The importance of outreach in the diversity transformation

It has been three years since the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers toasted 17 of its own who were, rightfully, praised for cementing their positions as partners in Bay Street firms. I read the news, as I assume a number of black law students did, with a sense of admiration, albeit one mingled with disquiet.

 My unease stemmed from the unsettling fact that at the time, just 17 partners, of an estimated 2,000 partners on Bay Street, were black. I viewed the recognition of the lawyers named in the article as a victory for the black legal community, but also as a reminder that if hiring practices continued to progress as they had, my odds of one day acquiring a coveted position in a partnership were not the most promising.

As I browsed the partner profiles on the web sites of the law firms at which I wished to work in the future, I saw very few minorities overall and even fewer black faces. I could not understand why firms were not reflecting the multiculturalism integral to a nation as diverse as Canada.

This story may not represent all the unique experiences of ethnic minorities who want to work in the legal sector, however, numerous prospective lawyers and law students of colour likely hold similar sentiments. Too few racial minorities are partners at law firms and too few are in the employ of Bay Street firms.

Law firms have recently showcased their willingness to remedy the overall diversity issue, some through the usual lip service, and others by taking steps to entice change within their workplaces. This was demonstrated earlier this year when 16 leading firms collaborated with Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion, a group whose chief aim is promoting inclusiveness in the legal profession.

While these steps should be applauded, very little is being said about how firms plan to transform their workplaces into diverse ones through hiring initiatives.

When the lack of ethnic lawyers in the field is mentioned, often emphasis is put on recruitment and retention as the primary remedy for the issue. An equal amount of weight should be put on outreach and informing legal professionals, future law students, and prospective lawyers of all minority groups that they too have a serious chance at advancement if they choose to pursue a career in law.

By not only supporting but engaging in outreach initiatives, firms can publicize and show their willingness to recruit qualified individuals from an array of racial backgrounds.

I am fortunate to be closely acquainted with a number of lawyers and was aware for some time that a career in law was a viable option for me. Had I not had that exposure, however, I would probably have been less inclined to pursue a career in a field or area of practice where there were so few professionals of my background or race.

Students with a desire to go to law school often research employment rates and potential job prospects in the legal sector before considering whether or not to apply. If the numbers show ethnic applicants a low percentage of minorities in the legal profession, many would, at best, feel slightly discouraged from pursuing a career in law or, at worst, consider an alternate career altogether.

The best evidence a firm is serious about reaching out to professionals of different racial backgrounds is by hiring more qualified law students and lawyers who identify as minorities; to show their commitment to the cause. There is nothing more welcoming than seeing a potential employer is not only open to hiring people like you, but often hires people like you.

Successful outreach initiatives would also involve informing students from a young age that a career in law is possible despite one’s ethnicity.

We must question the effectiveness of a recruitment system that accommodates racial minorities (among others) if there is only a small number of minorities in the hiring pool.

By broadcasting that the faces of Canadian legal professionals in all sectors hail from different backgrounds, that percentage of qualified law students and prospective lawyers can increase and, ultimately, the environment at firms can become more diverse.

The onus isn’t only on employers either; law schools should put in just as much effort when advertising their outreach programs, so bright students from all circumstances feel encouraged to apply.

Reaching out to high school students in different neighbourhoods, sending associates and partners of different races and backgrounds to recruitment events as firm representatives, and building strong relationships with educational groups and cultural law associations are just a few methods firms could employ as positive outreach. I believe the well-known phrase “actions speak louder than words” articulates my point far more concisely.

Some firms have are already doing outreach, however, while many are prominent advocates for supporting diversity in the wider community, they do not reflect diversity in their actual hiring practices. Outreach in the wider community is extremely important and beneficial, however, initiatives should also entail reaching out to professionals within the legal community and prospective law students.

While I identify largely with racial diversity, the hiring issue I identified affects numerous people who self-identify as minorities, not just people of colour. If firms were to reach out more and actually show they wish to reflect their commitment to diversity through hiring, that unease common amongst anyone who can call themselves a minority (or different) would be somewhat settled.

I am not saying outreach is the only avenue through which true diversity in the legal sector can be achieved. I do, however, believe if firms were to focus heavily on it, they could ultimately recruit more professionals from different backgrounds, who will, without a doubt, be receptive to the firms’ broadcasts for change. In the meantime, other issues diversity initiatives address should be considered seriously and attention must also be paid to ensuring work environments are welcoming to and accepting of minorities already under their employ.

As advancements in diversity in the legal sector occur slowly, albeit steadily, firms must reflect this dynamic change by distinguishing themselves as diverse employers; not simply as institutions whose efforts extend only to supporting and brainstorming diversity initiatives. It is my hope that in the future, firms make this distinction and reflects through their employment the multicultural identity Canada is lauded for.

Tracy Nanziri is an LLM Candidate at the University of Toronto, expected to graduate in October 2014. Her work currently entails research on investment in Africa, a region from which her family hails. As a result, Tracy identifies as a minority and has written on the diversity issue. She can be reached at [email protected].

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