Ultra Vires


Behind the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Unconscious Bias is Alive and Well in the Fall Recruit

On a drizzling, overcast afternoon in North York, I sit down with Leanne* at a small restaurant in York Lanes Mall. University students scurry by at a frenzied pace, grabbing a bite to eat or running an errand between their classes.

We have met to discuss Leanne’s experience as an international student in the Toronto fall recruit. 

“The people here know me by name,” she tells me as she looks up from her food. “I’m the only one who orders my sushi with crab and cream cheese. This is how they eat it back home.”

Leanne is a licensed lawyer in her home country of Brazil, and an LLM student at Osgoode Hall. She was able to secure a government position in the fall recruit. Still, she says, the process was far from perfect.

“I feel there was a lot of discrimination and a lot of bias,” she tells me.

She recounts an exchange that she had at a big firm’s cocktail reception. Although she had applied as a student at Osgoode Hall, the firm listed only her undergraduate university on her nametag. An inquisitive associate asked her about it. She told him it was in Brazil.

“His response was: ‘Oh amazing! It’s good that you’re pursuing education, because the people who clean our washrooms here, they’re all from Brazil’,” she told me. “It was very upsetting.”

Jaimie*, another internationally-trained LLM student at Osgoode, expressed her reservations about the hiring process. 

“17 minutes is a very short time to convince someone you are fit for the job,” she said of her experience at OCIs.

Jaimie is a licensed lawyer in India. Before coming to Canada, she spent two years at one of the most prestigious firms in India. She was an associate in intellectual property. Now, she aspires to make partner at a large firm with an international reach.

Despite her substantial job experience, Jaimie received only one OCI in Toronto. She did not make it on to in-firms.

“[The] interviewers don’t really talk about your experience,” she told me. “Instead they try and deviate from your resumé.”

“We have good, significant experience which could help the Bay Street firms […] I feel like there could have been more opportunities that the firms could have given us.”

Leanne was luckier. She secured 8 in-firms in total—with both Bay Street firms and government offices. She expected her two foreign clerkships and her public-defence experience to be highly valued. But, she says, her international experience was met with cynicism and disbelief.

“I think they didn’t understand it,” she remarked of her experience. “They didn’t want to see that I had transferrable skills. In in-firms, they were always asking: ‘Why is that relevant?’ And once I explained why it was relevant, they asked me: ‘Sure, but don’t you have any Canadian experience?’”

Leanne and Jaimie were not the only ones who expressed concern with the hiring process.  Rick*, a mid-level associate in Toronto, had similar things to say. Rick has participated in the 2L recruit as an articling student and as an associate at several firms on and off Bay Street.

“I can speak to its arbitrariness,” he told me of the 2L recruitment process. 

“I have seen a candidate that was otherwise liked get shot down, because he brought a backpack to an interview.”

Although Rick said that he had not encountered overt discrimination in the hiring process, he mentioned several instances of substantial bias.

“I’ve seen a candidate lauded for her ‘small-town charm’,” he said.  “You know who you don’t see in small towns? Immigrants.”

Rick also told the story of a candidate who was passed over in favour of those who were developed athletes. 

“That partner, in that particular room, found value in athletic success over other types of success. That’s ableist, and it’s classist.”

I asked Rick whether cocktail receptions and dinners were partially to blame for bias in the recruitment process. I wondered if firms were drawn to candidates whose relatively privileged backgrounds helped them be more extroverted. 

“If a firm has a cocktail reception, I think they unknowingly value a particular kind of extroversion where there’s drinks and people in suits and dresses. Not everyone is comfortable in that setting. Not everyone grew up in it.”

Leanne’s comments matched Rick’s. “Firstly, it’s harder for us to initiate a conversation,” she said of international students at receptions. “We don’t know how to act. I had never had a reception in my life before. For me, that’s totally not normal.”

Still, she said she thought that firms had already made their hiring decisions by the time the cocktail receptions rolled around. 

“I just think it’s very superficial […] I think they have already made their choice.”

Rick had something similar to say: “No one is getting selected for cocktail performance.”

Asked about the effects of firms’ failures to effect a neutral hiring process, Rick was unsure.

“I think they’re wasting good talent,” he said, “but [the 2L recruit] is only one opportunity. Good candidates can make lateral moves.”

Despite the process’s shortcomings, Jaimie was encouraged about the firms’ emphases on equity, diversity and inclusion. 

“They don’t really have to do that,” she said of the firm’s equity, diversity and inclusion programs. “It’s good on them”.

She was unequivocal when asked whether her perception of Toronto or the legal market had changed as a result of the recruit.

“No,” she said, “I’m just very optimistic.”

Leanne was less optimistic. “My idea of the law firms didn’t change. I never liked Bay Street.”

Both Leanne and Jaime said they would like to see more transparency in the process. 

“They can pick 20 Canadians,” Leanne said. “I would be fine with that. But the process should be transparent. I would like not to have it in the back of my mind that I wasn’t picked because I am Brazillian.”

*Editor’s Note: Names have been changed at the request of the individuals.

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