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Committing to diversity

Ontario Lt. Gov. David Onley endorses general counsel initiative
|Written By Andi Balla
Committing to diversity
Rajeev Sharma, vice president and general counsel at Ricoh Canada Inc., signs the Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusiveness initiative. Photo: Andi Balla

In-house lawyers at some of Canada’s largest companies have committed to lead efforts to give minorities, including people with disabilities, more access to jobs.

Launched May 11 in Toronto, the Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusiveness initiative has 40 general counsel signing a pledge to promote diversity within their own departments and consider diversity in their hiring and purchasing practices. The move will also encourage Canadian law firms to follow their clients’ example.

The initiative has gained the backing of Ontario Lt. Gov. David Onley, who has made workforce access for people with disabilities a key goal as the Queen’s representative in the province. Onley is Ontario’s first lieutenant governor with a disability. He battled polio as a child and was left partially paralyzed.

In a speech at the event, Onley told the corporate counsel in attendance the commitment to diversity needs to trickle down from the top, so he fully supports their efforts.

“Barriers to hiring people with disabilities continue to exist,” said Onley, giving a series of examples of highly qualified people with disabilities who couldn’t find a job even though their skills were in high demand. “It is a waste of talent. We have this pool of talented people who can’t get past the HR interview . . . and on the other hand we have a labour shortage.”

Onley also said many myths about people with disabilities in the workplace are simply wrong. “All of the studies . . . prove conclusively that the absentee rate is lower and the job retention rate is higher, and in many cases is much higher,” he said.

Ken Fredeen, general counsel at Deloitte & Touche LLP, whose offices served as venue for the meeting, said the idea came out of the small group of in-house counsel who wanted to make a difference. Since the initiative became public, there have been a lot of offers for support. It is a co-operative effort that will soon lead to an official structure, he added.

“This is not about just doing the right thing, but it is the business case,” Fredeen said. “It really came out of an interest where general counsel can own a diversity agenda that has a Canadian approach. I’d like to think Canadians do things differently. I’d like to think [we do them] better. We are creative thinkers as lawyers, and this should be natural for us.”

In addition to Fredeen, other signatories included heavy hitters like David Allgood of Royal Bank of Canada, Av Maharaj of Kellogg Co., Dorothy Quann of Xerox Canada Ltd., Simon Fish of BMO Financial Group, Kevin Derbyshire of DuPont Canada, and Melissa Kennedy of Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

Those who sign, pledge to reach out to their peers and urge them to commit to building a diversity plan, to offering diversity coaching as part of their corporation’s leadership training, and putting diversity progress on the quarterly agenda.

The commitment also extends to using law firms and suppliers that are either minority-owned or reflect a commitment to diversity. In-house lawyers, particularly those at big companies, are some of the biggest clients of legal services, so they have a lot of clout in the larger community. As a result, the initiative is likely to have a large impact on the Canadian legal industry as a whole, say organizers.

A similar initiative, A Call to Action Canada, began three years ago building on A Call to Action, which was started by a group of corporate counsel in the United States in 2004. It is holding its third annual conference tomorrow, May 17, in Toronto. Look for more coverage on that event in this week’s Law Times.

  • Julian W. Bodnar Settlement Counsel *Mediator*Arbitrator

    Julian Bodnar
    As a lawyer living with circumstances of disability, I empathize with Mr. Vlug’s comments. I am a sole practitioner going into my 30th year of practice. I too have observed and experienced barriers and discriminatory practices related to virtually all aspects of the practice of my profession, and the administration of our systems of justice; sometimes finding it to become even more pronounced when I took issue with the presence and sources of the discrimination. But for my personal endurance and adaptation to the obstacles I have faced, I would have given up long ago. As a profession, we need to demonstrate both leadership, and action on this point. Indeed I welcome this initiative, but I too hope that it will not be relegated to being just another study to confirm what we already know.

    Julian Bodnar
  • QC (retired)

    Henrly Vlug
    Big talk. And it has been said before. Excuse me if I am skeptical - just being realistic.

    Lawyers with disabilities often give up - just too damn much discrimination against them. They get through law school without adequate accommodation. They struggle to get articling positions. They can't find employment with any firms. And so on.

    I just retired after almost 25 years as a sole practitioner serving my community, the Deaf.

    Henry Vlug, QC retired