Becoming a Diverse Legal Industry
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
I have spent the last 22 years of my life surrounded by diversity. Born and raised in Brampton, Ontario I grew up with people of various ethnicities and backgrounds. I completed my undergraduate degree at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto where I was, again, going through those 4 years with peers who were even more diverse than the people I grew up with. I’ve realized diversity is important because of how it shapes perspectives and ideals, and how it is so much more than enforcing quotas on a board or slapping multicultural pictures on a pamphlet.
Here I am now, about to enter my first year of law school, and I’m wondering about the years ahead of me. This industry I’m preparing to launch myself into...will it look the same as my time growing up in Brampton or attending school at Ryerson? Will I see BIPOC representation? Will I see female representation? Will I see LGBTQIA2S+ representation? The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion report, Diversity by the Numbers: the Legal Profession, states “Several of our respondents pointed out a trend they have noticed, where Racialized lawyers become Sole Practitioners because they are unable to succeed in law firms. These Sole Practitioners usually attempt to service their own communities. In fact, we spoke to a Racialized Woman lawyer who successfully started her own practice because she found that the private practice culture she had experienced previously was “toxic.” (page 14). This concerns me.
There are two particular pieces I have recently read that outline the issue of diversity and inclusion in the legal world: 1) a section in the book Becoming by Michelle Obama and 2) a piece in The Globe and Mail called Black on Bay Street by Hadiya Roderique. This is an issue that stretches across the industry from law school admissions to law firm recruitments and working in private practices. Both of these pieces resonated with me because I believe they address the issue from two different sides: the problem and the potential solution.
Here’s a snippet from Hadiya’s Black on Bay Street, “the problem”:
“But pure merit is a myth. Even in the legal profession, and maybe especially so there, as much as merit may be about working hard, it is more accurately about opportunity, belonging and fit. And as a person of colour, these are roadblocks at every step along the way. Do you fit in as a law student? Can you even go to law school in the first place? Do you get an interview? Do you choose not to apply because you don't see yourself represented? Do you fit enough to get the job? And if you get the job, can you fit enough to remain? These are questions we all ask, black or white, male or female, but the answers are harder for some of us than others” (Black on Bay Street, Roderique, pgph 6).
Here’s a piece from Michelle’s book where she discusses her time as a lawyer and when she got involved with the recruitment process at the firm she worked at at the time, “the solution”:
“If we were serious about bringing in minority lawyers, I asserted, we’d have to look more holistically at candidates. We’d need to think about how they’d used whatever opportunities life had afforded them rather than measuring them simply by how far they’d made it up an elitist academic ladder. The point wasn’t to lower the firm’s high standards: It was to realize that by sticking with the most rigid and old-school way of evaluating a new lawyer’s potential, we were overlooking all sorts of people who could contribute to the firm’s success” (Becoming, Obama, page 121).
Simply put, there are significant barriers that BIPOC face that may disadvantage them when applying for law school and when applying for top legal jobs. Even those who have overcome the obstacles of applying for law school, attending law school, passing the bar exam, and paying heavy fees at all of these stages still struggle to succeed in private practices. When we talk about 21st century law, this is part of it: constantly working towards diversifying the legal industry by holistically looking at law school students during admissions processes and doing the same when recruiting lawyers to firms. Remembering that just because things have always been done a certain way, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the best way. And most importantly, working harder to ensure inclusive cultures at all levels of the legal profession - from law school experiences, to firm interviews, to workplace culture at law firms.
We need people on the admissions and recruitment side to consider people’s stories and circumstances. Championing diversity should be done by ensuring opportunities are made available with people of all backgrounds and experiences in consideration. This means overlooking minor transgressions on a transcript, recruiting from schools that have significant BIPOC representation, and recruiting from some of the “less prestigious” law schools - just like Michelle pushed for when trying to remedy the same issue of diversity and inclusion at the firm that she worked at.
“...my goal was to bring in law students who were not just smart and hard-driving but also something other than male and white” (Becoming, Obama, page 120).
Becoming a diverse legal industry doesn’t start and stop in legal practice - it starts at the very beginning of the process with students applying to law school and continues all the way up until these students become practicing lawyers or legal professionals in the workplace.
Ryerson Law was my top choice for many reasons, their holistic admissions process and pillar of diversity being among the most important. Starting my legal journey with an education that reflects diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and issues will prepare me with the appropriate skills to serve a broader range of communities. These skills are needed in order to make the law more accessible, which is why I look forward to the next 3 years of my legal education where diversity will be embedded into our curriculum and our culture. I hope to launch my legal career in the same fashion.