Attack of the lawyer clones

A Calgary lawyer shares an inspiring story about promoting diversity in the workforce
A Calgary lawyer shares an inspiring story about promoting diversity in the workforce

 Successful firms recognize that a diverse workforce is critical to maintaining a competitive edge in the new global economy. Resistance to change can be costly. On the flip side, adapting to change is much more than its own reward. Meaningful change can only be brought about through unflinching self-examination, followed by corrective action. A Calgary lawyer shares an inspiring story where good business sense meets courage.

We had been looking to fill a senior associate position in our insolvency group for several months. Out of all the applications, the hiring committee agreed that one candidate really stood out. Everyone was looking forward to seeing what this guy looked like from up close. But once all the interviews were completed, no offers were made. I was not involved in the interview process.

Another few months went by and insolvency was going flat out. We needed experienced help fast. The Calgary job market was extremely tight and there was no time to advertise for the position again. I went back to the hiring committee and asked to see the resumes that had originally been submitted. I asked why our top candidate had not been interviewed. I was told that he was interviewed. I asked why he didn’t make the cut? “He had a heavy accent,” was the answer.

This guy had a B.A. in mathematics from a top U.S. university, had worked for a magic circle firm in Hong Kong, had a JD from Osgoode and, just for good measure, a CA designation in Canada. “So, he couldn’t communicate in English?” I asked. “Well, yes” I was told. “He can speak English but, there was a concern that he didn’t have the requisite language proficiency to do the job.”

I was stunned. I thought about my Russian mother and her accent, all her university degrees and the fact that she never found a teaching job in Canada. I picked up the phone and called the candidate in for a follow-up interview the same day. Fortunately, he had been out of the country. He had several offers but had not made a decision. Although, he did speak with an accent, his English was fine and his writing samples were excellent. We made him an offer that day with a signing bonus and salary match for his best offer.

I will say that lawyers are especially biased about oral communication. Frankly, even if his English had been as bad as I was led to believe, I didn’t see why we couldn’t provide the training to address that — a negligible cost compared to developing an associate up to his level.

That whole episode was an eye-opener for us. We realized that we hire our clones. We almost missed out on great talent because of an accent! Now, as part of our hiring process, we have an “equity check” to make sure that we are not unfairly holding certain candidates to a higher standard.

According to the 2006 National Census, virtually one in five or 19.8% of the total Canadian population was born outside of Canada, the highest proportion in 75 years. Change is now. It’s not about redefining talent. It’s about removing the blinders so that you can recognize talent when it walks through your door, even if it speaks with an accent. –SR

Sandra Rosier is a former Supreme Court of Canada clerk who has worked at large firms in Toronto and Boston. Having come to her senses, Sandra currently works as a tax advisor at a Toronto-based organization. Have a question for Sandra? Email us.

Image: A stuffed version of Dolly, the cloned sheep (by Tom Barros via Wikimedia Commons)