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Law Society seeks to break down damaging racial barriers

Shawn Richard, an associate at a Toronto family law firm.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

While he has encountered blatant racism – a client once called him a "sandwich boy," – Toronto lawyer Shawn Richard says it is the invisible barriers non-white lawyers face that remain harder for many to overcome.

Mr. Richard, 36, an associate at a Toronto family law firm, says in law school he felt surrounded by white students who, unlike him, all seemed to have family members in the profession or appointed to the bench.

"The legal profession is still a profession where you find that lawyers are often the children of lawyers. Race affects that issue only because the legal profession is still a white profession," he said in an interview. "If you're not white, chances are your parents are not lawyers and judges and politicians in this country."

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This kind of subtle barrier is among those laid out in a Law Society of Upper Canada consultation paper that says many lawyers from black, Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds feel alienated by the dominant white culture of many of the province's law firms, where conversations among white lawyers are often about "playing golf, going to the cottage and watching hockey."

This feeling of not fitting in, the report says, has real consequences. The lack of a built-in network of family and friends already in the legal profession, the report says, adds to the trouble some from non-white backgrounds have finding mentors to champion careers. The result is that many non-white lawyers end up leaving larger firms for smaller firms or to practise on their own.

The Law Society's report says 57 per cent of Ontario lawyers who self-identified as "racialized" told an online survey they felt disadvantaged in their career. Large percentages also said their background was a barrier to entering the profession, and felt they had to perform to a higher standard than other lawyers.

The report, on which the law society has been holding consultations, recommends a series of proposals to address these barriers, including improved mentoring programs. But the report also suggests that law firms be forced to disclose demographic data on their diversity, or lack of it, to the Law Society, which regulates lawyers in Ontario.

Many firms are already being asked to collect and hand over this data in order to comply with the diversity policies of certain clients, such as large U.S. companies and a growing number of major Canadian banks, including the Bank of Montreal. No major law firm discloses it publicly.

The law society itself already collects demographic data from all individual lawyers in Ontario, but the submission of the data is voluntary. That data do show a large increase in the number of lawyers who self-identify as "racialized," up from 9 per cent in 2001 to 17 per cent in 2010. (Aboriginal lawyers are not included in this statistic.)

Arleen Huggins, a partner with Koskie Minsky LLP and the former president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL), said any data reporting to the Law Society should be mandatory: "To make some real and very concrete steps, is the data collection necessary in order to allow us to move forward, in order to allow us to track, in [a] way that's accountable, the progress? Our view is yes."

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Linc Rogers, a partner with Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP and long an active member of CABL, applauds the report. But he said the Law Society should be promoting, not regulating, diversity in the profession.

"Part of the problem with mandatory requirements is it can often just become a check-the-box exercise," Mr. Rogers said. "You don't necessarily have the buy-in and commitment that you are looking for."

Janet Minor, who as the elected treasurer is head of the Law Society, said the proposal to collect the data is just one option in a menu of ideas in the consultation paper, entitled Developing Strategies for Change: Addressing Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees.

"There is a range, from voluntary and providing it just willingly to the public, to the more requiring it, and requiring it to be reported," Ms. Minor said. "And we're looking for feedback on that."

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