Ultra Vires


On Diversity: The “My Neighbour is African” Edition

Nabila Pirani (3L) 

I have spent the past few weeks talking to several “diverse” people at U of T Law who went through the LSUC November recruitment process for Toronto. I didn’t speak to them all, and I have no idea whether the people I spoke to constitute a statistically representative group—because, you know, no one really knows what our school’s diversity statistics actually represent. Possible methodological matters aside, my conversations illuminated a series of issues.

These include things we already know. Bay Street’s diversity numbers are nowhere close to those of our general population, but things are changing. Many firms now have “Diversity Coordinators” mandated to address this representativeness problem.

There are things we know, but don’t talk about. That a number of lawyers can be really offensive—and/or just plain ignorant—towards diverse peoples, for example.

Then there are the things we won’t talk about. That, for diverse peoples, talking about diversity with firms during recruitment is just as dangerous as asking the “work-life balance” question, or demonstrating more than a passing interest in social justice.

That danger doesn’t stop with the end of recruitment.

In my conversations, I heard stories that gave me hope, but I also heard horror stories that had me cringing and cursing in disgust. Most importantly, I heard stories of individuals wanting to engage firms on their diversity policies because, for some, these matter just as much (if not more) than the multi-billion dollar deal the firm just participated in.

For example, what are firms’ policies on religious accommodation requests? Do lawyers at law firms undergo training to help them become more conscious of diversity-related matters? What sort of diversity-related outreach do these firms engage in? Is diversity even an issue?

But here’s the thing.

You won’t hear any of these individuals’ stories. That would mean, at the very least, making their lives with their respective employers difficult and awkward. At most, this would mean potentially putting someone’s job at risk, mine included. And I can’t do that.

And so, I won’t tell you which firms tried to engage with students about diversity, but ended up making it seem like a liability. I also won’t tell you which firm tried to pigeonhole a diverse student into a form of law tangentially related to that person’s specific diversity. And I certainly won’t tell you which Senior Partner answered the “What are your firm’s diversity policies?” question with the equivalent of “My neighbour is African.”

Speaking up and writing about such experiences is one thing, actually dealing with the problem is another. It’s great that firms have started looking at diversity, thinking about diversity, trying to engage potential recruits on diversity. But so long as the power imbalance between law firms and potential recruits continues—and we know it’s not going anywhere—diverse peoples will not and cannot engage with firms on issues of diversity with the freedom that the conversation requires.

The question arises—what do we do? In all honesty, I don’t know yet. At the very least, law firms could start by instituting diversity training for lawyers participating in the November recruit. Diversity and student hiring coordinators could brainstorm the various types of diversity they might come across during recruitment, and determine what steps they could take to accommodate them. Our Career Development Office could be more forthright about the sorts of issues diverse peoples might face through the recruitment process, and connect interested 2Ls with diverse upper year students who have already gone through it. The Law Society could take active steps to collect information (anonymously, of course) on the sorts of experiences diverse students have during the process, and to address its findings with firms.

Ultimately, it’s about moving the conversation forward. It won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t happen for many years. For the remainder of this year, however, this column will try to do whatever it can to bring attention to issues of diversity at the law school and beyond.

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