Has the diversity discussion lapsed?

When we embarked on our View 2013 project I wondered how candid the in-house counsel we approached for the project would be with us about the challenges they face for the year ahead.

We were asking them to share their thoughts on everything from regulatory challenges to dealing with external counsel in the months ahead as they take on more complicated issues.

They were extremely forthcoming and thoughtful in their answers. It also proved to be a pretty fun exercise. These are in-house counsel at the top of their game. Anyone who thinks a lawyer who chooses to go in-house is taking the less taxing career route hasn’t spent any time talking to in-house counsel like the six individuals profiled in this first issue of 2013.

On a couple of matters, they were very candid in ways I didn’t expect. For example, most acknowledged diversity is important to their respective organizations and they promote it in their own departments but do not pursue it as a requirement with their law firms when staffing files. In fact, in some cases it hadn’t occurred to them to ask the question and a couple noted they might consider it in their next round of requests for proposals with law firms.

Perhaps this was surprising because diversity is a key issue for groups like the Association of Corporate Counsel, Legal Leaders for Diversity, and Call to Action Canada. But beyond those groups, is the discussion happening?

In most instances the chief legal officers we spoke with indicated they just want the best lawyer for the job, suggesting Canada’s diverse workforce in large cities means most firms have a diverse roster of lawyers anyway. As Jane Fedoretz of CEDA International said, “I am a general counsel in a very male-dominated business — that to me is diversity. I need the work to get done; your race or ethnicity doesn’t matter to me.”

Daniel Marion of Thales Canada said within the company diversity is essential and in his department it’s extremely important because they do business all over the world and a diverse team aids in managing relationships when dealing with China, the Middle East, or Asia — that’s diversity at work in its most practical form. But he says he doesn’t see it as his role to push the law firms on the diversity agenda.

Geoff Creighton of IGM Financial pointed out that for him, at least on the gender side, he has seen the divide narrow significantly over the last decade, especially with the in-house bar, with the law firms approaching a 60-40 ratio.

So does this mean the diversity question has stalled somewhat, or that it’s at the point where individuals feel the demographic at Canadian law firms has evolved to the point they don’t need to push the agenda further?

Contrast this with the views of Ernest Tuckett, our profile on page 43 of this issue, who has a decidedly different take that he brings with him from the U.S. where progress on diversity in law firms is tracked with greater focus by some in-house counsel. It will be interesting to see if work from groups like Call to Action and Legal Leaders for Diversity will continue to have influence on Canada’s in-house counsel beyond the realm of their membership.

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