What It Really Means for Lawyers to Commit – and to Refuse to Commit – to Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity
The public interest in a commitment to equality
The Law Society of Ontario’s (LSO) Statement of Principles (SOP) is intended to ensure that lawyers regulated by the LSO commit to equality, diversity and inclusivity. These are all rights guaranteed to Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The purpose of the SOP is to give each lawyer a responsibility to acknowledge this and, by implication, implement it (there is no monitoring by the LSO, and each firm is responsible for its own strategy).
The public should see itself reflected in the legal profession. The alienation and disillusionment experienced by many self-represented litigants (SRLs) is exacerbated by a profession that:
- spends so much time and energy arguing over the adoption of basic principles (even on a voluntary basis) that are already part of Canadian legal and social culture;
- does not reflect the diversity of SRLs because it remains predominantly white, middle class, Anglo-centric and male.
Why is it important for the public that the profession steps up to recognize equality, diversity and inclusivity as core principles for their work?
When I walk into a room, whether it’s a board room, a networking event, or a classroom, my eyes immediately search for non-white attendees. This is a habit I’ve had since I was very young – desperately searching my surroundings for someone who looks like me. There are many cases where I am the only person of colour in a room, and I am very used to it, but I feel, even though I am at ease in these situations, that my guard is up slightly, not due to fear, just an unconscious cautionary action. When I enter a room and find someone who is of African descent I have a burst of excitement, and then I feel calm.
Why is this? Because I instantly feel comfortable, I know I am not alone. I am more trusting of my surroundings, I feel that the people in the room will acknowledge me and my opinions, and that I will be heard. It’s strange, as I’m writing this, that this is how I feel in many situations. To think that when there is another person of colour in the room with me, I believe that the occupants must have “black” friends, and are open and understanding to other cultures, and therefore my opinion will matter to them.
I don’t doubt that SRLs from a multitude of cultural backgrounds feel this way when they enter a courthouse or a courtroom.
Canada is diverse, therefore, those who are tasked with representing Canadians should reflect that diversity. Representation of visible minorities in the justice system not only adds a much-needed layer of trust, but acts as a way to battle stereotypes and discrimination. Legal professionals play an important role in society, and a key part of this is that they should stand for equality and fairness. This will ensure that our legal system is represented by professionals from diverse backgrounds, which will only benefit the industry by bringing different perspectives and opinions to a very old, very white, and very male legal system.
One black female SRL told me: “Speaking to a black, female lawyer who can just understand my perspective with regards to race and gender is such a relief of weight off of my shoulders. I can talk about my experiences of racism and sexism without having to prove its existence, or deal with a white lawyer’s discomfort/anger from their personal bias or subjective views (this has happened to me). I can speak about my experience and have it acknowledged as my truth, and understood that it is real. With this knowledge and this understanding, I can receive honest advice. Do I have enough evidence to support my claim knowing how my race and gender will be viewed in the courtroom, especially if I am in conflict with a person who is white and male? In a perfect world, there would be lawyers of all races and genders available to represent their clients, and they would all understand anti-oppression power dynamics, and how that can play out in a courtroom.”
We’re living in the “Trump era of hate” where tolerance for hateful language – often claimed as a “free-speech” right – brings out the racist, fascist, sexist, and homophobic populations in full force. We don’t want our legal system to represent the narrow-minded, but a lack of diversity within the profession will do just that.
Digital media allows anyone to be a journalist. News spreads via phone, vlogs, blogs, influencers, and “fake news” publications, and that makes it harder and harder to filter through to factual, legitimate content. “Cyber-racism” is one significant outcome of this, and it is currently running rampant. It is too easy to spread mistrust and racial hate at the click of a button. The population is being culturally divided with ease, and it is rapidly leaking into the legal system. This system needed to change yesterday, and unfortunately now we’re playing catchup.
Saying that you are for inclusion and the elimination of cultural discrimination within the profession is one thing, but not until one can walk into a courthouse, and see non-white faces represented on the bench, and as counsel, will there truly be confirmation of real change.
4. Respecting legal standards in their own work
I’ve heard lawyers say that when they get a phone call from a SRL, they turn off the ringer and let it go to voicemail. They don’t want to deal with them because they have already decided that the SRL who is calling for their help is going to be a waste of their time and money, “vexatious”, or reaching out to a lawyer in order to sue them sometime in the future. This type of prejudice is not uncommon when it comes to SRLs.
One step in the right direction to combat prejudice is to ensure that law firms not only mandate diverse staffing strategies, but that they also be held accountable for their employment decisions, just like every other employer. I also believe that our legal educational institutions should be pushing for more diversity in the enrolment process, and offer networking opportunities that pay close attention to slashing cultural stereotypes and discriminatory policies and procedures. Diversity training is needed at the educational level so that students can better understand the needs of different ethnic groups, empathize with them, and apply non-prejudicial practices. Culture should not be a deciding factor in any situation, especially when it comes to the law. People should be comfortable in whatever environment they are in; their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or the colour of their skin should not matter. All anyone wants is fair and honest representation with no personal bias.
What the debate over the SOP is NOT addressing
The representatives of the Law Society of Ontario are wasting time in endless debates that focus on arguments about “compelled speech”. This does not serve the public interest, and provides another reason for growing skepticism about whether the legal profession cares at all about the public interest, or just their own interests and conveniences.
People who experience discrimination and exclusion have different priorities. They want lawyers to take care of them and stand up for their rights. They want lawyers to treat them with respect and take their experiences of prejudice seriously. They want the Law Society of Ontario to start focusing on making legal services representative of diversity, trustworthy, relevant, and respectful of existing legal obligations not to discriminate or to exclude.
— Moya McAlister, Communications Manager, NSRLP