The Lawyers Weekly
March 6, 2009

Donalee Moulton

Halifax – Diversity is a hot topic these days, what with America electing its first African-American commander-in-chief.

Amid all the hoopla over Barack Obama – a successful lawyer before becoming the leader of the free world – Canadian law firms are actively trying to change their image as an old (predominantly white) boys club once and for all.

“With the increasing diversity of talent entering the legal profession, and growing client demands to do business with law firms that are representative of the communities they serve, diversity has become important for law firms that wish to maintain a high level of competitiveness,” said Susan Tonkin, communications advisor with The Law Society of Upper Canada in Toronto.

“A diverse legal team is a competitive advantage,” said Andrea York, a partner with Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto.

“Diversity gives rise to a variety of perspectives that can lead to creative ideas in dealing with legal problems.”

One reason for the emphasis on diversity: clients are emphasizing it.

“Law is very much a relationship business. It’s important we have a workforce that reflects the workforce of our clients,” said Chima Nkemdirim, a partner in the Corporate Securities Group with Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP (FMC) in Calgary.

“Clients,” he added, “now expect diversity from their service providers.”

This expectation is mirrored, for example, in the information clients request about a firm’s diversity efforts. Four years ago, only one survey he received from clients raised the issue of diversity, said Nkemdirim. Last year, there were 20 that did.

Clients, especially corporate Canada and the public sector, are not alone in their desire to work with firms that try to attain diversity. Law students and new lawyers are looking for the same thing.

“We have many more students from diverse backgrounds. Those students want to see themselves reflected in the legal profession,” said Mayo Moran, dean of the faculty of law at the University of Toronto.

“They want to see how much firms have promoted diverse backgrounds. It is a recruitment issue,” she added.

It most certainly is, said Bernie Miller, managing partner with McInnes Cooper in Moncton, N.B., about 180 kilometres east of Fredericton.

“If we do not embrace and encourage diversity, we are narrowing our options for recruiting the best lawyers. Thus, diversity allows us to draw lawyers from the largest demographic pool – everyone who goes to law school.”

But diversity is more than a business issue, Miller stressed.

“Law firms should be the ultimate ‘meritocracy.’ There should be no impediments to advancement other than an individual’s capabilities.”

“Law firms also take seriously their responsibility to provide inclusive and respectful environments,” said Tonkin. “A profession that is representative of the public and provides equal opportunities furthers the professionalism of the legal profession and helps to enhance access to justice for all the communities it serves.”

So just how do law firms do that? In a myriad of ways. Blakes, Cassels & Graydon LLP, which was recently named one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers for 2009 by Mediacorp Canada Inc., has a national equity and diversity committee that meets every month.

“The mandate of the committee is to develop and implement a wide range of activities and initiatives to promote equity and diversity at Blakes,” said York.

“We also develop and oversee firm policies, and provide a means to facilitate thought and discussion to bring about positive change,” she added.

FMC recently became the first law firm to become a corporate partner of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC)’s mentoring partnership program. The program pairs skilled immigrants with established Canadian professionals in a mentoring relationship designed to break down the barriers immigrants face when trying to enter the Canadian labour market.

FMC, noted Nkemdirim, was also the first law firm to do a diversity survey of its staff.

Many Ontario firms are part of the Justicia Project launched last year by The Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) to support the retention and advancement of women in private practice. So far, more than 40 law firms of all sizes across the province have pledged their support. That support translates into a commitment to participate in the project until the end of 2011.

That commitment is also affirmed in writing. Each participating firm must agree to attain a number of goals in four core areas. This includes tracking demographics, putting flexible work policies in place, sharing information about opportunities specifically tailored for women and developing and implementing various models of mentoring and leadership skills women need and want.

Law schools are also actively looking to address the diversity issue, noted Moran. “We work to recruit in different communities.”

That work, she added, appears to be paying off. “The profession is actually doing very well on some of these issues. I’m definitely seeing a lot of movement into law school, which I find very heartening.”

The numbers are also painting a more positive picture, noted Tonkin. “Statistics for licensing… candidates and calls to the bar for the past five years reflect increasing diversity of those entering the profession,” she said.

For example, from 2003 to 2007, women consistently made up more than 50 percent of all those called to the bar. But when it comes to other marginalized groups there is clearly more work to be done. The percentage of self-identified licensing candidates from racialized communities from 2003 to 2007 was in the range of 14.4 to 19 percent, while the number of Aboriginal candidates ranged from a measly 1.2 to 1.7 percent during the same time period. The number of Francophone candidates was a bit higher, making up between 4.1 to 6 percent of the total self-identified licensing candidates between 2003 and 2007.

“Law firms are way behind the business community in Canada and way behind law firms south of the border” when it comes to diversity, said Nkemdirim.

Thankfully, it seems, Canadian law firms are actively and enthusiastically trying to catch up now.

Reference: The Lawyers Weekly