What Do We Really Mean, When We Talk About Diversity?

The business case for diversity is a strong one, says Omar Ha-Redeye, but paradoxically it rarely encourages change.

The issue of diversity – or the lack of it – extends across most spheres but studies have shown the legal profession to be a particularly noted offender; Dr. Arin Reeves, speaking at the 2013 CBA Legal Conference in Saskatoon this summer said this is the case no matter the country.

Diversity was the topic of the fifth weekly CBA Futures Initiative Twitterchat Tuesday night. Moderator Ha-Redeye encouraged participants to discuss the reasons for the lack of diversity in the profession, and to suggest ways to improve representation.

James Wegener, a law student at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., says during his on-campus interviews “EVERY SINGLE firm had diversity and inclusion as part of their core values,” but he couldn’t say whether that was just a recruitment tactic.

“Firms state that they value diversity. Whether that translates into accepting more diverse applicants, I do not know,” he said.

Wegener said while “history makes me hesitant,” he assumes the legal field will look different in 20 years.

“Reason for assumption: the global direction is forcing the hand of employers despite any reluctance.”

When you look at the top tier of the big firms, little progress seems to have been made on the diversity front, says Monica Goyal, a legal entrepreneur and founder of My Legal Briefcase.

Many firms say they look for someone who will “fit” into the culture, but Goyal says, “’Fit’ seems to be code for non-inclusion.”

Sherif Rizk, an Egyptian and a “lawyer-in-progress” at Ottawa University, said the majority need to show a commitment to equity, if for no other reason than it strengthens faith in the justice system for people to see themselves represented in its players.

That said, diversity “just gets left on the table in hard economic times,” Rizk added.

Jonathan MacKenzie, who works with Aluvion Law in Toronto, said diversity is “unfortunately not an issue I think a lot about – and I think this is part of the problem: not enough emphasis on being proactive in the area, (so it’s) easy to ignore.”

MacKenzie said he went to law school in the U.K. where the enrolment seemed to be representative of the population. Asked if Canadian law schools needed to have more diversity initiatives like this one at City University of New York, which is aimed at Black and Latino youths, he said, “I love initiatives like these but only if they don’t exist in a vacuum. Need to attack root causes.”

Goyal agrees. In Toronto, where a large part of the population comes from “underrepresented” communities, “doesn’t the lack of representation speak to structural issues?” she asks.

“I think lack of diversity in legal profession is microcosm of inequalities in society,” MacKenzie said. “Negative feedback loop of perception and socio-economic circumstances.”

Steve Payette, a McGill law student, picked up on this idea of perception in responding to a question about what the workforce looks like for members of historically under-represented groups.

“Not promising, as a 2L (with a) disability,” he said. “Diversity initiatives tend to overlook disability,” which can still be an obstacle to employment.

“Even with best intentions, (acceptance of a disability) depends on (employer’s) past exposure to imagine fit-ness in firm,” Payette said. “Uphill battle.”

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Comments

  1. I agree that diversity initiatives commonly exclude disability. When firms talk about “diversity”, they are not including disability in that term. I think this is because disability is perceived to be more difficult and “messier” to incorporate into traditional firm structures. I think diversity means being open and flexible to doing things in more than one way. Law can become more inclusive if the traditional and rigid office model is changed to allow for employees to have control over their schedules, their technology preferences, work environment, etc.