Walking the talk on diversity

Hiring counsel from a certified 'diverse' law firm can pay off from a business standpoint as well

THE AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS era has been instrumental in the shaping and reconfiguring of commercial discourse in North America. Shortly after 1965, the year in which public segregation was outlawed, minority business ownership began to increase. However, many minority-owned businesses continued to be overlooked for contract consideration.

In an attempt to resolve this inequity, organizations were created in North America to liaise between minority-owned businesses, including law firms. Although the strategy has met with some success, minority-owned firms still struggle to secure legal contracts.

A law firm is considered a “diverse” supplier if it is at least 51% owned and operated by women or visible minorities. To receive a certification as a diverse firm, it must meet the individual qualifications set out by the certifying organization. This organization will engage the firm in an in-depth vetting process that consists of interviews, an assessment of the firm’s financial status, professional references and a verification of the firm’s diverse ownership.

The business case: Why should a corporation retain a diverse firm?

In recent years there has been a significant push for corporations to retain law firms that are owned by women and/or minorities. At the fore of the argument is the idea that businesses with diverse supply chains can improve the public’s perception of a company’s integrity. By extension, representation by diverse firms, particularly in small legal matters, may provide a fiscal benefit to these companies, as legal fees from a smaller firm (as diverse firms tend to be) are likely to be lower due to a lower overhead. Expanding the pool of legal service providers to include diverse firms naturally results in more competition amongst suppliers as well as innovation. 

Our commercial litigation firm, Walker Law, has received three certifications. As the proprietor, I am the first black elected female bencher from Toronto in the 220-year history of the Law Society of Ontario. Since receiving these certifications, we have been retained by several large and Fortune 500 companies for representation in smaller legal matters.

Earlier this year, we received an award from WEConnect International in Washington, D.C. as a result of a nomination by one of the Fortune 500 companies we represented. Our clients appreciate that although we are strong advocates for them in court, we promote solutions that minimize risk and cost.

Despite this, when participating in interviews to obtain clients we have heard many reasons why small, diverse firms are not able to represent corporations. A popular misapprehension is that small firms lack the capacity to complete the work that is required by large companies. Yet our clients who have retained us can attest to the opposite. We have curtailed any capacity issue through strategic partnerships.

The most frequent argument we have heard against hiring a diverse law firm is that the corporation is resistant to change. This is understandable if the company has retained the same law firm on all matters for many years, and we have found that some companies are not interested in new law firms submitting applications to represent the company. Others have plainly stated that they understand the lack of diversity is a concern in our profession, but it is of no concern to them.

It is doubtful that any law firm wants to be hired solely due to the demographics of the owner rather than on the firm’s merit and ability. Placing barriers, such as not having an application process to represent the corporation, prevents a law firm from having the opportunity to provide diverse representation. 

The Law Society of Ontario’s recently released diversity and inclusion initiatives send a message that systemic discrimination in regards to race and sex is a problem in our profession, and we must all work together to curtail it. Ideally certifications will no longer be needed one day, as corporations will provide a transparent process for representation that is open to all.

Tanya Walker is a Lexpert 2018 Rising Star. She is the owner and managing partner of Walker Law Professional Corporation, a commercial litigation boutique firm in downtown Toronto. Tanya is a Bencher of the Law Society of Ontario and is certified by the Law Society of Ontario as a specialist in civil litigation.