How to make partner as a racialized lawyer

Advice on getting ahead in an unfair profession
Advice on getting ahead in an unfair profession

1. Confront the pressure to “fit in”

Ritu Bhasin is used to having difficult conversations. As one of Toronto’s top diversity consultants, and a former lawyer, she spends a lot of time with racialized lawyers in the city, offering advice on how to advance — and how to make partner. That means helping them navigate a profession ruled by, as she puts it, “white, straight, able-bodied men from Christian backgrounds.” And it can get uncomfortable. “As it stands now, legal culture rewards conformity,” says Bhasin, who left Stikeman Elliott LLP five years ago, where she had spent seven years as the firm’s director of legal talent. “It’s going to take a long time for that culture to shift, so in the meantime, it requires some amount of strategic adaptation.”

Race and conformity — these are tricky subjects. But Bhasin, a first-generation Canadian whose South Asian parents immigrated to Canada 45 years ago, refuses to tiptoe around them. The reality is too stark. Though racialized people make up 23 percent of Ontario’s population, they account for just 17 percent of lawyers and 6.6 percent of partners.

"I know law firms say their lawyers can look diverse, but they still expect them to ‘fit in.’" — Ritu Bhasin, ‎Bhasin Consulting Inc.

“I know law firms say their lawyers can look diverse, but they still expect them to ‘fit in.’” — Ritu Bhasin, ‎Bhasin Consulting Inc.

Why can’t they get ahead? Perhaps the biggest reason is what social scientists call likeness bias. “We are hardwired to like people who are similar to us,” explains Bhasin. And so, when senior white partners decide which associates to mentor and which to assign major files (steering them closer to partnership) they often choose white associates who ‘fit in’ to mainstream legal culture.

This is more than a theory. A recent report from the Law Society of Upper Canada found that some racialized lawyers can feel alienated at work — for many, it’s because they don’t play golf or hockey, go cottaging or drink alcohol. And this has severe consequences: 26 percent of racialized lawyers said their inability to take part in social activities held them back. Only 12 percent of white lawyers made such a claim. “I know law firms say their lawyers can look diverse, but they still expect them to ‘fit in,’” says Bhasin. “And ‘fit in’ is code for: don’t act Asian, or black or Hispanic.”

"Never change who you are. I’m only talking about broadening your interests."— Brendan Wong, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

“Never change who you are. I’m only talking about broadening your interests.”— Brendan Wong, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

So what should racialized lawyers do? Bhasin says that, in light of this unfair reality, they need to take some interest in mainstream activities. Brendan Wong, a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, who is of Chinese descent, agrees. “If you’re going to a Leafs game with a client, read some headlines in the sports section,” he suggests. “If you know someone likes dogs, look something up about dogs. But never change your values. Never change who you are. I’m only talking about broadening your interests.” For his part, Wong got lucky: he grew up in Maple Ridge, a small town just outside Vancouver, where hockey and golf were popular. “I’ve had an advantage in my career, in that I grew up in the cultural norm that now dominates Bay Street.”

But isn’t this totally unfair? After all, white partners get to live their culture large. Why should racialized lawyers have to knuckle under to the forces of conformity?

Bhasin hears those questions all the time. And she agrees: to discriminate against associates from diverse backgrounds is flat-out wrong. “It is fair for a racialized lawyer to say, ‘I don’t want to conform by learning to play golf or to ski or to drink.’ And I’m the first to say, ‘Don’t do those things, then.’ However, if you’re not going to do those things, and you do nothing, then given current legal culture, you’re not going to get ahead.”

At the same time, Bhasin is not blaming racialized lawyers who fail to make partner for their inability to conform. The onus, she says, is on law firms to change. “This is a law-firm management problem.” And one day, Bhasin hopes she won’t have to give this advice. “I am hell-bent on getting legal culture to change,” she says. “Along the way, though, we need to equip diverse lawyers with tools for success.”

2. Play the diversity card

Discrimination is real. But in recent years, racial diversity has become an asset: some corporations now actively seek out racialized lawyers on their external legal teams. And lawyers can take advantage of this trend, says Michelle Henry, a partner at BLG who is black. “First, look for companies that care about diversity,” she says. A good place to start is the website for the group Legal Leaders for Diversity, whose members include nearly 100 businesses — such as Deloitte, Capital One and Sobeys — that want to hire diverse legal talent. The next step for racialized lawyers, says Henry, is to find out if any of these businesses are clients of their firm. “Try to connect with the partner responsible for that client and ask them for lunch.” The goal, then, is to get on that client’s legal team and, over the years, become a go-to contact.

Racialized lawyers can also tap into communities that Bay Street has typically ignored. “If you are an East Asian lawyer looking for clients, then look for an Asian business association,” says Wong, who’s a member of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers. “You have the cultural knowledge to make connections, so why wouldn’t you do that? Sell what you got.”

This story is part of our series on making partner, from our Spring 2016 issue.