Radha Curpen at Bennett Jones LLP on how law firms should understand intersectionality

Curpen will speak about her work and law firm leadership at the Women in Law Summit in April

Radha Curpen at Bennett Jones LLP on how law firms should understand intersectionality
Radha Curpen

Radha Curpen is the Vancouver managing partner and the national ESG strategy and solutions firm leader at Bennett Jones LLP. For our CL Talk podcast, she spoke to us about diversity, equity and inclusion in law and how intersectionality fits within that framework. Curpen explained how her personal background and experiences advising clients on ESG inform her understanding of intersectionality.

Curpen will also be appearing at Canadian Lawyer’s upcoming Women in Law Summit in Toronto in April, where she will speak about “No woman left behind – Examine intersectionality for the benefit of your team.”

Listen to our full podcast episode here:

 

You can also find this episode on our CL Talk podcast homepage with links to follow CL Talk in all the major podcast providers.

Below is a summary of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your practice and how you took on a leadership role at Bennett Jones.

My practice started many years ago in Manitoba; I then moved to Ontario, New York, and back to Ontario. Since July 2016, I have been in Vancouver. I did some commercial litigation at the beginning of my career and currently practise environmental law. I work on governance issues, corporate social responsibility, ESG and sustainability. Investors coined ESG, or environmental, social and governance, many years ago. It brings together a lot of the work that I've done over the years in many jurisdictions in Canada and the US.

How do you define intersectionality, and why is it essential for diversity, equity and inclusion in law?

I understand intersectionality as a framework that describes how overlapping social identities connect to racism. That includes race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, religion, disability and more to create an authentic identity. It's also linked to how people can be excluded from systems.

I'm not an expert on intersectionality. I can only speak from my experiences. I do not approach anything with an oppressor and oppressed mentality. I think it's essential to define diversity simply as the ways people differ from one another. Having a diverse workplace means having people of different backgrounds. So, it could include inherent diversity, such as race and gender, and acquired diversity, such as language and experience. When I think of diversity, I think of it in its broadest sense, and I want to include as many people as possible.

When you think about equity, it's fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all, understanding that different people have different backgrounds and that people's positions should be considered in fair treatment. It recognizes advantages and barriers and that individuals can come from unequal starting points. Inclusion means that diverse people are treated equitably and have power and a voice within an organization.

How have your experiences shaped your understanding of intersectionality in the legal profession?

My experiences have helped me understand how people with different experiences think about opportunities, risks, rewards and goals.

I'm a woman of colour, a South Asian woman, an immigrant to Canada and a Francophone. So, I bring a set of different experiences. I think we've been taught in the past about discrimination through a single lens, such as race or sex, but it goes beyond that.

For me, allies have been essential. I've found sponsors and mentors vital in my career. Those experiences have also allowed me to accumulate privileges as well.

How have DEI initiatives focusing on intersectionality evolved in your experience?

When I started in the 1990s, we were not having these conversations. People were not discussing DEI. There is now a lot of discussions and awareness of this. We must continue building awareness, but action is also essential. We have made a lot of advances, but there's still work to be done. We are more aware of it in organizations, firms, and the profession.

How do we then implement it? How do we apply it? How does it reflect our everyday? I think we'll continue to make progress by having people with different experiences talk about it and say, “How do we deal with the allocation of work? How do we retain people? How do you hire people? How do we make sure that people feel empowered?”

Those are the kinds of conversations we are having now that we didn't before. We've seen this evolution. I think it’s important to remember that this is an opportunity to make people feel empowered and continue to do so.

Could you share examples where recognizing intersectionality improved team or client outcomes?

If you look at ESG or sustainability and the work that we're doing with boards on diversity, equity and inclusion, it is really about making sure that boards and organizations are responding to the public and employees.

You see initiatives at the board level and operationally that go beyond tokenism. It used to be okay to say, for example, we will have one woman here, but it's not like that anymore. It is not about quotas or tokenism.

I also practise Aboriginal law, and when it comes to Indigenous peoples and EDI, I want to highlight that Indigenous peoples and First Nations are not simply seeking EDI; they're seeking self-government and self-determination. So, that becomes even more complex. It's important to remember this distinction when cultivating relationships with First Nations and Indigenous groups in Canada. It's a vital aspect of an organization's ESG practices.

Those are what I see in the work where I advise clients and in our work at the firm, looking at our processes and ensuring we have that lens.

What significant challenges do underrepresented women face in the legal profession?

As a profession, there are still not enough women staying in the profession and becoming partners, or once they do, they may not stay.

People take maternity leave, and now people take paternity leave. As people take parental leave and come back, how do we assess that year, or those nine or six months, and ensure they are still valued members of the profession? We must ensure they feel included and empowered and are given opportunities to succeed.

There are also a lot of firms, including ours, that have committees to look at our processes and how to ensure, from the board level to the recruitment of laterals and students, that we bring that diversity lens. By diversity, I mean this in the broadest sense.

When I'm interviewing someone, it's not just their grades at law school. Most people who show up have done very well in law school, but it's also about their life experiences and what makes them suitable for this profession.

How can firms examine their practices through an intersectional lens more effectively?

When people look around the table in everything they're doing, whether it's a pitch, providing the opportunities to speak, making decisions about recruitment and talent retention, who's around the table? Who's absent? Ask yourself that question. Encourage people to be allies and support each other.

For mentorship, a lot of firms do it very well. We have a system of mentorships and informal mentors, which is great. But everyone must also find a sponsor, or two or three.

It's good to cultivate that and encourage people at the very beginning. When I welcome students to the firm, I encourage them right away. I say, “You're going to find people you want to imitate, people you don't want to imitate, that's okay. You must find your own way, but you should also find people who you want to be your sponsors. Go and reach out to them about how you can be helpful to them.” Engagement at each level of the organization is imperative.

I know there's been a lot of publicity recently about some of the issues facing DEI. It is about bringing people together, empowering them and recognizing that people's experiences have a tremendous impact on their goals, beliefs, fears, hopes, triggers, and expectations.

If you think about it that way, you will want to engage them in a way that would bring out the best in them in the interest of your organization.

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