Over the past year, the biggest controversy we had in the legal profession centred on a new Law Society initiative called the “statement of principles.” It sparked both backlash and — among many lawyers, myself included — ardent support.
Unfortunately, neither side has done an excellent job trying to understand each other. So allow me to help, because we need to put this scandal behind us.
First, a bit of background. The statement of principles refers to a new policy that requires every lawyer and paralegal to confirm, in their annual report to the Law Society of Ontario, that they will write and abide by a statement in which they promise to promote diversity and inclusion in the profession. (All lawyers must complete this year’s annual report by March 31.) This initiative is the result of a multi-year study that withstood considerable public scrutiny and discussion.
Still, when the statement of principles was announced this past September, it took many (if not most) lawyers by surprise. Some saw the new requirement as an unfair imposition on the beliefs, practices and even the personal lives of lawyers.
On those grounds, a law professor at Lakehead University filed a lawsuit against the Law Society over the statement of principles. And then, last December, Joe Groia, one of the Law Society’s benchers, filed a motion that would allow lawyers to conscientiously object to the new requirement. (The motion failed.)
Above all, those who opposed the statement of principles felt as if the Law Society was calling them racist. I understand this reaction. But it isn’t based in fact.
I wish we were having this conversation earlier and under better circumstances, but it’s better to have it late than never. You see, we have a problem here in the law: some of the best, brightest and most talented lawyers among us do not have the same opportunities as everyone else, simply because of the way they look.
It’s not that racist lawyers are actively conspiring to keep others out of positions of leadership. It’s subtler than that. It’s that every time a senior lawyer or a judge (most of whom are white men) picks up the phone to help their child — or a child of their friend — get an articling position, another well-deserving candidate is excluded from the process. And it’s that senior lawyers (most of whom are white men) are more likely to hire and champion lawyers who look like they do.
This is not immoral or premised on racism, but it does mean that people are disadvantaged because they were born into the wrong family. The problem, then, is unconscious bias. Having to put some thought into writing a statement of principles might foster change in the profession by bringing some of that bias to light.
That’s why it was so disheartening to see some in the legal profession resist the statement-of-principles initiative with horror. This reaction can be interpreted as complete denial of any problems. At the very least, it has the appearance of hostility to anything dealing with the profession’s lack of equality.
To accomplish the goals of equality, diversity and inclusion, we all need to recognize that some lawyers are on the defensive and feel like they are unfairly being called racists.
But those who have a gut-level aversion to the statement of principles need to recognize that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Let’s remember: the report that recommended we implement the statement of principles was called Working Together for Change. That requires us to come to the table with an open mind and a shared commitment to making things better. Hopefully, we can begin that change.
Omar Ha-Redeye is a civil litigator and principal at Fleet Street Law. He’s also an adjunct professor at Ryerson University, where he teaches law and ethics.
This story is from our Spring 2018 Issue.
Illustration by Chloe Cushman