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Diversity Pitch event brings together in-house and private practice

|Written By Jennifer Brown
Diversity Pitch event brings together in-house and private practice
First National senior vice president and general counsel Hilda Wong provides feedback to Diversity Pitch private practice lawyers following an evening in which external lawyers were matched up with in-house counsel for 10-minute pitch sessions.

It looked a little like a cross between Dragon’s Den and speed dating for in-house and external counsel, and while not every meeting will result in a match, most came away knowing a little more about who they might turn to for work in the future.

The Diversity Pitch Event, organized by Diverse Champions for Diversity, a group of in-house counsel led by Julia Shin Doi, was held March 7 in Toronto and gave lawyers from diverse backgrounds an opportunity to pitch themselves and their firms to in-house counsel from more than two dozen companies and organizations.

The event was spearheaded by Shin Doi, who is general counsel and secretary of the board of governors at Ryerson University. She also helped organize a similar pitch session for women lawyers in Canada through the Women's General Counsel chapter of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario. 

She was inspired by a pitch event held each year by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association in the United States as part of its annual conference.

“I always wanted to do a pitch session for racialized lawyers,” she says. “The Diverse Champions for Diversity welcomed the idea and developed the concept for racialized lawyers.”

The Diverse Champions for Diversity is a grassroots group of senior racialized lawyers both in-house and in private practice with strong ties to the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, and the South Asian Bar Association.

"Talking about diversity is not enough. We need to take action and work together to achieve diversity. The success of the first Diversity Pitch Event shows the power of corporate counsel to effect change, and shines light on talented racialized lawyers in private practice who are ready for change,” said Shin Doi.

Private practice lawyers had to apply to the Diverse Champions for Diversity in order to be considered for the pitch and submit a $100 fee per team. Lawyers from large firms such as Bennett Jones LLP, Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP and Borden Ladner Gervais LLP were in attendance, along with smaller firms such as Walker Law, Stockwoods LLP, Robins Appleby, Hum Law Firm and Kramer Simaan Dhillon LLP.

Tanya Walker of Walker Law was one of the private practice lawyers who applied to pitch at the event. Walker says she prepared in advance to pitch to in-house counsel from Indigo Books and Music Inc. and Home Depot.

She prepped by checking out the LinkedIn profiles of the people she was meeting with and researched the companies, with the idea to start her pitch with what makes her firm different and how it could benefit the organizations to which she was pitching.

“We led with the benefits of having a boutique firm. We focused on how we are structured and how we delegate work based on complexity and how that results in a reduced cost to the client but there is always partner attention on files,” she says.

She found the event helpful in terms of the advice from in-house but also from a networking point of view.

“It’s great for them to consider allowing a small firm or sole practitioner to represent them on smaller matters. It was also a great way to mingle with colleagues because some of them I haven’t seen in a long time,” says Walker. “I think sometimes people think smaller firms means less quality, but I think I work harder [than] when I was at a bigger firm because you really have to prove yourself.”

Each in-house company was pitched by three different teams of private practice lawyers for 10 minutes each. When the pitches were complete, the in-house counsel shared their impressions with the room.

Dela Avle, supply chain support manager and senior counsel with Bruce Power, emphasized that while the company uses large law firms and does requests for proposals, it’s important for external firms to know that even if a firm is not doing work with them now the opportunity does exist, especially in specialized areas such as information technology, intellectual property, labour law and Aboriginal work. He noted Bruce Power is also keen on using alternative fee arrangements.

“We are of the view that our legal work should not be exclusive, so just because you’re small, don’t think you don’t have a role to play; focus on your niche. I think this was fantastic,” he said.

Some in-house counsel suggested the private practice lawyers should consider presenting other ways they could differentiate themselves. Asha Daniere, executive vice president of business and legal and business affairs at Blue Ant Media, said she wanted to know what the firms are doing to put more women and minorities in partner positions. 

“And not just talking about it — what exactly are you doing?” she said.

“I also want to know about any truly alternative ways of looking at fee arrangements. What’s happening in in-house departments around the country and internationally is we are hiring more senior and more high-priced in-house counsel and we’re doing that because we don’t want to rely on outside counsel, so it’s incumbent on law firms to come up with a way to provide services to us at rates that don’t make it prohibitive,” she said.

Leola Pon of the Toronto District School board was pitched by Stockwoods LLP and, although the firm is already doing some work for the TDSB, she said she discovered through the pitch much more about them.

Gerald Chan, partner with Stockwoods, said he found it “encouraging” to see the commitment from the large number of companies that participated in the event, which he hopes will spur the law firms to become more progressive when it comes to diversity.

Andrea Cotroneo, vice president and general counsel of Capital One,  reiterated what many said, which was that the lawyers should pitch themselves first, then their law firms.

“I want to hear about you first, then your firm. My philosophy for using external counsel is that it’s all about relationships. It’s all about how we are going to work together and what kind of value you’re going to bring, certainly, to the bank. I do want to hear about you and your practice area before I hear about every great thing your firm does across the country,” Cotroneo said.

Diversity and inclusion is a major focus for pitch participant BASF Canada, said Marie-Eve Rehayem, general counsel and chief compliance officer.

“There is a huge focus at BASF in Canada and in North America on the value of diversity and inclusion. We firmly believe we can optimize our results by bringing to the table diverse perspectives, so those pitches that have at the ready those types of facts and figures surrounding diversity and inclusion numbers — that’s always very persuasive as well as knowing about me and knowing about my company. And a little tip? Be prepared to talk about alternative fee arrangements,” said Rehayem.