Diversity a Top Priority

Law firms continue to take action to address their diversity shortfalls
IN 2011, LEGAL LEADERS FOR DIVERSITY was launched in Canada with a mission statement that said its members value the perspectives, ideas and experiences that diversity provides, “whether grounded in gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, cultural background, religion or age.” There are currently 90-plus corporate signatories, including some of the largest names in corporate Canada, who have pledged, among other things, to promote it themselves, consider it in hiring and purchasing practices and to encourage Canadian law firms to follow their example.

Has it worked? A study released at the end of 2016 by the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion suggests, among other things, that a white male has “over seven times the odds showing for Racialized Woman Respondents” of making equity partner.

While Stewart McKelvey, in Atlantic Canada, is among the many law firms that signed a pledge, and places diversity and inclusion “at the top of our agenda when it comes to recruiting,” achieving equity is not an overnight proposition, says Karen Bennett-Clayton, the partner in charge of recruiting in the Halifax office. “You’re recruiting from law schools and the law schools have to bring the students into the school first, then they have to be attracted to your firm to apply.”

Stewart McKelvey does what it can to help. For example, it partners with the University of New Brunswick on $200,000 in scholarship programs aimed at boosting diversity, and it participates in an Indigenous articling program in conjunction with Dalhousie University law school, among other things. It also recently centralized its recruitment software, made it bilingual and, for the first time, invited applicants to self-identify based on gender, minority status, disability and sexual orientation. Bennett-Clayton says 26 per cent of 2017 applicants self-identified, and “25 per cent of the students we hired self-identified.”

Dentons Canada LLP also has multiple programs. It partners with the Toronto-based Black Business and Professional Association for a three-year renewable scholarship that provides $5,000 a year. “The way we recruit for that is we advertise the scholarships with all of our law schools” across the country, says Natasha Prasaud, Assistant Director of Professional Development and the firm’s student programs in Toronto. Prior to every recruitment period, the firm also invites someone from the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion to come in and train interviewers on how to recognize their own unconscious bias. “We do it every single time because we want to ensure diversity and inclusion are top of mind when we’re interviewing and reviewing applications. So that’s an interesting way to recruit with a diversity lens.”

Dentons also sponsors groups such as the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada, the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, the South Asian Bar Association and Start Proud (which used to be known as Out on Bay Street). The firm also provides the Royal Bank of Canada’s Aboriginal articling students with a litigation rotation because the bank is not in a position to offer a rotation in litigation. And in a recent initiative, Dentons has saved a spot in its student roster for someone who trained internationally because “it’s especially difficult for them to find articling positions when they’ve moved here.”

Dentons also sends lawyers and law students into high schools to liaise with grade 11 and 12 students in disadvantaged areas of Toronto as participants in the Law in Action Within Schools program, a collaboration of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, Osgoode Hall and the Toronto District School Board. “Sometimes [the lawyers] give presentations about what a corporate lawyer does. Sometimes they play dodge ball with them, or just provide mentorship. … We’ve been doing this for many years, but I think it’s one of the most valuable things we do here. Our articling students generally get involved in droves.”

Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP has also taken a proactive approach through its “pipeline initiative,” says Kari Abrams, the firm’s Director of Associate and Student Programs. The program, which is also done in partnership with University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall law schools, features panel discussions and question-and-answer sessions with lawyers and alumni from Blakes. She says the goal is to provide the undergraduate population, especially from minority communities, with information that actually encourages them to go to law school, with the aim of increasing the pipeline of minority students actually pursuing business-law careers.

So far Blakes has done just one panel with each of the two law schools, but there were more than 100 students attending each of them. The students seemed most interested in hearing the panelists’ stories about why they chose law, says Abrams, “because many had never really thought of law
particularly business law as a career path.”

Meeting someone like Poonam Puri, a professor at Osgoode who is a former associate dean and co-director of the Hennick Centre for Business and Law, is important. “She told her personal story. She said [there was a time] she didn’t know if she could do it
she hadn’t seen someone else in her family have a successful career in law that it was a leap of faith for her to do it. Just hearing how she didn’t think it was obtainable and seeing the success she attained in her career and how happy she is she did it, how much she enjoyed it, is a motivating factor to other people in the audience.”

Abrams says when she speaks to students, especially from minority communities, they often express a fear that they don’t know anyone in the profession, that they’re not sure if they can do it, so they don’t know if they should bother trying. Asked whether they express concern that they may end up being marginalized inside a corporate law firm, she says the topic doesn’t come up.

With diversity and inclusion so high on the agenda for so many firms, there may be a good reason for that.