Atrisha Lewis a bencher of the Law Society of Ontario. She is a commercial litigator at McCarthy Tétrault LLP.
After recommendations adopted by the Ontario Law Society in 2016, lawyers and paralegals are required to create and abide by an individual statement of principles that acknowledges their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally and in their behaviour toward colleagues, employees, clients and the public. It is a private requirement from the regulating body of lawyers in the province: Members are not mandated to share their statement with the Law Society, but they must confirm that they have one.
And yet, somehow, this obligation is offensive to some. On May 1, a slate of 22 lawyers was elected to the Law Society as members of its board of directors – “benchers,” in our parlance – with a specific mandate to repeal the statement of principles requirement, arguing publicly that the mandate is a threat to freedom of expression.
This argument, however, is unpersuasive and selective. And come June 27, when the Law Society of Ontario votes to repeal, I will be one of the 53 benchers who will vote to defend the statement of principles.
Lawyers and paralegals already have obligations under our Rules of Professional Conduct, which confer a special responsibility to recognize the diversity of the Ontario community and to respect human rights. And yet, no one is commencing court cases or running social-media campaigns because lawyers must swear an oath upon their call to the bar, bow to judges or wear robes. And there is a certain hypocrisy among those who oppose the statement of principles on the grounds of freedom of expression, while seeming to simultaneously accept restrictions on expression in other contexts. Some, for instance, supported the Trinity Western University’s proposed covenant, which includes a promise to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman," when the Law Society ultimately declined to accredit Trinity Western’s proposed law school.
But the most dangerous argument is the denial that racism exists within the legal profession. Some anti-statement members have said that most lawyers “do not see colour,” a suggestion that ignores the data collected by the Law Society of Ontario. Racialized lawyers are underrepresented in the legal profession and as law firm partners, and are overrepresented as solo practitioners. Seldom do leading lawyer rankings profile racialized lawyers. Forty per cent of racialized licensees identified their racial/ethnic identity as a barrier into practice, compared with 3 per cent of non-racialized licensees.
The denial of the existence of racism gaslights the lived experiences of racialized lawyers such as myself. It also denies the stories shared during the Law Society’s extensive consultation among lawyers and paralegals and the efforts of a working group around discrimination in the profession before the statement of principles requirement was passed.
The statement does encourage “better representation of racialized licensees, in proportion to the representation in the Ontario population," prompting an argument voiced by elected bencher Murray Klippenstein in the online magazine Quillette: "If the proportion of some skin colours and ethnicities is too low, then the proportion of others must be too high. And while the authors of these rules no doubt would be quick to deny this plain corollary, the arithmetic truth is plain as a matter of simple logic. Without having the nerve to say so directly, the Law Society is telling us that there are, in effect, too many white Jewish lawyers – for there is no single group that has had more success, on a per capita basis, in gaining representation in the Ontario legal market.”
But the plain “arithmetic truth” Mr. Klippenstein fails to acknowledge is that if all races and ethnicities are equal in terms of talent, skill and ambition, the underrepresentation of some must be on account of something. That something is systemic discrimination, expressed in unconscious bias, microaggressions, or the fundamental apprenticeship model of lawyer training, which can be warped when some lawyers prefer to mentor those who look like them. Moreover, the goal of the statement of principles is to address discrimination – not to suggest that the proportion of other ethnicities is too high.
Those opposing the statement requirement have also not offered up another plan to address discrimination. The Law Society is required to regulate in the public interest, after all, and it is certainly in the public interest that lawyers and paralegals take a moment at least once a year to reflect on their obligations to the public at large.
It is a privilege to be a lawyer. This privilege comes with responsibility. I will be voting in favour of the statement of principles – and I hope my fellow benchers will follow suit.
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