New Equity Ombudsperson initiatives

New initiatives are underway at the Law Society to raise awareness about harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

“The Law Society of BC has a long-standing commitment to helping law firms provide a healthy and respectful workplace free of harassment and discrimination,” said the society’s Chief Executive Officer Tim McGee. “We are now renewing our efforts to raise awareness about these issues within the profession,” he added.

In 1995 the Law Society created the position of equity ombudsperson — then called the discrimination ombudsperson. The equity ombudsperson is independent of the society and provides confidential assistance to anyone who works in a law firm and needs help in resolving possible discrimination. The ombudsperson also assists law firms in preventing discrimination and promoting a healthy work environment.

That same year, the Law Society amended the Professional Conduct Handbook to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital or family status, disability or age.

In 1992, the Law Society released the first of its model policies on workplace harassment, respectful language and workplace equity along with guidelines for recruiting, interviewing and hiring practices. These policies have been recently updated to reflect current practices.

Law firms are encouraged to adopt the policies and guidelines — which are available in the “Practice Support” section of the society’s website — or use them as templates for developing their own.

Equity Ombudsperson Anne Bahnu Chopra  
   
Equity Ombudsperson Anne Bahnu Chopra, pictured here with Okanagan Bencher Dirk Sigalet, QC, attended the October 12 Benchers meeting to talk about the program and the new initiatives.  
   

Anne Bahnu Chopra, the equity ombudsperson since 2000, notes law firms have a duty to foster a professional work environment that promotes equal opportunities and prohibits discriminatory practices. “When firms do not live up to that duty, there can be serious consequences for everyone,” she says.

Lawyer Patricia Janzen, a senior partner in Fasken Martneau DuMoulin’s labour, employment and human rights group, agrees.

“Because law firms as employers are statutorily liable for discrimination and harassment, it is essential that law firms protect themselves through building awareness amongst all firm members of what is unacceptable conduct and through establishing a culture that does not tolerate discrimination and harassment,” Janzen explains.

“Consequences can include not only liability for damages paid to those harmed by discrimination or harassment. Human rights complaints frequently attract high levels of publicity and can harm the reputation of the firm and its members, can significantly damage the morale of firm members and can have devastating effects on the careers and personal lives of those directly involved.”

Chopra is currently developing an awareness seminar on discrimination and harassment issues that is specifically designed for smaller law firms. “It’s for firms that don’t have their own in-house resources,” she explained. Similar programs are in place at several other law societies, Chopra noted.

The equity ombudsperson is also planning more outreach outside Metro Vancouver. “I am planning to do two trips a year to different parts of the province and to address as many lawyers as possible in those regions,” Chopra said.

The Law Society is also considering ways the Benchers can provide more support to students and principals, particularly during articling student interviews, to ensure there is a good understanding of appropriate and inappropriate questions or behaviour.

“We’re looking at publishing a guidebook to assist lawyers when interviewing potential articling students,” explained Alan Treleaven, the Law Society’s director of education and practice. “It will include all aspects of the recruitment process, including examples of inappropriate questions.”

“We want to ensure the Benchers are able to respond appropriately to any concerns raised by students or principals,” he added.

Vancouver Bencher Art Vertlieb, QC, who chairs the Law Society’s Equity and Diversity Committee, highlights the importance of eliminating harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

“There’s nothing worse,” Vertlieb says, “than a profession that protects the rights of others not working for those same rights in our own offices. We must insist on respectful workplaces. It’s part of our duty as lawyers and part of the relationship of trust we have with other members of the profession, our staff and our clients.”


Has your firm done something to bring equity to the practice of law? Do you know other lawyers who are working on equity programs at their firms? Let the Law Society’s equity ombudsperson Anne Chopra know at achopra1@novuscom.net.



Equity ombudsperson programs

Equity ombudsperson programs are a growing trend among Canadian law societies, Anne Chopra said during her annual report to the Benchers.

BC was the first jurisdiction to appoint an equity ombudsperson and now law societies in BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia all have similar programs in place.

In 2006, Chopra had 248 contacts with lawyers and law firm staff. Slightly more than 100 involved sexual or workplace harassment while 38 related to some form of discrimination. The remainder were requests for information about harassment and discrimination issues or the ombudsperson program.

The contacts were fairly evenly split among associates, partners, articled students and law firm support staff with a small number from law students.

The majority of contacts came from the Lower Mainland (121) with another 78 from Victoria and 49 from other parts of the province.