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Charlene Theodore sm

Top OBA leadership begins new era of diversity

Friday, August 14, 2020 @ 9:51 AM | By John Schofield

As a longtime advocate for diversity in the legal profession, Charlene Theodore says she’ll continue that work in her new role as president of the Ontario Bar Association (OBA), while supporting members still grappling with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Theodore, who serves as in-house counsel for the Toronto-based Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), begins her one-year term as OBA president Sept. 1 by making history as the first Black president of the 113-year-old organization — of any gender — and only the 10th woman.

Charlene Theodore, incoming president of the OBA

Joining her on the 2020-21 board of directors will be Ranjan Agarwal, a Toronto-based partner with Bennett Jones who was elected in June as the OBA’s second vice-president, making him the first South Asian lawyer to hold that position.

Under the association’s rules of succession, Agarwal is in line to become president in September 2022. As vice-president, Karen Perron, a partner with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Ottawa, is due to take the helm as president in September of next year.

Theodore said the makeup of the board reflects how the work that the OBA has been doing to promote equality, diversity and inclusion is beginning to bear fruit.

“We represent 16,000 members and there are issues that affect segments of the membership that may have been overlooked,” she told The Lawyer’s Daily. “You can’t know what the issues are that are specific to women lawyers, lawyers of colour, lawyers from the Indigenous community, various communities, until you have a diversity of people around the table. And I think that with my presidency, with my board and some of the selections I’m going to be making in terms of committee chairs and appointments, we'll be able to have a harmonious and diverse group to really put forward some great programming for the year.”

Theodore said she hopes the OBA is providing a positive example of embracing diversity to the profession, which needs to make more progress.

“I need to speak truthfully about that,” she said. “Anyone can point to some shining examples of great legal workplaces, both in-house and in private practice. But I think if you look at the profession and you look at the makeup of the profession and you look at leadership in the profession and where lawyers of different genders and races are concentrated — and, quite frankly, where they are few and far between — I don’t think you can come to any other conclusion.”

Ranjan Agarwal, incoming second vice-president of the OBA

In a separate interview with The Lawyer’s Daily, Agarwal, a former president of the South Asian Bar Association, provided a snapshot of the insidious nature of racism in a recent experience he had with a South Asian client with a slight accent during an examination for discovery.

“The other lawyer asked him a bunch of background questions and said words to the effect of, ‘How’s your English? It’s pretty good, isn’t it. Is English your first language?’ And I objected to that because I don’t think that’s fair. I think there’s a reason why you ask the lawyer or the witness of a certain background or a certain faith or a certain name that question, but you don’t ask other people. And I don’t think the lawyer meant anything malicious, but it’s just an example of our unconscious biases that creep to the surface sometimes.”

There’s no doubt that representation matters, said Agarwal. At the same time, he added, his election reflects the recognition in the profession and Canadian society at large that it’s character, and not colour, that matters.

“If people want to get involved with the organization,” he explained, “if they want to volunteer their time, if they want to play a leadership role, if they want to have a say in how the organization is run and, ultimately, how it advocates and what change it makes, they can do that — regardless of the colour of their skin.”

While the OBA plays an outsized leadership role as a pillar of the justice system, said Agarwal, at the end of the day it’s a member-driven organization. “We need to constantly be listening to what our members are saying about what they need,” he added, “and continually be responsive to that.”

That’s never been truer than during the pandemic, said Agarwal and Theodore. While lawyers are a “prideful bunch” not inclined to readily admit their struggles, the pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges.

“When the crisis hit, immediately, we were all effectively sent home one night,” said Agarwal. “There was a big question about what would happen next. How do you manifest justice in a courtroom if you can’t access it, never mind if you’ve got to be socially distant?

“I think when the OBA responded within a week,” he added, “by providing virtual courtrooms, training judges and lawyers on how to use those courtrooms, providing virtual boardrooms for their members, providing virtual arbitration and mediation services, I think a lot of lawyers realized that the OBA played an essential role in our justice system.”

Thanks, in part, to outgoing president Colin Stevenson and his focus during his tenure on legal innovation, the OBA has been well positioned to offer guidance during the pandemic, said Theodore. The OBA played a key role in setting up virtual courtrooms, she noted, and co-chaired the E-Hearings Task Force with The Advocates’ Society, which produced a widely read best practices guide for virtual hearings. It has provided lawyers with other remote-work assistance, has set up virtual boardrooms for members for remote arbitration and mediation and has helped lead the shift toward remote witnessing of wills and powers of attorney. The OBA has also offered numerous professional development seminars to equip lawyers to practise during the pandemic and has boosted its wellness programs to help members deal with what Theodore describes as a “national stressful event.”

“This pandemic has forced people to move the dial and to really accelerate their thinking on issues that we may have been having discussions about for some time,” she said. “Every area of practice has been affected by this global pandemic, and I really couldn’t be prouder of how the lawyers in Ontario collectively and individually have stepped up for their clients. I think that what we want to continue to do is support them in their needs so they can continue doing excellent work.”

As a labour and employment and human rights lawyer, Theodore said, one of the major themes she will focus on during her tenure is “work that works” — creating legal workplaces that are more equitable and innovative and provide greater access to justice.

“As lawyer, we often find ourselves really fighting society’s most important fights as it relates to workplace rights and equal opportunity in the workplace,” she said. “But we really sometimes don’t turn inwards and look at our own workplaces and ask how are we doing here? You know, how homogeneous are our own workplaces? Who is getting opportunities for growth and development, whether you look at that from a race-based perspective, a disability perspective, a sexual identity perspective or a gender perspective. So what I want to do under my leadership is really provide meaningful ideas along with really practical tools to build legal workplaces.”

It is a time of great challenge for the profession, said Agarwal, but also great opportunity.

“I do think young lawyers out there are nervous and anxious about their financial stability in the long run,” he said. “On the flip side, I think they are keen to embrace some of the changes that will come from COVID, the kind of innovation that will develop, and that they can use that hopefully to their advantage to better service clients and increase access to justice.

“I think they are looking to the OBA as an organization to provide that kind of leadership,” he added. “Not only on-the-ground leadership, but also the thought leadership that will go into what the legal profession and the delivery of legal services will look like in the next five years.”

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