Diversity in the Legal Profession

Joy Casey
Barrister and Solicitor
T. 416-368-3847

Yolanda Coly
Coly Advocacy LLC
T. 312-545-7327

Put your money where your mouth is

In his online article for Canadian Lawyer in January of this year, Joel Stern, deputy general counsel and director of legal services North America for Accenture’s legal group, issued a challenge to Canadian lawyers.

As he had done in his keynote speech at A Call to Action Canada’s Summit in November 2009, Stern challenged Canadian law departments and law firms to build on the successes achieved in the U.S. and leverage what they have learned about promoting diversity and inclusion in the profession.

His message was reinforced during Accenture’s presentation at our second annual conference a couple of weeks ago, when he also encouraged us to learn from mistakes made in the U.S. and improve on the U.S. Call to Action by breaking new ground.

We fully intend to take Joel and others up on their generous offers to help us do just that.

A Call to Action Canada is an initiative started in early 2009 to advance diversity in the legal profession. ACTAC is inspired by the Call to Action, which was set in motion in the U.S. in 2004 by several chief legal officers at some of the largest U.S. and international corporations. Frustrated with the lack of progress for women and minority lawyers, they drafted a mission statement directed to senior in-house counsel, encouraging them to use their economic power and leverage as clients to ensure that their legal services suppliers demonstrate real progress on diversity or risk losing the business. Approximately 100 chief legal officers became signatories to that commitment on behalf of their organizations.

ACTAC’s mission statement has been adapted from the U.S. version. Corporate signatories pledge to:

(a) make decisions regarding which law firms represent their companies based in significant part on the diversity performance of the firms;

(b) look for enhanced opportunities for those firms which positively distinguish themselves in this area and end or limit retainers with firms who consistently show a lack of meaningful interest in being diverse; and

(c) look for opportunities to direct work to firms which are controlled by, or have a substantial number of, partners who are women or minorities.

Our mission statement is supported by such progressive corporations as Accenture, Deloitte, DuPont, and Royal Bank of Canada.

In response to Stern’s challenge and the valuable input from many others already involved in this effort, ACTAC is driving a number of initiatives to encourage and promote direct and strategic action by:

  • involving everyone, not just those who are at the top or bottom of an organization or at major firms;
  • working to develop pipeline programs to reach out to students at all levels, from elementary schools to law schools, to promote higher aspirations and empowerment through improved literacy and other skills and to provide insights, encouragement, and role models;
  • collecting a body of sample responses to request for proposals as they relate to diversity at firms, allowing us to develop and share best practices; and
  • creating a resource web site of women- and minority-owned law firms at cwmlf.ca.

With the help of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) in the U.S., whose managing director Yolanda Coly was also a presenter at the April 2010 conference, we encourage companies and law firms to direct a percentage of their work (including co-counsel, referral, and conflict work from law firms) to firms controlled by women and minorities.

The Canadian women and minority law firms web site will help ensure organizations can find experienced and diverse lawyers to suit their needs.

The advice from our colleagues in the U.S. is that, to be effective, diversity and inclusion programs need to have a buy-in from all levels of the organization, have clear and measurable personal and organizational goals, that progress must be tracked and measured, and that success should be rewarded.

Measuring success inevitably raises the issue of metrics and collecting law firm demographics. The October 2009 issue of Canadian Lawyer had a focus on diversity. In her column from the editor’s desk in that edition, Gail Cohen challenged law firms to “be brave” and show their numbers. The response to the challenge has been resounding silence. The idea of disclosing their demographics sends shivers through the major firms — and with good reason.

However, as our U.S. supporters know, programs that get measured get done and metrics are an essential part of measuring progress. It will not be a surprise to anyone in the profession in Canada to learn that the demographics of women and minorities at the upper levels of major firms are still dismal at this point.

ACTAC holds that we need to start the process of collecting data now and is working with others who are developing tools designed to gather and analyze such information. The purpose is not to attack firms on their current numbers but to establish benchmarks so progress can be tracked.

Moreover, how can any organization really understand its people and create a truly inclusive environment to attract and retain the best talent if it does not try to know who its people are?

Speaker after speaker at ACTAC’s conferences have argued eloquently and passionately that fostering diversity and creating an inclusive culture are not just the right things to do but are also smart business practices.

We encourage Canadian in-house counsel to become signatories to ACTAC’s mission statement and we welcome the active support and commitment of all lawyers in making sustainable change a reality.

Joy Casey is an independent practitioner, focusing on commercial litigation and employment law and also general counsel to Aurora Holdings Co. Ltd. and is the co-founder of A Call to Action Canada. For more information on the initiative, go to acalltoactioncanada.com.

Originally reported by the Canadian Lawyer