President's View

The quest for equality and diversity in the legal profession 

Anna FungAnna K. Fung, QC

Is the legal profession in British Columbia really ready to embrace equality and diversity within its ranks? I had occasion to reflect on this question at the Canadian Bar Association’s (BC Branch) Provincial Council meeting in Richmond on June 24.

As I looked around the room at lunch, I saw many bright young faces. Although there seemed to be an equal balance between men and women, there were only a handful of visible minorities and even fewer aboriginal members. Why is that, I wondered? Is it because there are institutional barriers against entry into the legal profession for minorities? Is it because of lack of language proficiencies? Is it because the values of the legal profession resonate only with Anglo-Saxon cultures?

As the regulator of the legal profession, should the Law Society worry about and devote resources to addressing these “soft” issues?

I am sure that there are lawyers who feel that the advancement of equality and diversity falls within the mandate of the Canada Bar Association as a member-interest rather than a public-interest issue, and that the Law Society should stick to its knitting and focus on its regulatory functions.

There is no question that the CBA has taken the lead in advancing equality and diversity issues. The association instigated the Bertha Wilson report and successfully implemented many, if not all, of its recommendations. Both the national CBA and the BC Branch have instituted standing committees on equality and diversity and give out annual awards that recognize the efforts of lawyers who promote these issues.

Despite these efforts, however, there are still few visible minorities and aboriginal lawyers in BC relative to their population, and based on my own experience, even fewer in mainstream downtown law firms. Women are still a relative rarity amongst the partnership ranks of large firms, and women with children even rarer. Many articling students and associates have expressed disillusionment and disappointment when they discover the reality of a 24/7 career at the same law firms that promised them “work-life balance.”

Why should we care about any of this, you ask? You might even think, without saying it of course, that there are enough lawyers competing for limited clients, so if women and minorities aren’t entering or staying in the profession, so much the better as that means less competition.

Let me assure you that this is a very short-sighted view, particularly in BC where we are part of today’s global economy. Demographic projections for the province indicate that by 2030, all of BC’s population growth will come from immigration. Our clients will demand that we provide legal services in their own languages, with true awareness and sensitivity to diverse cultural backgrounds and mores. How well we are poised to respond to those needs will dictate the future relevance and sustainability of the legal profession in the long run.

There is no question that the struggle for equality and inclusion is a daunting and never-ending one, and it is one with which I am intimately familiar, as too were my ancestors before me. My grandfather first came to Canada from China in the early 1900s as a child labourer to work on the building of Canada’s national railway. Until the day he died, he lived all his life confined to the safety and familiarity of Vancouver’s Chinatown, home to countless other Chinese male immigrants, who were cut off and isolated from their families in China. Even though he eventually became a Canadian citizen and was proud to call himself one, he was, nonetheless, denied the right to vote until Canada changed its laws to give Chinese Canadians the right to vote. Like others of Chinese ancestry, he paid the obligatory Chinese head tax until the Canadian government saw fit to do away with it.

Coming from a Chinese heritage, I was aware from an early age that it was a culture that typically valued males more than females. For example, when my grandfather died, he left all of his meagre assets to his son, my father, and left nothing for his daughter, my aunt. Fortunately for me, though, my father, unlike my grandfather, was a non-traditionalist. He brought me up to believe that I was not inferior simply because I was born female, and that I could do anything that any males could do if I set my mind to it and it was something that I wanted to do.

He was the first male feminist role model in my life. I was lucky to have had others since, including my former professional colleagues and mentors Alec Robertson, QC, Sholto Hebenton, QC and Steve Richards. At one point, Steve and I discussed how law firms needed to get with the program in terms of having more women and visible minorities to represent their firms in responding to clients’ requests for proposals for legal work. He said, “I am interested in hiring lawyers, not dinosaurs.”

Thankfully, dinosaurs are now extinct, even in the legal profession (I hope). However, if the legal profession continues to accept the current status quo in the makeup of our legal profession, without taking concrete steps to ensure true equality and diversity within our ranks, we risk becoming alienated from the rest of society that we purport to serve.

Those who wish to leave this important work simply to the CBA may be well served to remember that from a socio-economic perspective, it is in the best interests of the public that every member of the citizenry be able to maximize his or her contribution to society. And if women, visible minorities and aboriginal people are discouraged from participating fully in the legal profession, it would be a tremendous loss to the profession and to society as a whole.

As the body charged with the responsibility of protecting the public interest in the administration of justice and the governing of the legal profession, the Law Society should care about and continue to devote efforts towards the advancement of true equality and diversity in the legal profession. If we do not demonstrate true leadership in this area, we risk perpetuating the stereotypical public image of lawyers as white, middle-aged men who freely dispense legal advice about equality but never actually do anything about achieving it. That would be a real shame.