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Articling system rife with harassment and discrimination

Anecdotal no more: survey reveals one in three respondents faced harassment and discrimination during the articling experience

Boss Yelling

Almost one-third of articling students and new lawyers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba reported experiencing discrimination and harassment during recruitment or articling, indicates a survey conducted by the law societies of the three provinces last year. 

These results are disheartening, says Adam J.C. Norget, a lawyer with the City of Edmonton. "I hate to say it, but I didn't find it surprising."

Norget, currently the chair of the CBA's Young Lawyers Section, says that issues facing articling students have been on his committee's radar for several years.

"We had received a lot of anecdotal evidence that indicated that there were pervasive problems in the articling and recruitment systems, regardless of jurisdiction," he says. "We were disheartened that nearly all of our provincial chairs reported some degree of anecdotal evidence of these issues from their respective jurisdictions."

Cori Ghitter, Deputy Executor Director and Director, Professionalism and Policy for the Law Society of Alberta, described the survey results as troubling.

"I was not entirely surprised because we had anecdotal information, prior to doing the survey, that indicated that some of these issues were happening out there," she says. "One of the reasons that the survey was so important to us was because we did have this anecdotal information, but we wanted to understand it better and get a sense of the scope of the issue. Turning anecdotes into data was a really important piece for us so we can understand and address it."

Widespread discrimination and harassment 

In May and June 2019, the Law Societies of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba conducted two surveys. One asked articling students and new lawyers who articled in the past five years about their training and mentoring, and any discrimination and harassment they might have experienced. It also asked them how prepared they feel they are to practice law. A second survey asked similar questions to articling principals, recruiters and mentors.

The survey results found that 32 per cent of students and new lawyers reported experiencing discrimination and harassment during recruitment or articling. Some respondents reported that they were asked about their sexual orientation, marital status and their plans to have children. Other respondents said that female lawyers were given less-challenging assignments during articling, including administrative and non-billable work. Respondents also reported that fewer positions were offered to students with foreign names, older students or students educated abroad.

A total of 736 articling students and new lawyers responded to the survey, including 549 in Alberta (a 23 per cent response rate), 104 in Saskatchewan and 83 in Manitoba.

A national issue

These results came a year after a similar survey was done in Ontario, which found that 21 per cent of articling students faced harassment and discrimination.

Earlier in 2019, the CBA Young Lawyers Section sent letters to all Canadian law societies requesting that they survey articling students and new lawyers about their experiences.

"I believe that this survey came about in part due to our efforts," says Norget.

"I am happy to see progress in looking into this issue formally and taking steps to try to address it," he says. "I would like to see these efforts duplicated in other jurisdictions as well. Because it's definitely not isolated to the Prairie provinces and Ontario."

Preston I.A.D. Parsons, a lawyer with Overholt Law in Vancouver and a former chair of the Young Lawyers Section, says that he would like to see a nation-wide survey on articling.

"If we are going to be having a cross-country conversation about how best to train students, having as much data as possible would be helpful in designing those programs better," he says.

Norget points out that articling students are particularly vulnerable in their employment status. Unlike most other employees, articling students have no statutory protections under the Employment Standards Act or the Labour Relations Code.

"We all have to article, and articling students are basically at the mercy of the firms and don't have statutory protection. It is really important that this issue be addressed due to that power imbalance," says Norget.

Education the key

Ghitter says that the law society is already taking steps to address the problem.

Since the Law Society of Alberta received the results of the survey in September 2019, it has launched a model Respective Workplace Policy and held three information sessions. It developed a webinar explaining the policy and how firms can implement it. The policy and the webinar are available on the law society's website.

The Law Society has also created two new bencher committees to begin working in February 2020 -- one on lawyer competence and one on equity, diversity and inclusion.

The two bencher committees will work with advisory committees. Ghitter says the Law Society had 80 lawyers put their names forward to serve on the advisory committees. 

"I am really excited to have that level of engagement from lawyers generally," she says. "We had a great diversity of interest, so on those advisory committees we definitely have good representation of young lawyers, we have good ethnic, gender and racial diversity. This is a really important part of this to make sure these voices are continually part of the conversations that we have."

Both Norget and Parsons agree that education is an essential step toward addressing the problems.

"I am surprised at how many lawyers I speak with who know very, very little about what's in the Human Rights Code," says Parsons. "I get it—if you're a securities lawyer, you are not going to the Human Rights Tribunal. But when you're a partner in a firm, to me, it's the same as knowing how to read a financial statement. This is information that you need to have to run a business."

It is crucial for lawyers to realize the legal profession has a problem with discrimination and harassment, and to commit to education on these topics, says Parsons.

"There is the view that since we are in the legal profession, we know better than to discriminate or harass people. It's easy to bury our heads in the sand. But I think that is naive," he says.