The bottom line for law firms on diversity

A new report on Aboriginal peoples and visible minorities in the legal profession

Lawyer Isabel JacksonIn many ways, Isabel Jackson is a typical lawyer and working mother. She has spent more than a decade juggling the rewards of a legal career with the needs of her children and family. But Jackson is not a typical lawyer. She is practically a statistical anomaly in this province.

Not only is she a woman operating in a profession where her peers leave law at a disquieting rate, but she is also a member of the Gitxsan First Nation. Indigenous lawyers represent only 1.5 percent of the legal profession in BC, according to a new report, Towards a More Representative Legal Profession: Better practices, better workplaces, better results, to be released by the Law Society this spring. Based on data provided by Statistics Canada, Towards a More Representative Legal Profession marks the first time the Law Society has done an in-depth report into the demographics of the BC legal profession. It includes a focused break out on visible minority and Aboriginal lawyers.

“In our view, the legal profession has a responsibility to promote equality and diversity,” said Law Society President Bruce LeRose, QC, “and this report will help give firms and the legal community at large the foundation they need to work together to create effective solutions.”

It’s clear that solutions are needed. The report notes the demographics of Canada and BC are shifting dramatically: by 2031 Vancouver, alone, is expected to have a visible minority population of 59 percent. In addition, BC is home to the second largest Aboriginal population in Canada. Yet the legal profession doesn’t come close to reflecting that.

The importance of role models and mentors

The report notes the significant underrepresentation of Aboriginal lawyers in BC is connected to the barriers they face, such as a lack of mentors and role models.

Jackson knows the value of a good mentor. She credits one at her workplace, the Department of Justice, with having made a tremendous difference in her legal career.

“This is a fellow who, as soon as I came in the door, took me under his wing and agreed to be my mentor. He’s not Aboriginal, himself, he is just somebody who really supports Aboriginal people. It’s been really good for me, and it’s been about 10 or 11 years now.”

Jackson is now paying that forward. In addition to formally mentoring articled students of all backgrounds, she came up with an idea to help senior Aboriginal lawyers connect with more junior Indigenous lawyers and law students. Jackson is the vice-chair of the Aboriginal Lawyers Forum of the Canadian Bar Association, BC Branch. They and the University of British Columbia Indigenous Law Students Association held their first so-called speed mentoring event last year and are planning another one for March of this year. In it, mentor and mentees are paired up for eight-minute mentoring sessions, after which the beat of a traditional Aboriginal drum alerts participants it’s time to switch and move on to the next pairing. At the conclusion, participants are encouraged to keep in touch and establish a deeper mentorship relationship.

“That was a really fun format for someone who hasn’t yet picked up on the idea of being a mentor. There were obvious benefits for the mentees, but just being asked to be a mentor has been uplifting for many,” said Jackson.

“What’s key is for a person to have confidence. I hate to admit it, but as an Aboriginal person you know you’re part of a group that, if you look at yourself ­statistically, chances are you’re not going to achieve. Those are the stats. I’ve always said that there is kind of a communal lack of self-esteem and self-confidence operating within the Aboriginal community, largely speaking. So I think if you can get over that, that’s a huge part of being able to succeed at anything.”

And Jackson believes it is role models and mentors who help Indigenous people overcome that hurdle. “As soon as you get this inkling of an idea that achievement is attainable, then things can really happen. The opposite is also true that if you think you’re really stuck with your lot in life, you won’t even try. But it’s hard to try if you don’t have someone else who can prop you up and encourage you and make you see yourself differently. It’s really hard to be self-inspired or self-motivated.”

Jackson has seen that play out in her own family. Her daughter, Carmen, cited the inspiration Jackson provided in her ­application to medical school. Carmen’s now in her third year and Jackson’s son is in high school and weighing the career paths of an accountant or engineer. Her other daughter studied culinary arts.

“Our research shows role models are invaluable, but that’s not enough on its own,” said Susanna Tam, a Law Society policy lawyer, who prepared Towards a More Representative Legal Profession for the Equity and Diversity Advisory Committee.

“We encourage law firms that are aiming to realize the competitive advantages of diversity to strive to create fair and inclusive work environments. Our report highlights many ways to do that – everything from implementing meaningful workplace equality policies to developing bias-free performance evaluations. There are lots of good reasons for firms to take these kinds of steps.”

Annelle WilkinsTaking leadership to promote the business behind diversity

One of the big reasons for firms to take such steps, according to Annelle Wilkins, is because of the business advantages of embracing and promoting diversity. Wilkins is a Vancouver-based lawyer and Senior Vice-President and General Counsel Corporate Secretary for HSBC Bank Canada. She’s also an advocate for diversity.

“Early in my career,” said Wilkins, “I was nominated for an award for my actions in support of diversity. I was stunned by the nomination, because I thought everything I was doing was merely common sense. When I realized that it’s not common sense for everyone, I decided to become an advocate. Working with others who are involved and passionate about the issue is invigorating – the energy is contagious.”

Wilkins is currently working with others as the new BC Regional Chair for Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion, which is a national initiative launched by Canadian general counsel in May of 2011. It has nearly 60 other signatories throughout the country, including general counsel from DuPont, Deloitte, Kellogg’s, Bell, RBC and Bombardier. Wilkins anticipates the movement will have an impact on diversity in law.

“I sense an excitement about this initiative, with the collective voice and influence of Canada’s general counsel being recognized, and a strong message being delivered through more than just discussion, but by demonstrating our commitment to making a difference.”

A similar legal diversity initiative, A Call to Action Canada, also highlights the dedication of corporate counsel to promote diversity in the legal profession. It’s clear that firms competing for corporate clients are increasingly expected to demonstrate their commitment to diversity. Wilkins explains why her company wants to hire such firms.

“We expect a diverse organization to be more creative in its approach to problem-solving, given the multiple perspectives brought to the issue. We also want to support those in the profession who demonstrate a true commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. And as part of an international organization, we want our professional advisors to be just as sensitive to different perspectives across jurisdictions as they are to technical differences in the law.”

Wilkins has, at times, been disappointed with what she’s seen. “I certainly wasn’t impressed when a law firm that was pitching for our business mistakenly believed that it was best to put forward a ­female partner as the proposed relationship manager. It was quickly apparent that her practice area had nothing to do with our business, and that it was a superficial attempt to demonstrate the firm’s diversity of gender. It delivered the exact opposite message – we’re not interested in form over substance.”

“For those firms that are just starting the journey,” added Wilkins, “it’s critical to understand the real value and strength in having a diverse workforce. It isn’t just the right thing to do, it actually makes good business sense. There is empirical evidence showing the positive bottom-line impact in having a diverse workforce.”

For her part, Jackson also believes clients get a better legal product if the law firm embraces diversity.

“I think the best lawyers are able to see both sides of an issue and that’s not always possible unless you don’t insulate yourself with one or like viewpoints. You have to be open to the idea that there are other ways to look at something, and I think that’s where we would come in. So, for example, me as an Aboriginal employee, I know that I have certainly weighed in and expressed a point of view that totally comes from my being Aboriginal, and it’s really out there so-to-speak in comparison to other voices. But I figure that’s my job and that’s my role. I think that’s why I was hired, in part because I’m Aboriginal. It’s not tokenism. My department needs that perspective.”

“We know the perspective of a diverse group of lawyers brings value to law,” agreed President LeRose. “But as a regulator, the Law Society cannot effect change on its own. This report marks a step toward articulating the barriers and potential solutions so that lawyers and law firms, and the people in BC who rely on their services, can start or continue down a path that will allow them to enjoy the benefits of a more diverse legal profession.”