Thursday, April 11, 2019

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the Law Society of Ontario's Bencher Election

I will not be voting for any bencher candidates that do not fully and openly support equity, inclusion and diversity initiatives.  Here’s why.

I graduated from Queen’s University law school in 1983.  I was the only black student, and one of only a handful of racialized (non-white) students, in my class of 150.  One day, after I’d asked a question in a lecture, a classmate to whom I’d never spoken looked perplexed.  He asked me whether I was a foreign student.  No, I’m from Kitchener, I replied.  After second year of law school, I applied  for an articling position in Toronto.  During an interview, a partner of the firm said to me – “You’re black, you must come from a poor family.”  No, I’m from a pretty average, middle class family, I replied.  (My mother, although a single parent, was a psychology professor at the University of Guelph).  I didn’t get the articling position.  Several years into practice, a client who I was meeting for the first time looked at me, surprised, and said  “You didn’t sound black on the phone.”  Frankly, since the person was client I didn’t reply.  I just smiled (in a black sort of way).   A couple of years ago, I was attending a reception with judges of the Ontario Court of Justice, as a member of The Advocates’ Society’s board of directors.  I was the only racialized lawyer in a small group.  During introductions, one of the judges turned to me (and only me) and asked, “Are you a sole practitioner?”  No, I’m a partner in a 100 lawyer law firm I replied. 

I could go on, but you get my point.  More than 35 years later, I’m still being asked the same questions that, to some, may seem innocent, but to me are at best annoying and at worst offensive.  Whether or not they intended to so, all of these people put me in a position where I got my back up.  Suddenly, I was on the defensive, trying to justify why I was in the place that I was, doing what I was doing and speaking the way that I speak.  These questions and statements are examples of “unconscious bias”.  They made my “lived experience” so much different from the experience lived by for example, white, middle class law students from Kitchener.  

In the last two weeks of April, Ontario lawyers and paralegals will vote to elect benchers of the Law Society of Ontario (LSO).  These are the people that, over the next few years, will decide how to tackle the important issues that are presently facing the legal profession in our province.  In my view, equity, diversity and inclusion in the profession is one such issue.  The last convocation of benchers decided that the issue was important enough to establish a working group to address challenges faced by racialized licensees.  In 2016, the working group released a report that recommended a number of specific initiatives.  As one of the D&I initiatives, the LSO introduced a Statement of Principles (SOP).  Pursuant to the SOP, all licensees are required to create and abide by an individual SOP that acknowledges their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in their behaviour toward colleagues, employees, clients and the public.

Not surprisingly, following the LSO’s introduction of the SOP, there ensued a vigorous debate in the profession, including at my firm, about whether the SOP was somehow offensive because the LSO was purporting to dictate behaviour to intelligent, educated professionals.  Comments made to me went something like this:  How dare the LSO encroach on our independence and freedom of expression with some Orwellian principle?  Isn’t it trite to say that we all believe that that racism and discrimination are bad?  We don’t need the LSO to tell us that!  

Give me a break.  Sure. I agree that the LSO’s approach to the SOP is ham-fisted.  However, sometimes you need to be act with a fist to bring about change.  In my experience, attitudes simply don’t change with the passage of time.  People don’t magically become more enlightened. Real change happens because the people to whom it matters, simply refuse to accept the status quo.  If attitudes change, we’ve learned that the outward manifestation of those attitudes into meaningful action can be painstakingly slow.  It has proven to be the case in a profession that seems incredibly resistant to change.  In terms of diversity and inclusion,  the legal profession has not yet fully embraced the concept.

Racialized and other equity seeking lawyers still face disproportionate barriers in obtaining articling positions, and in the licensing process.  They continue to be underrepresented in proportion to Ontario’s population in legal workplaces and at all levels of seniority.  Lawyers like me are becoming impatient.  A speaker at a recent D&I seminar hosted by my firm told us that sometimes you need to be disruptive to accelerate the pace of change.

Inclusion is an important concept.  To feel included in the profession means a sense of pride and belonging.  It means feeling that your contributions as a member of the profession are respected and valued.  At the very least, it means not being subjected to annoying and inane comments and questions that require you to defend and justify your membership in the profession.  If the LSO doesn’t take up that cause on behalf of its licensees, who else is  going to do it?  We need to drag the profession into the 21st century, and sometimes being disruptive is the only way to accomplish that goal.

On an intellectual level, I can understand why some have a problem with the SOP.  On a practical level, I can’t fathom why some bencher candidates would invest the amount of time and energy it would take to make stopping the SOP the cornerstone of their platforms.  Whatever the reason, I will not be voting for any of them.



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