The hidden struggles: Addressing discrimination in the legal profession

Discrimination and harassment are serious problems in workplaces and the legal profession is not exempt. A recent study on the mental health and wellness of Canadian legal professionals revealed that Indigenous people, persons of colour, members of the LGBTQ2S+ communities, and persons with disabilities are more likely to experience discrimination.

In June 2024, Law Society Benchers attended a full-day conference on the topic of discrimination, bullying, and harassment in the legal profession. It was an important opportunity to explore how the legal regulator, firms, and individual lawyers can help address these issues. The conference included an introduction to bystander training, which provides guidance on what to do if you witness harassment, bullying or discrimination in the workplace and how to support someone who has experienced these issues.

Did you know? 

•    Statistics Canada reported, in 2016, that over 13 per cent of visible minorities experienced discrimination in the workplace, along with Indigenous people who experienced over 15 per cent of racial work discrimination. 

•    The National Study on the Health and Wellness Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada revealed: 
  • Racialized legal professionals experience higher symptoms of stress, depression and burnout compared to non-racialized legal professionals. 
  • Indigenous legal professionals experience higher rates of psychological distress compared to racialized and non-racialized professionals and are less likely to seek help due to stigma and lack of culturally safe mental health resources.
  • LGBTQ2S+ legal professionals experience higher rates of depression, burnout and over 37 per cent reported experiencing suicidal ideation since beginning their practice. 
  • Mental health issues among legal professionals living with a disability are significantly higher and a substantial amount don’t feel comfortable seeking help from employee assistant programs. 

How does inclusion play a role in addressing discrimination and harassment? 

Feeling fulfilled, accepted, and safe in a workplace requires the ability to express yourself in a manner that ensures psychological safety. According to the National Study, legal professionals who belong to LGBTQ2S+ communities may struggle to openly share their gender identity with colleagues and supervisors, potentially leading to higher levels of distress, depression and suicide. 

The National Study also found that over 40 per cent reported not disclosing their LGBTQ2S+ identity to their workplace, indicating that most workplaces have work to do to create and maintain a culture of inclusion through policies, education and resources. 

First published in March 2023, the Law Society’s Guidance for Lawyers on Using Inclusive Language resource is designed to help legal professionals use inclusive language. It was developed in consultation and collaboration with legal professionals and stakeholders working in equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Physical accessibility in the workplace is also a key part of ensuring inclusivity for people with visible and/or invisible disabilities. WorkBC has a dedicated resource hub with information for employers on inclusive hiring, including people with disabilities.

Learn more

In the LawCast BC episode Addressing Harassment and Discrimination, the Law Society’s Practice & Equity Advisor, Sarah Sharp, shared some challenges faced by those who experience or witness this harmful behaviour, noting “some of the concerning behaviour shared with me has been based on the person's gender, their gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. In other situations, the treatment that's been shared with me has been race based.”

Sarah highlighted recent changes to the Code of Professional Conduct for BC, including those that address retaliation and outlined some resources that are available. If you need help regarding discrimination or harassment, or have witnessed something that concerns you, reach out to our Equity Advisor. The service is free, confidential and available to all legal professionals and support staff. 

For additional support, we encourage you to visit our Lawyer Well-Being Hub to access mental health resources and visit our Supporting Diverse Lawyers page.