The motto of the Law Society of Upper Canada is “Let Right Prevail.” Unfortunately, for many racialized licensees in Ontario, the general view is that right is not prevailing. Racialized communities are severely underrepresented within the legal profession.
The Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group was established in 2012 to gather information and develop recommendations to address these challenges. This gave rise to the final report to Convocation in 2016, Working Together for Change: Strategies to Address Issues of Systemic Racism in the Legal Professions, which found that forty per cent of racialized licensees identified their ethnic/racial identity as a barrier to entry to practise, while 43 per cent cited their ethnic/racial identity as a barrier to advancement. These are staggering numbers that merit a second look and a solution. The report proposed 13 recommendations to address the issues of systemic racism within the legal profession.
One of the recommendations that came out of this report is the individual statement of principles regarding diversity. Under the new proposals, all licensees must 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.
My intent here is not to address the challenges or opposition that some have raised about “forcing” licensees to publish such principles. My esteemed colleague Jennifer Quito has released a thorough analysis of why the requirement is legally defensible and this is not the place for a debate. Rather, in this short article I want to discuss why the statement of principles is important for all licensees and in-house counsel, and what such a statement can look like.
On my end, I have been asked many times why I support an initiative that has “little practical value.” It is correct to say that non-compliance will not result in the loss of a license and licensees will not be required to submit their statement of principles to the law society, but it DOES have value!
In-house counsel come from an environment where we are asked to know and adhere to corporate values, missions, visions and corporate objectives. The violation of these does not necessarily, on their own, subject an individual to any repercussion, but these statements are critical in setting an understanding and expectation of what it means to work or be an employee at “X” company. These statements establish the foundation of the corporate culture within which all business will take place. They set a critical baseline of what will be and what will not be culturally acceptable within the organization and how the organization conducts business and where it hopes to be in the next one, five and 10 years.
Yes, there are often human resource policies, as required by legislation, that go into detail about legislated prohibitions on discrimination harassment, violence in the workplace, etc., but the corporate mission, corporate values and corporate objectives are still critical on their own.
The statement of principles is intended to start building a new culture within law firms, regardless of their size, recognizing and establishing the value of diversity and inclusiveness within that organization and impacting how services will be provided. They are also a constant reminder of our obligations as members of a profession that entrusts us to adhere to the principles of equity and justice. Whether they have teeth or not, they are important and there is a value associated with this.
Let’s keep in mind there are still legislative protections against discrimination, which apply in the provision of all services and in employment relationships, which provide the teeth. We as in-house counsel especially understand the value and importance of such principles, so I do not expect that there will be as much opposition from this segment of the bar as we have seen from the private practice bar.
So, assuming you agree with me (us) that there is a problem, that racialized lawyers are facing barriers preventing them from the same opportunities as others and you want to develop your own principles, what should these look like? You can find templates, FAQs and other valuable information on the law society’s website. You can also take what others are publishing as an example and build from it. Here is one set of potential personal statement of principles provided by the law society:
As a licensee of the Law Society of Upper Canada, I stand by the following principles:
- A recognition that the Law Society is committed to Inclusive legal workplaces in Ontario, a reduction of barriers created by racism, unconscious bias and discrimination and better representation of Indigenous and racialized licensees in the legal professions in all legal workplaces and at all levels of seniority;
- My special responsibility as a member of the legal profession to protect the dignity of all individuals, and to respect human rights laws in force in Ontario;
- A commitment to advance reconciliation, acknowledging that we are collectively responsible to support improved relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Ontario and Canada; and
- An acknowledgement of my obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally and in my behaviour towards colleagues, employees, clients and the public.
Here are my two cents: if you read the four statements above and you cannot agree to something like this, and if you think that you should not have to develop and adhere to such principles because they remove your freedom of speech, you are very likely a part of the problem and a brick in the wall holding racialized lawyers back. You may also mistakenly believe that your freedom of speech should and does trump our right to be free from discrimination and from the right to have an equal opportunity to practise law, but the majority of the votes of benchers and a majority of the lawyers in Ontario, racialized or not, think you are wrong and have voted against you twice already.
It may be time to stop fighting against us and join us in the fight for achieving an equitable, diverse and just legal profession.