Drivers of diversity in the legal profession

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It is common knowledge now that the legal profession in Canada is not reflective of the diversity of our population. Studies done in British Columbia, Toronto, Ontario, and Canada as a whole have all found a lack of diversity. What is causing this imbalance, and how can we change it?

Lack of diversity in the legal profession has often been attributed to a host of external socio-economic factors. This explanation leaves little active role for firms (or law schools), who are left to choose between the fairly homogenous group of candidates who reach their doors. Newer explanations for change, however, focus on both the “push” and “pull” reasons why firms should be active in promoting diversity.

First, clients are pushing their lawyers for more diversity. Individual clients may prefer lawyers would reflect their life experience. Legal Leaders for Diversity, a group of in-house counsel, have a mandate to “[consider] diversity in our hiring and purchasing practices.” A Call to Action Canada, another in-house organization, takes a similar mandate one step further, committing their members to:

[insist] that their outside law firms demonstrate a true commitment to, and real progress in, the full participation and advancement of women and minority lawyers within law firms; and limiting or terminating relationships with outside law firms which demonstrate a lack of interest in, and commitment to, being diverse and inclusive.

Second, promoting diversity may simply be good practice management. Working with heterogeneous teams can bring valuable viewpoints to the table and ensure the best ideas prevail. Meaningful diversity, said Dr Arin Reeves at the 2013 CBA Legal Conference in Saskatoon, “is not merely a matter of including a few people who don’t look like you on a team – it’s a matter of including them because you value their input, because you know they’ll bring something important to the table.” Research at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management found that “Ontario law firms are focusing too much on external factors in explaining their lack of diversity and should instead look inward to question why their ranks aren't more reflective of society.”

Talented candidates who don’t see themselves in big law (for diversity or other reasons) have an increasing range of alternatives. Traditional law firms now have to compete with alternative business structures (including virtual law firms) that provide an ample array of working options, often tailored to Generation Y lawyers. At the same time, we should ensure that “alternative” arrangements do not become “secondary” ones that women and minority groups are forced into: former Chief Justice Bora Laskin took contract work in his early years when he couldn’t find a firm that would hire a Jewish articling student.

Have thoughts on diversity in the Canadian legal landscape? Share them Tuesday, October 29 at 7pm EST during the fifth and final CBA Futures Twitter Chat, hosted by Omar Ha-Redeye. #cbafutureschat

October 25, 2013 |
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