Diversity initiatives are not only right thing but smart thing for law firms to do

Bereskin & Parr’s Scott MacKendrick shares strategies in advance of Canadian Law Awards

Diversity initiatives are not only right thing but smart thing for law firms to do
Discussions on EDI matters help firms consider other initiatives, says Bereskin & Parr’s Scott MacKendrick.

For law firms’ diversity and inclusion efforts to be really successful they should be integrated into the firm’s overall operations, says Scott MacKendrick, who has chaired Bereskin & Parr’s diversity and inclusion committee since it was created about six years ago, and who also sits on the firm’s executive committee. Bereskin & Parr is sponsoring the Diversity Initiative of the Year Award at the Canadian Law Awards.

For many firms, while they’ve embraced diversity and inclusion efforts, that has been part of “the more peripheral efforts of the firm,” he says.

“By virtue of my being the chair of our committee, and as well sitting on our Executive Committee, . . . diversity and inclusion efforts at Bereskin & Parr have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made at, and thereby become very much central to what it is that we're doing.”

One current initiative of the firm is a scholarship/bursary program for Black and Indigenous law school students with pre-law backgrounds in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Another initiative is a pronoun policy, he says.

Something MacKendrick observed among the firms nominated for this year’s Diversity Initiative of the Year “is a thread running through several of the approaches, directed to addressing or confronting anti-racism,” which is not surprising given the ascendance of the Black Lives Matter and similar movements over the past year, he says. A number of firms in Toronto have joined together to fund the University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s Black Future Lawyers, which supports Black students wishing to attend law school.

The legal profession has made substantive and substantial progress over the course of the past few years in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives, says MacKendrick.

“There is a consensus emerging from that that equity and diversity and inclusion efforts are something we should all be doing,” which is not only related to being more profitable, because clients increasingly expect it; “now, simply, it’s the right thing to do. There’s still very much to be done to get us where we need to get to, . . . but I see positive change.”

The benefit of EDI initiatives to firms is that people have looked at it as seeing an improved quality of the work provided to a client, as there can be a loss of quality when teams are too uniform, he says. “You can get a better answer from [a] diverse team then you will get from a non-diverse team,” he adds, giving the example of his practice area of trademark law, where the firm is “often looking at issues through the perspective of what is the average Canadian’s first impression of this trademark when they see it?

“No person is going to be able to have the experience of all Canadians across a diverse background when they're considering that question, so a more diverse team allows you to be able to make those types of assessments better than you would make them otherwise,” which results in giving the client a better answer than they would have had from a non-diverse team.

In developing an EDI strategy, however, MacKendrick advises firms not to bite off more than they can chew all at once. First, he says, they should consider their values – which may come from a pre-existing value statement – and then look at what their EDI efforts should be directed towards; “those activities should be consonant with what … you already are doing.”

Second, once a firm has established how to direct their EDI activities, “start biting off pieces you can do as opposed to the big picture. Take a look at a tree, cut down the tree, and then the next one, and the next one, as opposed to looking at whole forest and saying, ‘what do we do now?’

“Identify discrete and manageable steps you can start taking that will move you forward. Most organizations will find that the steps you take will reinforce the next steps you will take.”

A great benefit of awards such as the one his firm is sponsoring at the Canadian Law Awards “is that we have the opportunity of being able to shine a light on a number of different initiatives that firms are taking in the EDI space,” says MacKendrick.

“Each one of us could then look at those different initiatives that have succeeded, and be able to be inspired by it, or adopt something like that ourselves. In that way, we can push all of this activity forward.”

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