Seeing Diverse Lawyers Survive and Thrive

  • November 26, 2018
  • Sabrina A. Bandali

On November 28, 2018, the annual Roundtable of Diversity Associations (RODA) conference, held in partnership with the OBA, brought together lawyers who care about diversity and inclusion to learn and network with one another.  RODA itself was formed five years ago to establish, in the words of incoming RODA chair and conference co-chair, Dina Awad, “an ongoing relationship between associations seeking diversity within the legal community so that we can celebrate, promote, and encourage diversity within the legal profession, on the bench, and beyond.” This year's conference, Accelerating a Culture Shift in the Legal Profession, took a fresh approach to advancing that objective by focusing on hot topics that have been making headlines in the media and waves in the legal profession.

The Law Society's Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group report made 13 recommendations, some of which struck a nerve with members of the profession. The recommendations were hotly debated between lawyers who were opposed to measures like the statement of principles requirement, and lawyers who said the recommendations did not go far enough. After a year of experience with the new requirements, it is an opportune time to reflect on what they have and have not been able to achieve. A panel of lawyers with front-row seats to the controversy seized the opportunity to reflect on what actual compliance looks like, and the issues that lawyers, their firms, and the Law Society have faced in implementing strategies to combat discrimination.

In addition to keynote speakers such as Justice Jasmine Akbarali, the conference offered two parallel tracks: one focused on careers, and the other focused on substantive law. As part of the career track, there were sessions on activist lawyering, featuring recent mayoral candidate Saron Gebresellassi, Renatta Austin, Dania Majid and Prasanna Ranganathan, and on trends and opportunities in legal recruitment. On the substantive side, leading practitioners weighed in on racism in human rights law and the #MeToo movement.

For OBA professional development lawyer, Angelin Soosaipillai, plenary sessions such as the one on Mental Health in Law strike a personal note. As the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants, Soosaipillai reflected, "I had not considered how I might have internalized the stress and trauma that my parents would have experienced as new immigrants from a war-torn country." Among other things, the mental health session focused on exploring the effect of trauma in immigrant communities, as well as supporting lawyers with mental health issues and the relationship between mental health support and the retention of diverse lawyers.

As the legal profession wrestles with what inclusion means, and how creating inclusive workplaces might change how we practice, we also have to grapple with how systemic exclusion permeates our understanding of what law is. Lori Mishibinijima and Jodie-Lynn Waddilove led a plenary session on Indigenous legal traditions and laws, exploring the distinction between Canadian law and Indigenous legal traditions and laws, how these laws work in tandem, and the role the legal profession can play in building greater understanding and awareness.

Although sessions on diversity and inclusion can often focus on younger lawyers, senior lawyers have joined the conversation this year more than ever. As of the beginning of November, 32 per cent of registrants had 30+ years in practice, and 28 per cent were between 11 and 29 years of practice.

According to conference co-chair, Fernando Garcia, the annual RODA conference continues to be an important forum to bring like-minded lawyers together. "Not only do we hear from influential speakers and learn from each other, but we also come together as one community with one interest: putting diversity and inclusiveness on the agenda!"

About the author

Sabrina Bandali is chair of the OBA’s Equality Committee.