The Law Society is implementing various recommendations approved by Convocation in December 2016 to address barriers faced by racialized licensees and to address issues of systemic racism in the legal profession.
The requirements include an obligation to create and abide by an individual Statement of Principles, which is developed by the law firm and acknowledges the professional’s obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in his or her behaviour towards colleagues, employees, clients and the public.
Additionally, each legal workplace of at least 10 licensees in Ontario is required to develop, implement and maintain a Human Rights/Diversity Policy for their legal workplace addressing, at the very least, fair recruitment, retention and advancement. The Law Society will ask all licensees to report on both the Statement of Principles and the Human Rights/Diversity Policy in their 2017 Annual Report.
I interviewed three partners at three different law firms to find out what steps their firms have taken in preparation to meet these new requirements.
Asha James is the Managing Associate at Falconers LLP and is in charge of general firm management.
Nadia Campion is a Partner at Polley Faith LLP and is responsible for policies, recruitment and associate mentoring.
Dean Ardron is a Partner at Ursel Phillips Fellows Hopkinson LLP and is a member of the Firm’s Human Resources committee.
The following is an edited and condensed version of my interviews with these three lawyers.
What steps have you taken to develop a Human Rights/Diversity Policy for your firm?
Asha James – Our firm has fewer than 10 lawyers so we are not required to implement a Human Rights/Diversity Policy, but these are important issues to us so we wanted to anyways. We reviewed the Interim Report and Final Report of the Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group and engaged in various discussions in the office about difficulties people at our firm had trying to find articling and associate positions. These conversations took place informally and we tried to figure out what kinds of things were important to us. We had an older human rights policy at the firm, but we have made some updates.
Nadia Campion – We already have a diversity policy that has been in place at our firm for some time. Our firm is very aware of these issues and very active in ensuring that diversity is promoted. One of the goals of the policy is to ensure that everyone that is interviewed is afforded an equal opportunity and that no distinctions are made based on the grounds you would find in the Human Rights Code.
Dean Ardron – We view this as an opportunity to promote diversity within the firm and formalize practices we have had in place for some time. We had a pre-existing Human Rights Policy, which we have augmented to meet the new requirements. The policy now addresses inclusion with respect to recruitment of prospective employees, as well as current employees as they advance within the firm.
What are the Policy Objectives in your Human Rights/Diversity Policy?
Asha James – Reconciliation is an important objective for us. Another thing we strive to do is to create an environment where we foster mentorship, especially for people who identify as visible minorities or First Nations lawyers. Although this is more of a principle than a policy, we also strive to create and foster an atmosphere where we encourage lawyers to participate in career development opportunities focused on specific visible minority groups or focused on women in the law. We encourage participation in legal associations that promote diversity and equity.
Nadia Campion – Our policy is aimed at guaranteeing equal opportunities for all members of the firm and creating a workplace that is free of discrimination, not only for members of the firm but also for those seeking employment at the firm. Our policy recognizes the systemic nature of discrimination and outlines our firm’s commitment to taking positive measures to ensure that employment opportunities for members of the firm and those seeking employment at the firm are equally available to all.
Dean Ardron – The purpose of our policy is to set out a commitment and strategy for establishing and maintaining a diverse workplace with respect to the grounds protected by human rights legislation. Our policy recognizes individuals who have historically been excluded from the profession.
Does your Human Rights/Diversity Policy prioritize diversity and inclusion in hiring, promotion and retention decisions?
Asha James – Our firm is very diverse, we have more female lawyers than males, we have a First Nations lawyer, a First Nations articling student and lawyers of colour. Because of the type of work we do, including a lot of First Nations work and work on state accountability, we tend to get lawyers who apply from more diverse backgrounds. We informally see diversity in hiring at our firm but it has not been part of a formal policy. We participate in a third year placement program with the law school at Lakehead University, which has a focus on Aboriginal and Indigenous law. Through that program we have had our third First Nations placement student working at our firm.
Nadia Campion – Our firm is growing, we have just started recruiting and the issue of diversity is at the top of our mind. Our firm is trying to promote people who have been historically disadvantaged, including women and people of different sexual orientations and people of diverse backgrounds. Regarding retention, our firm has a parental leave policy that is designed to encourage and promote both men and women to take parental leaves, and to ensure that lawyers who take parental leave will not be subject to criticism, looked at negatively, or be impacted in any way with regard to promotion decisions.
Dean Ardron – The policy applies to all stages and aspects of the employment cycle, with a focus on enhancing inclusion and diversity at the firm through various processes including providing accommodation, mentoring, facilitating mentoring programs outside of the firm and establishing and maintaining associations with equity seeking groups. An associate at our firm, Saneliso Moyo, recently organized a firm tour and information session for law students in Osgoode’s Black Law Students Association. This is an initiative we hope to be able to continue each year.
Are you using the Law Society Statement of Principles template or creating your own?
Asha James – We reviewed the template and in addition we are trying to incorporate things that are of importance to our firm. For example, recognizing the process of reconciliation and the importance of reconciliation to our firm both in the work we do and in our hiring practices.
Nadia Campion – We think the Law Society precedent is very good and comprehensive, and we intend to incorporate the concepts outlined in the Statement into our firm policy.
Dean Ardron – Our Statement of Principles is an adoption of the Law Society template.
Do you think this Law Society initiative will help to reduce the barriers created by racism, unconscious bias and discrimination that racialized licensees face?
Asha James – I hope so. I think if this is something firms take seriously and are invested in, then it would make a difference. If it works the way it is intended to work you will see a culture shift where instead of this being something people need to train themselves to do, it becomes a way of how people think. People will start to understand that diversity in the workplace is a good thing and is beneficial to everyone. Hopefully in 10 years from now it will be more like it is at our firm; we have a policy and are committed to it, but it’s something that takes place in our office very naturally.
Nadia Campion – I do, I am very supportive of it. I think it operates as a reminder to people that they need to keep an open mind and do what they can to assist in resolving what is a systemic problem. I also think it will encourage people to think about what active steps they can engage in to help address this issue. We need to think through these issues more carefully and this initiative forces people not to just pay lip service to it, but to actually do something about it.
Dean Ardron – I think this is a good initiative and that it is useful for people in the profession to turn their mind to these issues. For us, this initiative is really formalizing things we have been doing informally for a long time, but it is always valuable to send a message to racialized communities that the profession is looking to be more inclusive.
About the author
Ashley Schuitema is a lawyer at Ursel Phillips Fellows Hopkinson LLP. Her practice focuses on the representation of trade unions, associations and employees. Ashley can be contacted at email@example.com.
This article was originally published for the Ontario Bar Association Constitutional, Civil Liberties & Human Rights Law Section. Access more great content like this by joining the Section today!