Cynthia Aoki of Clyde & Co discusses why inclusion matters

In this interview, Cynthia Aoki will discuss her vision for equity and diversity in the legal profession, including steps she is taking at Clyde & Co’s new office in Calgary to build a culture of inclusion and innovation, which are also the leading principles of their three other Canadian offices.

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Greg: [00:00:08] 

Hello, welcome to Lexpert TV. I'm Greg: Hudson, Clyde & Co , one of the world's preeminent insurance and corporate law firms recently opened a new office in Calgary, Alberta. We took that as an opportunity to speak with partner Cynthia Aoki about her vision for diversity, inclusion and equity, both for her new Calgary office and for the legal profession in general. Cynthia, thank you so much for being with us today. 

Cynthia: [00:00:35] Thank you very much, Greg. This is a really exciting time for us.  

Greg: [00:00:39] First of all, congratulations on the new office. What are your plans for the city? 

Cynthia: [09:00:44] We're happy to be here in Calgary and open Clyde and Co's office. Clyde and Co now have offices in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. We're relatively new. We opened in October of 2022. And in starting Clyde and Co's Calgary office, the three partners and I were able to provide services that align with Clyde and Co globally. Our office provides services in all areas of commercial litigation, insurance defense litigation, and also coverage opinions. I focus my practice on casualty claims, product liability, professional liability, which include health care and regulated health professionals, along with employment practices liability claims. In the eight months, we've grown significantly, and we're now 13 lawyers, we're continuing to grow. And our office represents many areas of diversity, and we're happy to be able to provide effective and exceptional services to our clients. 

Greg: [00:01:48] Broadly speaking, what does ED&I mean to you for the legal profession? 

Cynthia: [00:01:54] That is a really important question. I was born in Toronto, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world. And when I started practicing law in Toronto, in around 2009 2010, there was discrimination. People worked individually racist, sexist, or homophobic. I probably went against what a stereotypical lawyer look like, I'm a woman. I'm Asian, and I'm queer. So what happened was that people reacted in a certain way, because they were likely not able to reconcile what I look like, and what a lawyer ought to look like, for example, I was mistaken as a court reporter, or the interpreter regularly at examinations for discovery or questionings. And I was also mistaken as a self-represented litigant in court. And so it's important that our profession changes the stereotype of what a lawyer looks like. And this is not just did our profession. But this work needs to happen in the public realm. I want to highlight though, that things are changing. And because I'm seeing more and more diverse lawyers, and we're all collectively changing what a lawyer can look like. I had a great discussion the other day with two queer lawyers of color, and we're talking about who we could feature in the LGBTQ community as part of Canadian defense lawyers. And it was so encouraging because we could come up with other names other than the three of us speaking about pride. Clyde and Co recently hosted our annual Pride event in Toronto Earlier in June. And it was a huge success. Over 80 clients attended. The whole event had about 120 attendees. So it was really nice to feel supported and seen at the firm. 

Greg: [00:03:55] What have you noticed, law firms do well in this area, and what could they improve upon? 

Cynthia: [00:04:01] I think that is a great question. If we try to examine our legal profession, or even a law firm, like an ecosystem, diverse ecosystems make for a more sustainable environment. Diversity, biodiversity is a good thing. It helps to make the environment more resilient, and it allows for growth. If you take the opposite of biodiversity, it leads to a vulnerable ecosystem that's more susceptible to collapse. Even if we look at how the human body has evolved, our immune system does not just have one type of cell. We have multiple cells, we have T cells, B cells, natural killer cells, and each type of cell has a different specific function. And they all work in unison to try and protect the body. And I know that these are all signs and analogies, but my background is Human Biology and neuroscience. So this is what I tend to tend to think about. And this is how I think in terms of analogies. So if we go back to law, multiple perspectives allow for the same issue to be resolved in different ways. A perspective from a different angle could allow for a novel legal argument to take place, and that could lead to success. One thing I am finding is clients are now demanding more diversity through their RFPs and RFIs. Now, going back to your question, what are firms doing in terms of ED&I? I think it's really important. I think it's great that firms are now talking and discussing ED&I issues. And many firms do have policies in place. However, I think it's important that firms have followed through on what they say they're going to do in terms of ED&I. If a firm for example, states that yes, the ED&I is important to them. But then ultimately, the firm looks homogenous, they're likely not taking any steps to implement changes to increase diversity at that firm.  

Greg: [00:06:16] As a partner, what are you doing individually to help with these initiatives? 

Cynthia: [00:06:22] One thing I want to highlight is that we want to try to avoid performative diversity. And I think it's important to be able to engage in diversity initiatives in a tangible and practical way. There are a number of ways that Clyde and Co is doing this. So number one in North America, we have employee resource groups, known as ERGs, also known as affinity groups, we have leap, leading and empowering Asian professionals. I'm a member of that group, Clyde bar, block awareness resource group, GECO, Gender Equality at Clyde and Co for business and services, Pride and Co. I'm a member of that group, Parent and Carer network and finally, North American Women's initiative. I'm a member of that group as well. And each of these ERGs allow for the firm to build a community and network in a safe and welcoming environment. Secondly, Clyde has also recently implemented a family life policy worldwide, which allows for new parents to access full pay 26 weeks of family leave, and this is regardless of gender. What's gonna be important for each of these offices and individually is to change the narrative around parental leave. It does not need to be referred to as maternity leave, as that sends a message that only women ought to be taking these sorts of leaps. I always find it interesting how the use of language can influence and change behavior. Another initiative is Clyde and Co’s pro bono initiatives. For lawyers, Clyde has a program where they will recognize up to 60 hours of pro bono work towards your billable target, of which 24 of those 60 hours can be for no non pro bono work and other initiatives. And finally, in addition to all of this, Clyde has regular education articles and webinars both regionally and globally, where we all try to learn about ED&I initiatives. 

Greg: [00:08:46] Could you speak to some of the Canada wide initiatives you're working on? 

Cynthia: [00:08:50] One of the things I tried to do is actively question the unconscious bias and hiring and retention policies for both lawyers and staff. I also ensure that my voice and marginalized voices are reflected in the decision making process. And in order to do so, I need to listen to those marginalized voices. And I need to continue to question and change the status quo. Inside the firm, I am co-chair of Pride and Co I'm co-vice chair of the North American Women's initiative, and I'm a member of the North American D&I steering committee. In terms of leadership outside the firm, I am co-chair  of the Insurance Committee for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and I'm also a board member of Canadian defense lawyers. I'm very excited to continue to grow Clyde's Calgary office in a diverse, equitable and inclusive manner. 

Greg: [00:09:56] Thanks again for speaking with us, Cynthia and have a great pride and congratulations on the new office in Calgary 

Cynthia: [00:10:03] Thank you very much 

Greg: [00:10:04] Thank you for watching Lexpert TV I'm Greg Hudson