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Driving diversity: A call to action to Canada’s legal community

|Written By Joel Stern
Driving diversity: A call to action to Canada’s legal community

Research shows a clear disparity between the diversity of the Canadian population and its reflection in the legal profession. While some law firms are boldly encouraging inclusion, as a whole, the legal profession in Canada seems to be moving forward slowly, even reluctantly. 

The Canadian and American legal communities share a common problem: a lack of “diversity” throughout the profession. Despite notable strides that have been made in recent years, inclusion efforts in the Canadian legal community have been stalled, as they have been in the U.S. It’s becoming increasingly critical to address the issue in both countries and it presents our two legal communities with an opportunity to learn from one another along the way.

Canada’s legal community has the chance to study the approach of its U.S. counterparts towards diversity, specifically through the “statement of principle” and “Call to Action.” Now is a good time to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the program in the U.S. and perhaps, in designing Canada’s Call To Action, help foster a more diverse Canadian legal environment within the next decade.

In the U.S., it began with a “statement of principle”

In 1999, approximately 500 major U.S. corporations, represented by their chief legal officers, signed “Diversity in the Workplace – a Statement of Principle.” The purpose was to demonstrate corporate unity on the issue of diversity in the legal profession, motivating law firms — and corporate counsel — to make immediate and sustained improvement in this area.

It states: “In making our respective decisions concerning selection of outside counsel, we will give significant weight to a firm’s commitment and progress [towards promoting diversity within their workplace].”

While this was a positive, unprecedented step, actual action on it was slow.

A boost to diversity efforts came five years later, from the U.S. Call to Action, which was signed by the chief legal officers of over 100 major corporations.

At its essence, the Call to Action (CTA) did two things: it was a commitment by corporate counsel to promote diversity in their own legal departments, and it was a pledge by corporate counsel to hire or fire firms based, in significant part, on their diversity performance. By again aiming a spotlight on the issue of diversity within the U.S. legal profession, the CTA generated hope for real change.

Accenture signed the CTA and immediately began implementing major initiatives within the diversity and inclusion space.

Our approach attacked diversity/inclusion on three fronts: collaboration with our current law firms; a focus on women/minority-owned law firms; and the development of a variety of educational “pipeline” programs. All three efforts are guided by Accenture’s core values: stewardship, best people, client value creation, one global network, respect for the individual, and integrity.

Active collaboration with outside counsel on diversity and inclusion-related issues involves frequent communication about our diversity and inclusion message to our law firms.

We ask that they staff our matters with a diverse team and also ask that our firms complete a diversity survey every other year, which we score and measure. This allows us to live up to our CTA pledge to hire or fire firms based in significant part on their diversity performance.

Additionally, frequent communication contributes to the development of joint law firm/corporate counsel diversity and inclusion programs.

We also developed and implemented a solid plan that involves working with organizations like the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF), which helps us create lasting and significant relationships with minority and women-owned firms.

We have set a goal to spend five per cent of our outside counsel budget with certified women/minority-owned law firms. This is internally tracked every quarter, and our evaluation process for individual performance is rated, in part, on successfully meeting this goal.

Finally, Accenture’s legal group participates in numerous educational pipeline programs — from grade school to law school, and everything in between. We believe that actively promoting diversity in schools and our community is just as important as, if not more important than, changing the face of the legal profession.

Our legal group has developed programs to help students succeed in school and life. We also field internship and externship initiatives for law students each year.

To tie it all together and make this work cohesively, we tasked one of our lawyers with co-ordinating the legal group’s diversity and inclusion efforts — a position that involves 30 per cent of his time.

Our commitment — and the commitment of many other organizations, such as DuPont, Prudential, Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and Bank of America — remains strong. That said, diversity throughout the U.S. legal community is lagging at the core, and the refocus must be industry-wide to succeed.

Tracing the progress of inclusion in the U.S. legal community

How far has the U.S. come? In 1869, the entire U.S. legal profession was composed of white males. Then, in 1870, Ada H. Kepley became the first woman lawyer to graduate from a U.S. law school, Northwestern University. In that same year, Gabriel Franklin Hargo became the first African-American to graduate from a U.S. law school at the University of Michigan.

Fast-forward 140 years:
•    Today, total minority representation among all U.S. lawyers remains slightly less than 10 per

     cent, based on the 2000 U.S. Census (the latest available data).
•    According to the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP), minorities

     account for approximately six per cent of partners in the nation’s major firms.
•    NALP figures show that women account for approximately 20 per cent of the partners at these

     firms. Less than two per cent of the partners at large firms are minority women.

We believe that while progress has been made on several fronts, there is still a considerable journey ahead.

Change in Canada — Refocusing the Call to Action

In implementing a fresh approach, Canada has a unique opportunity: refocus its Call to Action efforts and make a case for the U.S. to take cues for change from Canada.

Step one will be to jump-start the CTA in Canada with a long-term plan designed to take the country’s legal community to the next level.

The Canadian CTA will focus attention on the issue of diversity and inclusion in Canada — capitalizing on the excitement and generating real action by major firms and corporate counsel. An easy way to do that is to share best practices, many of which can be leveraged by looking at what has already been done by U.S. organizations like the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

While Canada can adopt certain best practices from the U.S., it must be prepared to address challenges that are unique to the Canadian legal system — particularly in a tough economic environment, where diversity efforts are stalled and small firms and minority- and women-owned law firms are on the outside looking in.

The opportunity here is to take a fresh look at diversity and inclusion and leverage what’s already been learned in the U.S., focusing on:

•    the educational pipeline issue as part of the Canadian CTA;
•    encouraging/enabling more minorities and women to attend law school; and
•    engaging, and continuing to work with, minority- and women-owned law firms.

Action must be taken, otherwise nothing will change.

I strongly urge that every law firm, along with major corporations, focus on at least three to five strategically planned action items that they will pledge to pursue with respect to diversity and inclusion in Canada.

I also urge corporations and law firms to share successes and failures with Joy Casey and A Call To Action Canada and use that forum as an opportunity to share what’s working and what isn’t working. In addition, they should follow up and meet periodically with outside counsel to discuss diversity and inclusion initiatives — and consider including area law schools in the discussions.

By taking these steps you can establish a foundation in which the legal community can:

•    Plan to take a broad look at diversity and inclusion, rather than just being top-down or

     bottom-up focused.
•    Possibly form a NAMWOLF equivalent in Canada.
•    Address the pipeline issue as part of the overall CTA effort.
•    Include success metrics and share them with colleagues.

It is also important to develop an organizational attitude that allows legal professionals to be passionate about and committed to diversity and inclusion and to reward successes. It is equally important that professionals be thoughtful and measured, while continuing to take action.

Calling Canada to action

In a nutshell, then, my challenge to corporate legal groups and law firms in Canada is: take what we have done with the CTA in the U.S. and build on our success, incorporating more than just a focus on large firms as part of the overall Canadian Call to Action. A key part of this will be working with minority- and women-owned law firms and on pipeline issues (i.e. education) to create more opportunities for students.

And most significant of all will be to follow the powerful advice of Mahatma Gandhi: “Become the change you wish to see in the world and it will happen.” Implementing inclusion and diversity initiatives should not be simply a nice-to-do or a legal mandate, but rather an honest want-to-do because it is right.

Joel Stern is deputy general counsel and director of legal services North America for Accenture’s legal group.

  • RE: Driving diversity: A call to action to Canada’s legal community

    Jon D
    It's quite pathetic how homogeneous the large firms are in Canada. After witnessing the OCI recruitment process I can see that barely any firms are making an effort to increase diversity.

    Its all about fit, and when the majority of the interviewers are white this is obviously a barrier for minority candidates.

    But hey, the majority of law students are white and they aren't complaining, that's for sure.