The Path to Pride
The year is 2001. The legal profession in Ontario is in disarray after several law students at the University of Toronto’s law school were caught fraudulently altering their grades to secure prestigious Bay Street summer positions. Many of these students were disciplined. Yet, in the eyes of the legal priesthood, this also necessitated a macro-level response.
Accordingly, some of the profession’s best and brightest were corralled together under the leadership of the then-Chief Justice of Ontario, Roy McMurtry, to define the elements of professionalism for lawyers. Understandably, the Advisory Committee on Professionalism, as it was called, crafted an answer that was, arguably, tailor-made for the University of Toronto scandal. As the Committee conceptualized it, professionalism includes principles such as scholarship, integrity, honour, collegiality, and balanced commercialism.
Its definition of professionalism, however, also included pride. More specifically, the Committee found that becoming a lawyer “is to engage in an activity that draws heavily on historical tradition that is modern and dynamic. Lawyers take pride in both their past and current contribution to society” (p5).
At face value, the inclusion of pride within the definition of professionalism is reasonable. I have met and encountered many law students who hold an earnest desire to speak truth to power and serve as zealous advocates for some of our society’s most marginalized and vulnerable groups.
And yet, this rhetorical chest-thumping about the positive impact lawyers have had presents an extremely rosy picture of the history of the legal profession in Ontario.
Most notably, the appeal to lawyers and law students to take pride in lawyers’ “contribution to the public good” (p6) overlooks the fact that the profession itself started as a breeding ground for the White, Protestant sons of the upper-middle class. This was a group, which, for years, actively attempted to exclude those who did not homogenously fit within this pre-defined mold, such as women, people of colour, Indigenous people, and Jews.
As Backhouse notes, even individuals like Clara Brett Martin, Canada’s first female lawyer, who “fit into the dominant mould of the legal profession in every aspect but gender” (p132) struggled mightily to be accepted by her colleagues amongst the Bar. More recently, Marie Heinen’s shoulders causing a stir amongst the profession suggests barriers remain for perceived outsiders.
From Unfettered Pride to Sober Awareness
At the same time, strides have certainly been made. The Law Society of Ontario’s 2021 Statistical Snapshot of Lawyers in Ontario reported that 47 per cent – just under half – of Ontario’s 50,000 lawyers were women. About a quarter of lawyers self-identified as racialized, though the percentage of Indigenous lawyers remained comparatively low at 1.44 per cent.
Moreover, those called to the Ontario Bar in 2021 represented one of the most diverse call years ever. On racial demographics alone, of the 2,476 lawyers called, 1,007 were either visible minorities or Indigenous, whereas 1,084 were White.
Although these reports are based on self-identification and therefore cannot purport to be an all-encompassing overview of the profession’s demographics, it is a helpful reminder that the Law Society has certainly made progress since its days of overt racism, misogyny, and exclusion. In analyzing these trends from a macro level, as well as being a student of a vibrant and diverse law school, it would not be wholly surprising if the number of racialized and Indigenous people being called to the Bar surpasses their White counterparts being called over the coming years.
So, if the profession itself is more diverse than ever before, I firmly believe that the concept of of pride in the profession’s history needs to be adjusted to reflect this new reality. In understanding that each new year of calls may likely be more diverse than the last, including an unqualified call for pride in the profession’s history within the definition of professionalism is perhaps sub-optimal. In a way, one could argue that this call for pride is asking young lawyers to be proud of a history that once sought to exclude them – based solely on their identities.
If the definition of professionalism were to be adapted for the standards of 2023, it should arguably reflect this new reality. Professionalism, in my view, must stand for the notion that lawyers understand the profession’s origins, and not merely proud of lawyers’ historical contributions to society. As uncomfortable as it may be, lawyers must acknowledge the ugly histories of the profession’s early days.
Expanding this definition of profession in the way I have described should, arguably, start in law school. It has been exceptional to see how the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have materialized into course curriculum, with fundamental aspects of Aboriginal Law and Indigenous legal traditions forming key components of mandatory courses, such as Constitutional Law and Property Law.
This shift towards the Indigenization of legal curricula provides a framework by which law students can be educated on the difficult origins of the profession. In building a more inclusive profession, it is only if we understand where we come from that future lawyers can understand where the profession needs to go in the future.
Our understanding of professionalism cannot be stuck in 2001. Using technology from 2001, like VCRs or a Walkman, would be laughable in 2023. There is no reason that lawyers’ definition of professionalism should be frozen in time, either.
Clive Ngan is a second-year law student in the Common Law (English) program at the University of Ottawa, where he is enrolled in the joint JD-MA program with Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. This post represents his views, and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of his employer.