BMO Diversity Panel

Why is diversity so hard to achieve?

Top Toronto lawyers try to explain why law firms have failed to hire and maintain a more diverse workforce
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Top Toronto lawyers try to explain why law firms have failed to hire and maintain a more diverse workforce
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Despite the verbiage dedicated to the lack of diversity in the law — particularly in private practice — the statistics remain bleak. In Ontario, 50 percent of law grads are women, yet women make up only 35 percent of lawyers in private practice and 20 percent of partners. And these numbers, collected by the Law Society of Upper Canada, have held steady over the last 6 years

That lack of progress emerged as a central theme last night at a panel on diversity in the legal world hosted by Bank of Montreal. 

One key problem is that lawyers find it difficult to recognize their own biases, said Kate Broer, a partner at Dentons and chair of the firm’s Canadian diversity committee. 

Lawyers often believe that, because of their legal education, they are “objective and fair,” she said. They falsely think they are immune from holding prejudicial views. Too many lawyers, as a result, unknowingly favour people of the same gender and cultural background. 

Dentons, as a result, puts lawyers through “implicit bias” tests, so lawyers can see, in scientific terms, that they do not respond to every group of people in the same way. 

But that’s only the first step, said Broer. Once people know they are prejudicial, they have to fight the impulses they’ve relied on their entire life. 

And that takes time. “I have biases,” said Broer. “If I go to an event and it’s a room full of women, I instantly feel more comfortable because we share common characteristics and I know how the culture works.” 

To build a truly diverse workforce, then, lawyers need to hire people with whom they might not immediately get along, she said. It’s a concept, she acknowledges, that flies in the face of traditional hiring practices, where an employee’s supposed “fit” is so important. 

“You have to work harder to connect with someone who doesn’t look like you, or doesn’t have the same background as you,” she said. 

But there is a persuasive reason to make that extra effort, said Simon Fish, general counsel at BMO. A diverse workforce is more creative and innovative, which, in turn, bolsters the bottom line. 

“It’s as simple as that,” he said. “If it’s important for us, then it’s important for the firms that support us. We want their best talent. We want their best ideas. And we want their best services.” 

Which is why, last year, BMO asked firms to measure and report diversity statistics to the bank. Then they use those numbers to help decide which firms to hire.  

That incentive has made a difference. Last year, only 34 percent of firms replied — and this year, 97 percent reported their diversity numbers. 

The panel, by and large, agreed that attitudes are shifting — even if statistics are not. 

And while discussing the same topic ad nauseam can be frustrating, repetition is the only way to undercut deeply embedded biases, said John Mountain, senior vice president of legal at NEI Investments. 

“If you say to people in your workplace that [diversity] is important to us, the first time, they might not believe it,” said Mountain. “And the second time they might not believe it, but the third time they hear it, they may believe it.”