers, consciously or not, seek out candidates they can relate to on a personal level, meaning those who share similar socio-economic backgrounds, experiences, and values. Ultimately, the idea of firm fit has become a justification for the lack of BIPOC representation in the legal profession.
We have included identifiers to the anonymous stories to highlight that issues of race permeate seniority, location, and gender. Although these storytellers do not represent the entire legal community and certainly do not represent all racial groups, these stories show the universality of struggling with racialization in the legal profession.
Our hope is that the stories will inform the dialogue that has begun about the steps that the legal profession can take to remove hiring policies like firm fit, and that members of the profession can take to reflect, self-educate, and take action.
Because the dialogue must not stop. As legal professionals in a constitutionally multicultural country, we can no longer sit on the sidelines. We must lead by example. We must be on the right side of history. We must uncover and address systemic racism against BIPOC in the legal profession.
We must specifically call out the “social malaise” before us for what it is: anti-Black systemic racism. We cannot deny its existence or the negative impacts on our society and our Black communities.
We must equally call out the anti-Indigenous racism in Canada, face Canada’s history and recognize that systemic racism persists against our Indigenous peoples.
The time is now for real and meaningful inclusion and for concrete actions because Black lives matter and Indigenous lives matter.
We cannot call ourselves true champions of inclusion and diversity if we are selective with which groups we choose to support. We either stand up for all, equally and equitably without fail, regardless of the impact on our bottom lines, or we do not do it at all. The latter is no longer an option.
Identity: Woman of colour
Location: East Coast
It starts early.
When you are in class and realize you are the only person of colour in a group that is now discussing immigrant rights with a distance that you will never have.
When students are taught to value marks and jobs over access to justice and community.
When most of your classmates are from families with lawyers or connections to law.
When you try to bring intersectionality to a group for women in law and are told by white classmates that it will make people uncomfortable.
When you realize that, during all three years of law school, the majority of students who have not been hired after articling recruit are people of colour and women, where the few white men who find themselves in this group are the ones to find work first.
When you worry about your average grades hindering your chance at getting an articling position and a classmate tells you she knows a white male that has lower marks than you but has the advantage of being “one of the boys.”
When you research a firm before you apply and find that all their employees are white and cannot imagine it changing with you.
When firms stress “fit” as a hiring criterion, which is actually code for status quo and people who look and think like them.
When they find creative ways to find out where “you are really from” and you tell them you were born and raised in Canada, but when you are faced with blank stares, you relent and explain your parents’ journey to Canada.
When you are an articling student and are in a room of white male politicians discussing diversity.
When you are afraid to give your name to clients over the phone in fear of a rude comment or change in demeanour towards the negative.
When you do give your name and they ask you if you are calling from a call centre overseas, when one minute before you were Canadian.
When you do twice the work than your fellow white male articling student, are sometimes asked to re-do his work, and watch him get praise for his minimal effort.
When you have to bite your tongue at ignorant comments made by your superiors because you know that their “good” intentions are more important than you feeling safe.
When you are walking to work and wonder if the dirty look you got from a white passerby was because of your skin colour and spend the first hours of your morning distracted and exhausted.
And it will go on. Whether subtle or overt, inside and outside the workplace, for the rest of your life.
Identity: Indigenous—Metis (Cree)
Family and friends that are visibly BIPOC experience racism that I do not experience because I pass as white.
I am Indigenous, Metis (Cree) to be specific. I have an appearance that I describe as the, “Yeah, I can see it” look, meaning that once my heritage is mentioned, it gets noticed. Now, I mention my heritage early and frequently. Many people think that being a white-passing BIPOC is preferable. It certainly comes with advantages: borrowed privilege, superficial acceptance, and deference in many situations. Those generally apply if, in addition to being white-passing, you also happen to pass as a straight male. I am and I do. I also happened to be in my forties when I went to law school. Privilege poured from me.
I learned a long time ago that I owed it to my family, to my heritage, and to myself to be vocal about my heritage. I wish I could say that I do this because of pride, but that is not the case. I do this so that I am no longer party to the quietly whispered comments or the conspiratorial glances that precede a pejorative racial comment (definitely not referring to them as “jokes”). I want those inclined to make these comments to know that they do not have a receptive audience.
It does not always work. Instead, the comments come with one of the standard disclaimers: the exclusionary, “Oh, I don’t mean you”; the backhanded complimentary, “You’re different”; or my favourite, “You’re one of the good ones.” All of these disclaimers have, at their core, an understanding that the premise of the pejorative comment is accurate, but there are small allowances for the exceptions.
Feeling “too Indigenous for white people and too white for Indigenous people” is common. I am alive to the fact that my borrowed privilege allows me to bypass many of the hurdles that I might otherwise face. Another lesson learned is that having privilege by virtue of being white-passing comes with a responsibility to use that privilege to be vocal. I cannot speak to the experiences of those that are visibly BIPOC, but if my low melanin count makes it easier for some people to hear me, speaking up is the (very) least I can do.
Identity: South Asian
It should come as no surprise that the legal community is dominated by white lawyers and, consequently, the recruitment process appears to favour white law students. At times, it felt like the only way to navigate the recruitment process was by diluting my cultural background and assimilating to what the legal world wanted me to be.
At recruitment dinners, I laughed along at stories of ski trips and European vacations, even though I could not relate to many of these stories. I was questioned for living at home and entering law school immediately after undergrad, even though my reasons for doing so were largely cultural—and normal to me. I was asked where I was “really from,” as if my Canadian citizenship had an asterisk on it because of the colour of my skin. I wondered if my white peers were given as hard of a time as I was, or if they struggled with their identity as much as I did.
This is when I started to see the divide among law students more clearly. I went to a law school as one of only a handful of BIPOC and my white peers did not seem to have as much difficulty navigating the intricacies of recruit. It became clear—we were not the same.
The divide I felt continued to grow throughout my time at law school, but it was nothing that I made a note of. I fit in with the white law students. Maybe it was because I did not have strong ties to my culture. Maybe it was because I avoided starting conversations on racial diversity after trying and being ignored.
Today, the divide has been transplanted from law school peers to law firm colleagues. I have respect for many of my former classmates but am losing respect for others, especially given the current events. I have heard the jokes they make, the words they use, and the causes they choose to stay silent on. I overlooked this in the past in the name of friendship and white fragility, but at what cost? These are the future professors, partners, and judges. I should have spoken up more and encouraged them to engage with me in discussions about race. At the same time, they should not have made it so difficult to do so.
Identity: Black male
I would get ID’d regularly for the whole first six months I was at the firm. No other student was ever ID’d (I was carrying briefs or baker boxes around a firm in a suit).
I would get confused for an Uber driver on the weekends when ordering food to the firm. I had my dinner taken out of my hands by a colleague on multiple occasions.
Criminal court is just a hoopla—lots of being mistaken for a defendant or dealing with very aggressive Crown prosecutors who think I am a member of the public (once again in a suit with obvious materials).
As for law school, the list is too much of a headache.
Identity: Straight East Asian female
Occupation: Solo practitioner, litigation and administrative law
As a law student in the 1990s, I had soya sauce packets dropped into my mailbox at law school. No comments, no letter. Just enough to make me wonder: Was this a racist message? Why? Was this a fellow student? Why? Was this an accident, a coincidence? At the time, I was only one of a handful of racialized law students. I was often mistaken for other racialized students. When I interviewed for articling jobs, I wished I had a different last name. Definitely, there was racism. I was complimented on my fluency in English during interviews. (I grew up in Canada and have no accent. The only other language I speak is French. I consider myself very Canadian but at the time, I could only be viewed as "Oriental”). I sensed the unease and discomfort of the interviewer. Was this my imagination? Now that years have gone by, I know that it was not. I also had to delicately negotiate sexism and inappropriate behaviour. I even called the law society for advice on how to deal with inappropriate subtleties. I did not get good advice. Back then, there was no discrimination and harassment counsel. As many other women have done before me, I gingerly endured without offending.
When I was a litigator starting out in motions court, another lawyer once bet me "a bowl of wonton soup" that I would lose the motion. I was flooded with shame and embarrassment in court. I was young and inexperienced and was not equipped to deal with that situation. Many times, I had to battle racist perceptions and when I did demonstrate assertiveness or stand my ground (litigation can be very aggressive, after all), I felt that I always had to navigate issues of gender and race. It still haunts me today and I admire the younger generation and applaud them for the advances and strides that have been made. You have the courage that we did not. We were silent and did not speak out. We were too busy just trying to fit in as lawyers. Thank you for engaging us in this discussion. Thank you for this important work. Bravo!
Identity: Non-white female
Location: West Coast
When I walked into my first 1L class, a wave of shock hit me. Nearly the whole room was white. From the time I started kindergarten to my time in undergrad, I was surrounded by diversity, students of all ethnicities, religions, races, and socio-economic backgrounds. I never really felt like a minority until I started law school. Everyone in my classes was nice and respectful. I never experienced any overt racism. But there were countless moments, particularly during social and networking events, where I felt excluded because of my ethnicity and cultural background.
As a child of immigrants, we did not have a lot of money growing up, or that money would be put towards necessities. We could not afford the experiences that were deemed "valuable" to recruitment committees or senior partners. Everyone knows how important these social events are to put your foot in the door at coveted firms and organizations. I did not know how to golf and was not a great skier or hockey player. I did not drink much, and my family did not vacation in the Okanogan. All these characteristics worked against me at networking events, because I was not able to carry conversations the way some of my Caucasian peers, who grew up with higher socio-economic backgrounds, could. I often found myself subtly kicked out of conversations by a recruiter or partner who found something they had in common with someone who fit the “old boys’ club” mould. This really shot my confidence. I had many talents and a lot to offer, but the legal profession did not seem to value these. Superficial characteristics that I would never be able to possess, it felt, got people jobs.
I interviewed at one firm where I asked a question about diversity. The response came that they “do not see colour” and “treat everyone equally.” That is the major problem. Overt racism is rarely the issue anymore. Instead, it is unconscious bias that creeps into interactions and makes people feel excluded. I guarantee most of the recruiters I have encountered probably do not realize that they value those that have similar experiences to them. But it is this unconscious bias that needs to be countered for the legal profession to recognize how they continue to exclude people when they do “not see colour.”
Identity: Muslim female
Occupation: Law student
Location: West Coast
Entering law school was a challenge I have never experienced before. It was the first time I found myself surrounded by people who looked nothing like me and who had lives much different than my own. It is bad enough that law school tries to make you conform regardless of your race, but it is a lot worse when you visibly stand out.
I was told multiple times that I had a leg up because I could check the diversity box (I wish I were kidding). It was so frustrating that students did not realize their own privilege and really believed being a visibly Muslim woman somehow gave me an advantage in the very white, male-dominated legal world. These same students had parents who were lawyers, doctors, etc., whereas my parents did not even have the opportunity to complete junior high. I had to work from the age of 13 to assist my family, which often made it hard for me to participate in extracurricular activities, but I found the time and I worked to get where I am. Regardless, certain individuals really believed that I got to law school because I checked a box and they assumed that meant I did not get in based on merit.
Even in law school, my obvious difference made it really hard to compete in 1L. From the start, I was encouraged to try Big Law and to go to all the networking events. What my career advisors probably did not realize was that these networking events are only created for firms to find people just like them (i.e. not me). These events involved a lot of alcohol, which further made me stand out as I had to explain to everyone why I was not drinking. I would then have brutally awkward conversations with partners who would discuss golfing and other things that I honestly could not relate to because I could not afford to even think about these things growing up. One partner singled me out and decided to tell me how diverse his firm by explaining, “A lot of people like a lot of different things.” It made me realize how little they understood the word “diversity,” and how completely disconnected they were from their clients and the rest of the world in general.
Law school was not any better. Staff and students often looked at me with the typical stereotypes put on Muslim women, i.e. the oppressed victim. Anytime I did anything that went against their stereotypes, they would assume I was trying to rebel against my religion. I also realized that everything I did represented my religion, which put a lot of pressure on me. To make matters worse, there was another Muslim student in our class who was a little “off.” Students had told my non-visible Muslim friend that he was just saying what his religion taught him to say. No one ever said that when a white student made any kind of comment. Regardless, I felt like I had to try even harder to make sure I was perfect so that an entire religious population would not be blamed for my actions.
Professors did not help either. In ethics class, ironically, I had a teacher make an off-handed comment about Islam and treat it as if it was fact. I felt so small then, but I eventually mustered up the courage to email her. She apologized to me but never corrected herself in front of my classmates. In another class, I was singled out again and asked the infamous, “Where are you from?” comment. After I told him I was from Lebanon, I told him that he should visit there one day, to which he replied it was too dangerous (there was literally nothing going on at the time).
Overall, my experience has been me constantly having to work hard to prove to people that I am not the stereotypes they put on me. I have many more stories and I have only been in law school now for two years. No matter what I do or how hard I work, some people assume I do nothing and opportunities just come to me because I can call myself a minority. They have no idea what it is like.
Identity: Straight Asian male
In my last year of law school, I participated in a competitive moot. I have always set my sights on litigation, so mooting seemed like a great choice for me. After two whole semesters of grueling prep work, the competition came and went. I was extremely happy with my performance and even received the best advocate award.
At our team farewell dinner, I was having a chat with one of our coaches (for whom I have great respect and who also happens to be a straight Asian male). He told me that he was extremely proud of my accomplishment, but confessed that when he had first met me, he assumed that I would have the stereotypical Asian qualities that are not well suited for litigation (e.g., soft-spoken, shy, passive, and lacking in assertiveness). He confessed that some of these qualities he even saw in himself, and he has worked hard to try to overcome them. But when he saw me moot, he said that he was so happy to see those stereotypes shattered.
Hearing those things from my coach gave me mixed feelings. This was an issue that I had never thought about before. So while I was proud of my own accomplishments, I was disheartened to learn that Asian lawyers are viewed (and maybe even see themselves) in this way.
Identity: Bisexual woman of colour
Occupation: Law student
I do not really know where to start. I felt out of place when I jumped into conversations on the first day. I did not know anyone in the city. I just wanted to find people to be friends with, and with whom to share the whole “law school” experience. But I found that everyone I befriended within the first week was white and female—which is great because of feminism. However, I always felt out of place when they spoke about their lives. I did not want to share my stories about growing up in a brown household—they would get scared and scarred. I tried it once and they did not like it. It made them visibly uncomfortable. It felt like I was not allowed to be brown and be their friend. I had to check my race at the door, before stepping in.
I ended up curling in on myself. I was nice to everyone, would make jokes and so on—always making people laugh. But it just felt kind of empty because I did not have anywhere to express myself in a more meaningful way.
I got my first weird interaction after telling someone I was working at the Trans ID Clinic as part of my Pro Bono Students Canada project. They began pestering me and asking,“Why? Why choose that? What’s up with that connection?” It made me feel weird because, on the one hand, I am not out-out of the closet, and I did not want to get into that. On the other hand, why would I not want to help people? Is that not why we are here?
I got my second reality check when I got told to leave a building because I looked shifty. I was just lost. I did not know where the law firm was located in Bankers Hall. I just wanted to go to this event. I nearly got turned away, until I ran into another student and we headed to the elevators, them leading the way.
I got my third reality check when I was at networking events and lawyers would comment on my height, my hair, my name—everything.
I got my fourth reality check when I needled the executives of a school club, saying we need more diversity in the profession and that begins with the school, with access to legal education. I was told to “worry about it when you have clout. There is nothing you can do right now without stirring up trouble for yourself.” I felt like my role had been relegated in that group to making things look pretty. Everything I said was not of value. It could be ignored. I am still the only person of colour on that team, but when intersectionality is brought up, I feel like I cannot say anything because it does not matter anyway.
I got my fifth reality check when I spoke up at an event on intersectionality and said, “hey, I don’t understand why people with similar identities to myself are relegated to be the characters studied in articles about racism, sexism, and so on. Why can’t we write them? You want to use my experiences, but you don’t want me to have a voice in the narrative.” I got no response from those I addressed.
I am not the first person to deal with this, but with all the frustration, anger, annoyance and strength I have, I am going to make sure I will be the last.
Identity: Straight Southeast Asian female
Occupation: Sole practitioner
I was born and raised in Toronto, and became passionate about environmental conservation. After attending graduate school in environmental management at an elite university in the U.S., and working in Washington, D.C. for a leading international conservation not-for-profit for four years, I returned to Canada to pursue a legal career. A professor told me that Canada needed people like me, and I wanted to live in the city in which I was born. I got my law degree in Ontario and took an unpaid articling position with a public-interest environmental charitable organization. Unfortunately, the relatively small number of quality, well-funded litigation files created limited opportunities for articling students to gain extensive exposure in this realm. Being a female visible minority in a traditionally homogenous, Western-dominated area of law (environmental) may have also created further barriers to my gaining the litigation and advocacy experience that would have fostered my career development. (For background, here is an interesting article about racism in the environmental field.)
One way or another, I received limited advocacy and legal practice training. I applied to be hired back, but was told that the organization was looking for lawyers with more experience. And yet, it hired back two Caucasian male lawyers who articled at the same time as me.
Since articling and being called to the bar, I have not been able to secure a first-year associate position and have tried to work as a sole practitioner. Now I am in my early forties, five years into my call (taking time to get married, pregnant, and have a child), and am wondering whether it is still worth pursuing a career practising law.
Identity: Straight non-white woman
Occupation: Lawyer, associate
I was sexually assaulted, on more than one occasion, by the managing partner at my former firm. I was very junior at the time. It pushed me into therapy and onto medication. Panic attacks became a daily occurrence. I contemplated quitting and sought independent legal advice. A lawyer advised me that I had an especially strong case (one of the worst she had heard of, which at least made me feel less cowardly about not going public), but I was too scared of the impact quitting would have on my career. I was even more afraid of suing a seasoned (and ill-tempered) litigator.
I have since left that toxic firm. If I had not managed to get out and into a respectable firm with wonderful colleagues (a rare gem in the field), I would have for sure left law by now, which would have been unfortunate. Law needs women like me to stay.
My previous experiences in law also exposed me to homophobic and sexist remarks from colleagues and sometimes clients. What stung more than the comments in such circumstances was the lack of response from more senior lawyers. Time and time again, I have seen mediocre white men fail upwards while competent women are undervalued in terms of remuneration, being excluded from important meetings, and not getting credit for new files.
My current colleagues are incredible and proof that there are good white men in the field who are striving for equality and inclusiveness. Also, the lawyer I mentioned above never charged me for our consultation or my numerous follow-ups. After all I had been through in this profession, she insisted, "It is okay to have someone give you their time for free—you deserve a little kindness." There are good people in this profession. I was lucky and able to get out of a terrible situation, but I definitely understand why so many women who enter the legal profession do not end up staying. I came close to joining the exodus.
Word to the wise: a diverse looking firm does not necessarily mean progressive management. Firms can easily take advantage of minorities. Once you get past scrolling through the "lawyers" section of a firm, look carefully at how many of those "diverse" faces are in upper management or are equity partners.
Identity: Black man
Occupation: Law student
I’ll start by saying that I have had a very positive experience throughout law school. I understand that these stories are meant to share some unfortunate experiences that marginalized individuals face in the legal industry. However, it is also important to acknowledge positive experiences. It indicates that the system has the capacity to provide a positive experience to people who look like me.
Like many law students before me, my peers, and many law students who will follow me, I worked hard to get to law school. I focused on maintaining a high GPA throughout my undergraduate program, and I spent hour after hour studying for the LSAT. Reading my law school acceptance letter is one of the proudest moments in my life. However, once the adrenaline wore off, five little words popped into my head. Five little words that are still with me today. These five little words are, "How do I fit in?"
Now, you might be thinking that every single person feels this way and we all suffer from imposter syndrome. But not everyone has had to contemplate how they can maintain their blackness while occupying a primarily white space. Not everyone has genuinely contemplated changing their name in fear that people may not give their resume a fair look over.
As I mentioned above, my experience throughout law school was largely positive, even if I, too, have experienced the typical, "Yeah, but where are you really from?” I acknowledge that the world is not fair. I accept that I am going to be the only black person in many rooms as I pursue a career in law. I also believe in using my blackness to my advantage while also making sure that I am not being "too black" around my while colleagues. I know that my face is more recognizable throughout the industry, so I have to be on extra good behaviour.
The mindset and thoughts that were shared above may be familiar to other visible minorities in the legal industry. Whether or not you believe that visible minorities actually experience racism in the law school or at law firms, it is important to ask why they have the expectation that we will be treated unfairly, or that we have to be more white when we are in fact, not white.