The Law Society of Ontario is looking at strengthening its rules of professional misconduct after an internal survey found that nearly one in five current and recent articling students said they had experienced unwelcome conduct or comments, based on their gender, sexual orientation, national origin, disability or other personal characteristics. Slightly more than one in six said they had been discriminated against.
On Thursday, the law society's professional regulation and competence committee was to meet in camera to discuss whether the rules of professional conduct need strengthening to reflect the survey results, Paul Schabas, the treasurer, said in an interview before the meeting was held. The committee is expected to report back to the society's board of governors next month on subsequent steps for dealing with harassment, discrimination and other conduct issues.
"Those numbers tell us licensees [lawyers] are behaving in unacceptable ways," Mr. Schabas said. "Twenty per cent is utterly unacceptable. One articling student in five is subjected to that? That's not acceptable and that's why we're taking steps."
The survey of 5,200 recent and current articling students, of whom 1,450 responded, was released on Thursday at a time when sexual-misconduct allegations are roiling politics, the arts and the media. Patrick Brown resigned as Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader early on Thursday morning over allegations of sexual impropriety toward two young women. And Kent Hehr, federal minister of sport and persons with disabilities, stepped down from cabinet over sexual-harassment allegations.
Lisa Jorgensen, a Toronto criminal lawyer in her fourth year of practice, said the law society and senior members of the legal profession need to do more to stand up against an "old-boys' culture" she said still pervades the practice of law. "The profession just needs to step up," she said in an interview.
"It has been disheartening for me as a women practising law to discover how much sexism you encounter in this profession, from what we would probably describe as microaggressions, the little comments, the demeanour of certain senior male counsel toward me to, in some cases, judges.
"I have been called sweetheart by opposing senior counsel on more occasions than I care to particularize. I've had people comment on my appearance while appearing in court in front of my own clients. And sometimes, given the practice of criminal law, from my own clients, you will sometimes get very disparaging comments."
While she did not article herself – she clerked for judges at the Ontario Court of Appeal – she has an articling student who has had difficult experiences outside of her firm.
"Her concern has been, 'Well what can I do? What can I say without blacklisting myself?' The real answer is, she needs to know that more senior members of the bar are going to speak to their colleagues, are going to speak to opposing counsel, are going to stand up and say this is unacceptable."
Articling students are in a precarious position, she said. "They're trying to keep a job. They also don't know very much about the profession they've just entered. And they're often being asked to do a lot of low-level tasks for quite senior people. And there's often not a lot of oversight, particularly at smaller firms. We are clearly not doing a good enough job at protecting people and ensuring they feel comfortable reporting these things."
Paul Saguil, the chair of the law society's equity group, said the concerns are strongest among racialized minorities who join the profession, based on a law-society study of this group two years ago. "The profession still has a long way to go," he said in an interview. Of those who responded to the survey, 57 per cent were women, 42 per cent men and 1 per cent transgender or other. Thirty-nine per cent were racialized minorities and about 7 per cent identified themselves as LGBTQ. People with disabilities made up 5 per cent and Indigenous peoples made up a little more than 3 per cent.
The survey cannot be considered statistically reliable because of a low response rate of 28 per cent, but Mr. Schabas said, "the numbers are telling us a story."