Women represented 30 per cent or less of partners at the majority of Canada’s biggest law firms with offices in Ontario, a Star analysis has found.

While the Star also found that the number of female associates was closer to 50 per cent – and in some cases 60 per cent – data from the big firms shows much work still needs to be done to bring about gender parity at the partnership level, advocates say.

Only a handful of firms also provided data of diversity markers other than gender – including numbers related to racialized lawyers, sexual orientation and disability – showing that the partnership still remains predominantly white, straight and male.

“You’re seeing a greater diversity in law schools and certainly with more women graduating and people of different backgrounds, and when you look at the law firms you might see those individuals in lower-level positions, whether it’s articling or associate positions, but not so much at partnership levels,” said Jennifer Gold, vice-president of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario.

“Certainly a lot of work needs to be done by the law society and firms in terms of changing the culture and making meaningful efforts in having greater diversity at the leadership level.”

Diversity in the legal profession has become more intensely scrutinized in recent years at the Law Society of Ontario, the independent body that regulates the profession in this province.

A law society working group spent four years studying the challenges faced by racialized licensees in the province, concluding in its 2016 report that the challenges are both “long-standing and significant.”

One of the working group’s key recommendations – a mandatory “statement of principles” that every lawyer must adopt (but could write themselves) acknowledging their “obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion” – was perhaps one of the most divisive topics in recent years in the profession.

It was abolished in a 28-20 vote last week by the law society’s board, which includes 22 lawyers who had run as a slate specifically opposed to the statement of principles requirement.

The Star consulted the list of Canada’s 30 largest firms in terms of number of lawyers as compiled by legal trade publication Lexpert, of which 21 have offices in Ontario. Of those firms, 17 provided numbers, three declined and one firm, Goodmans, did not respond to multiple requests to their communications staff.

The Star asked the firms for statistics related to the number of women working at the firm, and the number of lawyers who identify as Indigenous, racialized, LGBTQ2S+ and persons with disabilities.

The bulk of the firms provided numbers related to gender only, and the Star is publishing their data pertaining to associates, who are essentially lawyer employees of the firm; and partners, senior lawyers who have a financial stake in the firm and some power over the firm’s overall direction.

Four firms also provided some numbers related to other diversity markers such as racialized lawyers, lawyers who identify as LGBTQ2S+ and as persons with disabilities. A few firms said they were in the early stages of collecting data beyond gender.

A select few regularly post their collected data on their websites. Atrisha Lewis, a member of the law society’s board of directors and vice-chair of its equity and Indigenous affairs committee, said she would like to see a “universal commitment across Bay Street” to collect, track and publish data beyond gender on a regular basis.

“I think what isn’t measured isn’t done; you can’t really measure progress without data,” Lewis told the Star.

“I think that’s particularly important in this current climate where we have some members of our profession, including some of the leaders of our profession, denying the existence of racism. In that context, data becomes even more important, because without tracking and sharing data we’re essentially putting our heads in the sand.”

Among the firms contacted by the Star, Norton Rose Fulbright publishes on its website the most comprehensive breakdown of demographics among its staff, including lawyers. Aside from a gender breakdown, the firm also publishes statistics gathered from a voluntary survey, which had a 68 per cent response rate in 2018, and includes data related to staff who identify as racialized, Indigenous, LGBTQ2S+ and persons with disabilities.

“We decided to publish our new data because we wanted to be transparent about where we were at,” said Sacha de Klerk, the firm’s head of diversity and inclusion. “Like every other firm, we face the same challenges and try to address the same barriers.

“I don’t think our data is very different compared to other firms’ data. For us, it’s to signal our commitment to our people and to our clients that we are committed to making progress and we are open about where we are at.”

Of the four firms in the Star’s analysis with a partnership comprising 30 per cent women or more, only Lerners was over 40 per cent – 42 per cent to be exact.

“While our leadership in this area came about naturally, it is something that we work hard to maintain through our hiring practices, our culture and the excellent work of our diversity and inclusion committee,” said committee chair Ryan McNeil, who is also a partner in Lerners’ family law group.

“We recognize that our work in this area is never done, including as it relates to racialized lawyers, but we feel we are moving and leading in the right direction.”

Most of the firms who agreed to participate in the Star’s analysis acknowledged that more work needed to be done, particularly at the partnership level, and indicated that they have implemented initiatives to increase diversity. Many of those firms said they have affinity groups for staff members of various demographics, and offer unconscious bias training as well to all staff.

As just one example of a diversity initiative, McCarthy Tétrault said it had recently a launched a “Pride action group” that will spend the next year developing a transgender inclusion policy and holding training programs at the firm on LGBTQ2S+ issues.

“We are among those who continue to call on leaders in the legal profession to do more, particularly when it comes to ensuring greater diversity in the recruitment and promotion of lawyers to leadership positions,” said Nikki Gershbain, who said she is the first full-time chief inclusion officer at a major Canadian law firm.

Some firms also said their clients, often large corporations themselves, will ask to know the demographics of the staff who worked on their file.

“Because of their own efforts to ensure that they within their own ranks are diverse, they also focus on ensuring that their legal service providers are meeting the same standards that they are imposing upon themselves,” said Peter Sullivan, a partner at Cassels Brock and chair of the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee.

He said clients will sometimes ask for specific demographic data related to the partners who worked on the file.

“The reasoning behind that really rings true to me: they’re basically saying you can’t staff your files with various women law clerks, but zero women partners, because that doesn’t show that you’re actually providing opportunities to women to be able to gain the experience to rise through the ranks to partnership.”

The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, which has partnered with a number of firms to help collect and analyze demographic data, found that women and racialized lawyers “are strongly represented as articling students and associates, but their numbers greatly reduce in partner and senior leader roles,” according to its report “Diversity by the Numbers: The Legal Profession.”

“The lawyers in our interviews and focus groups revealed that the culture of private practice law prioritizes specific masculine behaviours that create a hierarchy between Caucasian, upper-middle-class men and those from other groups,” says the report, published last year.

“These affect lawyers who do not wish to or cannot conform to them, typically women and racialized lawyers, which prompts them to exit the profession or to avoid entering private practice. In turn, masculine cultures in private practice can continue, so that leadership and partnership remain largely homogenous.”

The report concluded that while many firms had recognized the need for more diverse and inclusive firms, there had yet to be strong evidence of change.

“I think what is inhibiting the movement in general is this very firm belief that we live in a meritocracy, and we don’t,” said Deanna Matzanke, the centre’s chief client officer.

“I would like to see more transparency. If an organization is willing to make public where they are, regardless of whether it’s a good story or not, that tells me they’re holding themselves accountable to do something about it.”

See the complete list of firms and how they stack up on diversity at TheStar.com.

Jacques Gallant, Legal Affairs Reporter
September 22, 2019

Photo ALT: Image. Jennifer Gold, vice-president of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario, says that while there is now greater diversity at the lower levels of the profession, firms have much work to do to improve diversity at the leadership level.

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