Focus On

Equality, diversity requirements for lawyers in Ontario | Amrita Tamber

Tuesday, May 05, 2020 @ 12:57 PM | By Amrita Tamber


Amrita Tamber %>
Amrita Tamber
It has been a slow road, but over the past few years the legal profession has started to make small strides towards greater inclusivity. Although women and minorities comprise a growing number of legal professionals, they still remain significantly under-represented in senior leadership roles. In recent years, the statistics show that 43 per cent of lawyers identified as women and 29 per cent identified as a visible minority. An increase in senior leadership diversity may result in an increase in proportional representation from the top down.

Law societies across Canada have implemented measures to advance equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the legal profession. The Law Society of Ontario (LSO) has put together a summary of what lawyers and paralegals need to know and what they need to do to incorporate EDI initiatives, with a number of sample policies and resources to assist.

The LSO has been putting a number of strategies into action in order to break down barriers faced by racialized licensees. The strategies were recommended in the final report of the Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees working group.

By the end of 2020, lawyers and paralegals subject to the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirement must complete a total of three accredited professionalism hours that focus on advancing EDI in the legal profession. From 2021 onwards, licensees must complete one professionalism hour pertaining to EDI. The LSO has produced a free, three-hour e-course on advancing EDI along with other accredited webcasts.

With regards to Indigenous issues, the LSO is currently implementing an Indigenous Framework, with guidance from the Indigenous Advisory Group to the Law Society, to address unique issues that affect Indigenous licensees indicated in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The EDI professionalism criteria will be reviewed and updated as the Indigenous Framework is implemented.

Recently, the LSO’s “statement of principles” (SOP) requirement that was adopted in 2016 has been repealed. It obligated licensees to “adopt and to abide by a statement of principles acknowledging their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in their behavior towards colleagues, employees, clients and the public.”

The “StopSOP” was a group of LSO benchers who ran a campaign to stop the SOP requirement on the basis that it is compelled speech, is coercive, poor financial mismanagement, undermines independence of lawyers and is a symbol of submission. Whether this was the right decision is an ongoing debate in the legal community.

Being a minority woman, I agree with this decision. Not because it is compelled speech, but because the mandatory requirement to acknowledge a statement will not change the way the legal profession operates as a whole. Changes need to be made from the ground up, with the ongoing support of the LSO. Workplaces need to incorporate mandatory policies and practices that support EDI and provide continuous training to their licensees. The LSO could also implement programs or scholarships to assist financially disadvantaged minority groups to allow them entry into law school.

The LSO benchers and the Equity Advisory Group needs to be representative in order to successfully advocate for EDI and make quantitative changes in the legal profession. For example, the under-representation of women in private practice is due to the fact that women leave within the first five years of call — usually because of family responsibilities and lack of support. This inevitably results in less women at the senior and partner levels. In general, the legal profession is moving towards implementing wellness initiatives in modern society and should not see work-life balance as negative.

Further, the legal profession as a whole can incorporate various strategies and support to assist women in transitioning back to practice so they can continue to advance their career while balancing family obligations. Firms and companies with less than 25 people generally have less resources and support systems in place to provide reintegration of women back into practice and the LSO should work to assist these types of workplaces.

Another important initiative should be to raise awareness and correct “unconscious bias.” Unconscious bias is a preconceived stereotypical judgment that happens automatically and unintentionally but can influence behaviour. Incorporating equality and diversity policies and providing training will assist in correcting unconscious bias and removing an “old school” mentality.

The LSO will begin publishing an inclusion index, which will be updated once every four years, to determine whether there has been progress in the legal profession towards improving EDI. The inclusion index will include scores and rankings based on the presence or lack thereof of equality related policies and practices so that the legal profession can make any necessary adjustments. The legal profession needs to be representative of the population that it serves in order to have greater trust in the profession and confidence in the justice system as a whole.

Amrita Tamber is a corporate lawyer in Toronto who advocates for equality and diversity in the workplace. You may reach her at amritatamber27@gmail.com.

Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to The Lawyer’s Daily, contact Analysis Editor Richard Skinulis at Richard.Skinulis@lexisnexis.ca or call 437- 828-6772.