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In-house look to promote inclusion of disabled in law departments

|Written By Jennifer Brown
In-house look to promote inclusion of disabled in law departments
Legal Leaders for Diversity''s new chairwoman Melissa Kennedy, who is general counsel of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, said the legal profession has a duty to pursue initiatives like this for those with disabilities.

Legal Leaders for Diversity is expanding its efforts to include a new initiative aimed at encouraging the hiring of those with disabilities in the legal profession.

As it celebrated its second anniversary in Canada the group’s co-founder and general counsel with Deloitte & Touche LLP Ken Fredeen spoke about the initiative.

“When I set out two years ago to try and find people with disabilities to work in my general counsel’s office I couldn’t find any, and I figured there was something wrong with that — that couldn’t be the case,” said Fredeen. “Here in Canada we have created a very well educated group of people with disabilities so why is it those people aren’t in the legal profession? That is the challenge I have been thinking about for a long time.”

LLD now includes more than 70 general counsel from across Canada. Last year the federal government appointed a panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons With Disabilities which Fredeen chaired. The report, released in January — “Rethinking disAbility In The Private Sector” — outlines the business case for hiring people with disabilities.

LLD’s new chairwoman Melissa Kennedy, who is general counsel of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, said the legal profession has a duty to pursue initiatives like this for those with disabilities.

“The legal profession is one of the few that has to take a vow when called to the bar and it’s one of those professions that has a lot of honour and integrity as part of it. I think it’s really important we use our influence to promote diversity within the legal community,” said Kennedy.

Law firms are also getting on board with their in-house counsel partners. Av Maharaj, now past chairman of LLD, acknowledged the Law Firm Diversity and Inclusion Network, which was recently formed.

“In addition to raising awareness and driving change we are challenging our legal partners to become more diverse and inclusive,” said Maharaj. “Given that our legal spend counts conservatively in the hundreds of millions of dollars this alone is a compelling reason for our partners to work with us as advocates for the change in our legal profession and for our community.”

Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor David Onley spoke to LLD about the lack of knowledge about the disabled when talking about diversity in hiring.

“I think it’s fair to say when people speak about the diversity of Canadian society the last thing they think of insofar as diversity is concerned is disability. Traditionally, the catch-all phrase defining diversity is some variation of women, ethnic, LGBT, aboriginal, and the disabled. There is a problem with the definition in that the disability community itself consists of disabled women, disabled ethnic people, disabled LGBT, disabled aboriginals, and disabled men,” he said.

Onley said a group that proudly proclaims it hires from a diverse group needs to ask what its policies are in hiring disabled members of society.

“The promotion of increased employment opportunities for people with disabilities through both of your initiatives is very crucial,” said Onley, adding hiring people with disabilities can improve a company’s bottom line.

He noted the unemployment rate for people with disabilities who are of working age and are able to work is 26 per cent — higher than the unemployment rate for all individuals during the Great Depression.

“Counterintuitively, people with disabilities have a higher job retention rate,” said Onley, who cited the case of a Tim Hortons owner of seven stores in the Greater Toronto Area who says his able-bodied employees turn over every 14 months at a cost of $3,400 while disabled workers churn every seven years and the absenteeism and accident rate is lower.

Since its inception in May 2011, LLD has tried to push the conversation between law firms and in-house counsel on improving diversity in the legal profession.

“Our goal is to not always need to have this group — have a long way to go but with the passage of time we will get there. We need everybody’s help,” said Maharaj.

Kate Broer, a partner with Dentons LLP and the firm’s representative on the LFDIN,  said she has talked with in-house groups about how they will start measuring the success of the organizations and work better with in-house counsel partners to “get a real grip on what’s going on in the law firms.”


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