Making equity front of mind

Written by  Gail J. Cohen Posted Date: November 2, 2009

Making equity front of mindLaw societies regulate the profession in the public interest. As such, is it up to the provincial law societies to be involved in improving and promoting diversity in the profession? If governing in the public interest means ensuring not only high standards of competence and learning but also ensuring the practice of law and provision of legal services are reflective of the all members of the public, then yes.


Many of the law societies across Canada are of that same mindset and have instituted programs to address equity and diversity. Almost all have at least some guidelines and policies around the issues as they relate to hiring, maternity leaves, harassment, and more.

Others have added an ombudsperson (usually an outside contractor, not a law society employee) to provide neutral and confidential assistance to lawyers, articling students, and support staff who want help resolving complaints of discrimination or harassment.

Often, the law societies will work one-on-one with law firms to come up with equity and diversity strategies to help them along the path. Help can be just a phone call away.

The law societies in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and, to a lesser degree, British Columbia, are doing the most. We will examine some of their programs and objectives.

The Law Society of Upper Canada is the largest in the country with Ontario arguably having the most diverse and multicultural populace. The LSUC reflects that with a vibrant and active equity and diversity program. Its push in this area began with the 1997 Bicentennial Report on Equity and Diversity in the Legal Profession.

“The law society decided to commit to enhancing or promoting diversity and equality in the profession as a way of promoting the interests of the public. We believe that it is important for our profession to reflect the multicultural society that we serve,” says Josée Bouchard, the LSUC’s equity adviser.

The law society has built programming around 16 broad-based recommendations from the report, such as promoting equality in any policy development work it does.

That means “including equality and diversity in our education programs and our research programs, and internally at the law society as the employer,” says Bouchard.

Her equity initiatives department has five staff plus an articling student. In addition, there is also a committee of benchers mandated to direct research and develop policies to promote equity and diversity in the profession.

On top of that, the LSUC has an advisory group of lawyers from the profession that includes representatives from the South Asian Bar Association, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, the Women’s Law Association of Ontario, the Association of French Speaking Jurists of Ontario, and others.

In 2010, the LSUC begins in earnest to collect statistical data on the makeup of the legal profession in Ontario.

“In at least [the last] five years, we have asked a self-identification question in most of the surveys and studies that we’ve done with the legal profession,” says Bouchard. “And we have had a very good response rate.”

Next year, the LSUC will begin asking lawyers to voluntarily self-identify on its annual members report if they are part of an equity-seeking group.

“It is important in our view to have that type of information, to have a full picture of what the legal profession looks like, what the gaps are, to really be able to develop programming for the profession. And so that’s where this idea all came about.”

The aggregated numbers from those statistics will also provide benchmarks so that when law firms start collecting similar information, they can compare themselves to the profession as a whole, she says.

The Barreau du Québec starting collecting statistics on its annual members form last year. Only the answers to age and gender are mandatory. Aggregate results of the equity and diversity questions are made public.

“I know that law firms were interested in [the numbers] because when they are hiring, they want to know ‘Well what’s out there? Who’s out there in terms of women or minorities?’” the barreau’s equity adviser Fanie Pelletier told Canadian Lawyer before she went on maternity leave.

“But also to us it is very useful to know who are they, where are they, what are they doing because it’s useful for outreach. . . . We know where they work. . . . We also know where they are.

“With no surprise, three out of four is in Montreal, but we know, you know, where they are. Also, it’s useful for us because we can identify the barriers.”

Pelletier says the barreau is taking this information, along with many of the lessons it learned about promoting women in the legal profession, to try to put out the message that those same changes should apply to everyone.

 

Nova Scotia finds itself in a somewhat different position than other provinces.

The equity officer position at the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society was created as a direct response to recommendations from the inquiry into the wrongful conviction of Mi’kmaq man Donald Marshall Jr. It concluded the justice system in the province was rife with racism and discrimination.

“One of the recommendations certainly was that it is absolutely crucial that we increase the diversity in the legal profession,” says Emma Halpern, the NSBS’s equity officer.

That includes Crowns, defence, policing, and all levels of the system as well as the regulator, she adds.

“We want to know that we are becoming a more representative bar and that we’re becoming more representative of the population that we serve here and the clients that we have,” says Halpern.

Uniquely in Nova Scotia, it is mandatory for lawyers to answer demographic questions on their annual member forms. Members may, however, pick the “I choose not to answer this question” option.

“The only way to [ensure a more representative bar] is to track it on some level and then to see year to year if we’re continuing to become more diverse rather than going the other direction,” says Halpern.

In addition, she says, “it really helps for me because my job is to create programs and policy that encourages equity in the profession and that act to try and combat discrimination in the profession. So it’s really important for me to have those numbers.”

As well, law firms are required to have employment equity policies and report their statistics on gender, visible minorities, aboriginals, disabled people, and others to the NSBS if they want to work for the provincial government.

 

That report looks at the numbers of lawyers in the firm broken down into specific groups such as indigenous black, Mi’kmaq, persons with disabilities, women, and visible minorities. Respondents must report on the firm’s overall profile, student and articling clerk recruitment, associate appointments, and partner promotion by breaking them all down into categories.

The bar in Nova Scotia may be small but it does by far collect the most comprehensive demographic information as both the NSBS and law firms are doing it at different levels.

While the firms are the first to admit they are not the most diverse — in part because their pool of candidates isn’t as wide as Ontario’s — the process does put the issues at front of mind.

“I think having this questionnaire that you must fill out forces you to focus on the issue of ‘have we done this?’” says Suzanne Rix, the professional personnel partner at Cox & Palmer in Halifax.

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