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In recruiting new lawyers, think twice before asking diversity questions

Employers should know that diversity does not mean the same thing to everyone: law student

Paniz Khosroshahy

In 2019, I wrote nearly 50 cover letters; in the winter, I attended 3 job interviews, and in the fall, I attended 5 on-campus and seven in-firm interviews. In half of these interviews, conducted almost entirely by white lawyers, I was asked some sort of question about “diversity.”

What does diversity mean to me? How have I promoted diversity in my previous experiences? What should diversity look like at work? These questions always come at the end of an interview, as though to signal the importance of diversity not just in the interview, but for the entire legal profession.

At a legal clinic interview, I was asked to imagine representing the clinic at a community event. A homeless person staying at a shelter asks me to help him find alternate housing. He believes that the staff at the shelter do not treat him fairly because he is white. He seems prejudiced against the racialized people using the shelter. After replying with how I would handle this situation, I was asked a follow up: would your response change if there was a person of colour working with you at the table?

I asked, “Does that question assume I’m white?” I remember staring at them, wishing they would understand how bizarre that question was and move on. Had they seen me? Was I too inconvenient to see? They nervously smiled. One looked away to escape my gaze. I said, twice, that I didn’t think the question was applicable to me. Finally, I said, “Well, if there was another person of colour there, no my response would not change, because why would it.” In 2020, the clinic kept the same idea for its diversity question, but to shake things up it chose queer people as the demographic of interest.

At another interview, after being asked a diversity question, my coping strategy of choice was staring at the plants in the office to this time avoid eye contact. Here we go again. Was I supposed to make this question about myself? Did they want me to be their model minority — proud of her heritage with a heartwarming immigrant sob story, always grateful for the opportunities in this country? Did I look “diverse enough” for recruitment posters, to march in their float at the Pride Parade? Are they listening to my response even more keenly because I check several diversity checkboxes? Doesn’t every item on my CV scream “diversity” anyway? Do I scare them? Do I look like trouble?

I did not get these jobs, nor have I been offered other jobs for which I was asked about diversity.

The problem with these questions is that they mean very different things to different people. People with power and privilege don’t need to assert, everyday, that they, too, deserve to be part of the legal profession. To them, diversity questions are like any other question, requiring the same rote preparation the night before. Yet, diversity questions require the rest of us to set aside our subjectivity — as racialized, queer, disabled — to comment, objectively, on this concept that is apparently as abstract and detached from our lives as questions about conflict of interest and researching case law.

Diversity questions are a staple in government interviews. Unlike most firm interviews, government interviews often entail substantive law questions. Interviewers look for specific answers to their questions and select candidates based on the grades they assign to their responses. During one government interview, I noticed that the interviewers had key words next to each question they read out to me. As I responded, they circled the words that I had mentioned.

But what are the keywords for “what does diversity mean to you?” Do employers truly think that diversity can mean the same to a white man and an immigrant woman? I know what interviewers want to hear — that the profession should reflect the communities it serves, that diversity aids talent acquisition and improves the public perception of the legal system. Flexible work hours, parental leave for men and women, anti-harassment policies. Probably throw in “intersectionality” once or twice for extra brownie points. I can babble out an entire Equity, Diversity and Inclusion statement if I want to, but that is exactly why I won’t — because, on their own, buzzwords mean nothing. My lived reality is not a game of bingo.

What I truly think about diversity in the legal profession is that exclusion and domination are part and parcel of it, not an anomaly. What I truly want to tell employers is that, during our LSO-mandated professionalism training, a Bay Street partner told my entire class that the #MeToo movement has become too negative, gone too far, that at his firm they end parties at 9 pm because “nothing good every happens after 9 pm.”

I want to talk about how, after being rejected for a job following an interview, I was asked to give racial diversity presentations to the firm’s clients for free. That a classmate once told me that I got a job because I looked like a “raging dyke,” that it wasn’t “fair” that they weren’t hired because they didn’t look like one, and that my workplace was “into alternative looks.” But this is not the type of feel-good diversity employers want to hear about.

I do think that, if framed coherently for a clear purpose, diversity questions can aid employers in certain situations to ensure applicants’ adeptness. A legal clinic should hire culturally competent applicants, but it cannot ask diversity questions to virtue signal or inadvertently harm the applicants with its colour-blindness.

More broadly, before asking law students how they will make the workplace diverse, legal professionals should look within — for example, are they collecting demographic data about who applies, interviews, gets the jobs, who is hired back, who leaves and who stays, and why?

With on campus interviews a few weeks away, I ask that legal professionals think harder about why they ask about diversity, how to frame their questions appropriately, and about what diversity means or should mean to them.

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