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The upper echelons of the legal profession in the Greater Toronto Area are overwhelmingly white, according to a new report.

Only 6.8 per cent of those in leadership positions in the GTA's big law offices are visible minorities. That's in stark contrast to the makeup of the region, where nearly one in two people belong to a visible minority.

On the bench, in the senior Crown offices, at the partner level of the major law firms, minorities are significantly underrepresented, according to the research. The DiverseCity Report was conducted by the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, led by professor Wendy Cukier and supported by the Maytree foundation.

Of the 14 senior Crown jobs surveyed, not a single one was held by a visible minority. Among judges of the Superior and Appeal Courts, just slightly more than 4 per cent are visible minorities, the report found, although that figure rises to 15.9 per cent for the Ontario Court of Justice. At the 19 largest corporate firms, 6.6 per cent of partners are visible minorities.

Bindu Cudjoe is an exception. She has been a partner at McMillan LLP for 2 1/2 years, working on debt financing and big-ticket loan deals of $25-million and more. Her parents emigrated from India and she grew up in Calgary before attending University of Toronto law school. She said there may be a small number of visible-minority partners in Toronto, but that will change as new cohorts of law graduates work their way up in the profession and firms become more focused on the business case for diversity.

"It's starting to count as a business consideration," Ms. Cudjoe said. "It's important morally and ethically that we don't discriminate, but at the same time we want to start reflecting our clients. For a long time, our clients weren't all that diverse, now [diversity]is becoming increasingly important for our clients so it's increasingly important for us."

The Law Society of Upper Canada, the body that regulates the profession, said it has encouraged a number of initiatives, from mentorship to model hiring practices, designed to advance minority participation and leadership. Its internal studies have also shown that the face of the profession is changing rapidly. Visible minorities made up 20 per cent of all lawyers between 25 and 34 in 2006, up from six per cent in 1991. Much of that growth was attributed to the large numbers of visible-minority women entering the profession. Overall, visible minorities make up 14.4 per cent of all lawyers in the GTA census area.

"The argument that you'll hear is that it takes time. You need to work your way up in law and the demographic bulge in visible-minority applications started too recently," said Sonia Lawrence, a professor at Osgoode Hall law school. "But I think that a reason to question that is they said the same thing about women and that hasn't panned out.

"Like many professions, law is a self-replicating profession. If you don't make a deliberate effort to make a deliberate intervention that self-replication doesn't change."

Prof. Lawrence said more needs to be done to ensure the profession better reflects the population it serves.

"If you have a legal profession that at its elite levels and especially in terms of appointments to the bench and the prosecution is wildly unrepresentative, you have a crisis of legitimacy," she said.

Orlando Silva, until recently a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, said most of the visible-minority lawyers he knows or studied with are doing advocacy work in areas away from Bay Street. Although they aren't measured in this study, those are also positions of leadership, he said.

"They're interested in work that has a social activist bent, like immigration law or criminal law. People who've grown up as visible minorities may be more sensitive to those issues and want to do what they can to advance their communities. Bay Street may not be the best way to do that," Mr. Silva said.

This is the first time the DiverseCity report, now in its third year, has included the legal profession. It examined 3,300 people in leadership positions across the public, corporate, voluntary, education and legal sectors, as well as the combined group of agencies, boards and commissions. The report states that setting targets, measuring results, making diversity a strategic priority and nurturing the talent of young people of diverse backgrounds will improve equity in all sectors.

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