Written by Navjot Kaur, 3L, University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law
As a law school student, after having gone through the OCI and other formalized work recruitment processes, I am compelled to reflect on my law school journey, the law firm “recruit culture”, and work in the legal profession.
As a visible minority first generation woman, I have a strong passion for social justice work. I actively pursue opportunities that seek to enhance and promote inclusion and diversity in the legal field. To me, being a lawyer means advocating and raising awareness on important issues, such as the need for diversity in the legal profession, including in gender, visible minorities, and economic status. This is a human rights and access to justice issue, which is important to acknowledge. I agree with Professor Trevor Farrow when he says “access to justice is the most pressing justice issue today.”
There are a lot of barriers which certain individuals encounter when they are trying to access justice, and the legal system. There are several challenges for lawyers in their workplaces as well, and often times questions on diversity in the legal profession/ legal employment setting are raised. Throughout my legal educational journey, I have met several lawyers, activists, scholars, students and other professionals who speak about these challenges and try to advocate for change. I hope to do the same someday as a lawyer, and this is one of the main reasons why I was passionate to write a blog on this topic.
Much has been written on the importance of diversity in the legal employment sector, and problems that currently exist in relation to diversity. Arleen Huggins, immediate Past President and Chair of the Advocacy Committee for the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL), and a partner at Koskie Minsky LLP says,“the legal profession in my view suffers from systemic issues which create barriers for many racialized/equity seeking law students and lawyers, and is lagging behind on proactively addressing equity and diversity issues.” Women and minorities lawyers are grossly underrepresented at the top, and overrepresented at the bottom of the profession. Women are also underrepresented in leadership positions, such as firm chairs and members of management and compensation committees. Gender disparities are similarly apparent in compensation. Compensation in law firms is often lower for lawyers of color, with minority women at the bottom of the financial pecking order. Further, employee attrition is highest for women of color; about 75 percent depart by their fifth year, and 85 percent before their seventh.
A Woman’s Place by Shannon Kari examines these problems and looks at the challenges many female lawyers experience in Canada. Kari is critical of the barriers to adequate parental leave for female lawyers, the mistreatment females experience in the courtroom, the difference in the balance of power between a male and female lawyer, and the forms of discrimination which are present for female lawyers at the time of hiring and career advancements. All these concerns raise human rights and Charter issues.
I believe that altering the current legal culture by introducing more diversity policies in the workplace, policies on retention, promotion, inclusion, harassment and discrimination are vital. Law firms need to have the right policies and laws in place to help minorities advance and succeed. This means having greater opportunities for minorities and helping them get into law school and beyond. Building communities of support, providing networking and mentoring to racialized lawyers will open doors. Law firms and the profession as a whole should no longer be representative of a small sample of the population; it needs to be reflective of all members in society.
Professor Shamnad Basheer from the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) created the IDIA Program- Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education. IDIA is a pan-India project which aims to empower underprivileged communities. IDIA trains students from marginalized communities, helps them get admission into law school and helps fund their education. Underprivileged groups are overlooked in India, and their experiences are similar to the experiences of several marginalized individuals in Canada. For instance, those in poor communities, Black individuals, Indigenous communities and immigrants often do not get the same opportunities, and struggle to succeed within society and institutions.
The Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) in Canada is a program similar to IDIA. Although it is not the full replica of IDIA, it demonstrates that we are making some progress towards the enhancement of diversity. LAWS is a collaborative education program designed to support, guide and motivate students who face barriers to success. It aims to help students who face challenges in accessing post-secondary education, attending law school and joining the legal profession. IDIA and LAWS helps improve policies and regulations in the area of inclusive legal education, diversity within law schools and, consequently, within the legal profession.
By improving diversity, these programs ultimately help enhance the rule of law and the practise of law. Diversity further betters the profession by breeding innovation, social harmony and equality. Many also believe that diversity promotes anti-oppression, which is in line with the rule of law. I agree with Raj Anand, partner at WeirFoulds LLP, when he says, “the change of the legal profession in makeup has taken place in the last 20 years, with a lot of anecdotal evidence of racism, individual and systemic, and individual incidents and individual concerns. We must root out systemic barriers and create lasting change by adopting a tool box for the professions that will promote equal recognition and respect for all of our members.”
Diversity in the legal profession is especially important for a country like Canada, which represents so many people, from so many diverse backgrounds. It is important that members of our community, especially those who are marginalized, those who belong to diverse groups and who historically did not have access to the legal system, are able to access a legal system which is not prejudice and misogynist. Without diversity in the legal profession, there is the risk that the legal profession will lose confidence of the public.
Lastly, reinforcing professional obligation by reviewing and amending the Rules of Professional Conduct, the Paralegal Rules of Conduct, and Commentaries to reinforce professional obligations to recognize, acknowledge and promote equality, diversity and inclusion consistent with human rights legislation is important. These changes, along with better policies in workplaces, will help eliminate bias and discrimination in the profession. Further, with the support of the LSO, introducing more programs which offer support to those who are marginalized, will help open doors for disadvantaged people. In all, bringing public awareness and shedding light on these issues is the step in the right direction to help foster diversity in the legal profession and our communities.
Navjot Kaur, “On Lack of Diversity in the Legal Profession” Canadian Law of Work Forum (June 9 2020): http://lawofwork.ca/?p=12662
Woolley, Cotter, Lawyers Ethics and Professional Regulation, 3rded (Toronto: Devlin Law, 2017) at 693.
Law Now, “Law Society of Ontario Targets Systemic Racism in the Legal Profession” (January 23 2020).
Rhode, Deborah L. & Ricca, Lucy Buford, “Diversity in the Legal Profession: Perspectives from Managing Partners and General Counsel: (2015) 5 Fordham REV 83 at 2.
Canadian Lawyer, “A Woman’s Place” (25 June, 2018).
KYABAE, “Legal education in India: How IDIA is revolutionizing it”, (January 24 2020).
University of Toronto, “LAWS (Law in Action Within Schools)” (2020).
Supra note 8.
New York Times, “Elite Law Firm’s All-White Partner Class Stirs Debate on Diversity”, (February 21 2020).
Supra note 8.