Mentorship, Sponsorship and Diversity

Vivene Salmon: Typically, I record conversations with the president at the CBA podcasting studio in Ottawa. During the Covid-19 pandemic crises, I’m recording podcasts episodes from my home in Toronto. As a result, the sound quality might not be as clear as when I record in the studio. I hope you enjoy listening to the podcast. Stay safe.

Hello. My name is Vivene Salmon. Welcome to Conversations with the President. It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a lawyer. The legal profession is perhaps unique and that newcomers are encouraged to seek out veterans as teachers and advisors and veterans are encouraged to take on that role. Over the course of a career, a lawyer can seek out a variety of mentors to provide a number of services: teacher, coach, advisor and confidante. And mentors are just the beginning of the story.

It’s becoming clear that even more than mentors, young lawyers particularly those equity seeking groups needs sponsors. People in the upper tier of the firm who can make sure their work will get noticed, that they get assigned to important files and their name will rise to the top when it comes time to choose new partners.

My guest today is Ruth Goba. Ruth is a Human Rights Lawyer and the Executive Director of the Black Legal Action Centre which was established in 2018 with a mandate to fight anti-black racism in Ontario. She graduated from Osgoode Hall in 2000 and looked for work in international law after failing to land an article in position. She was called to the bar in 2002. Welcome to the podcast, Ruth.

Ruth Goba: Thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you.

Vivene Salmon: We’re recording this podcast in the summer of 2020. During what feels like a very unsettled time. While we’re still social distancing due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the killing of George Floyd has sparked a new generation of activism, protestors taking to the street across the world to fight for racial equality. So let me start by asking you, Ruth. How are you doing?

Ruth Goba: I am OK. I am extremely busy. As you know I work – I’m the Executive Director of the Black Legal Action Centre and the impact of both Covid‑19 on the black community and of course the protest around police brutality have had a significant impact on black and on the black community. So we are extremely busy.

Vivene Salmon: I can imagine. Take me back to the debut of you legal career. You didn’t land an articling position after law school. As a result, you took a job with an NGO in New Delhi and from there you’ve carved out a very entrusting career in human rights and social justice. Had you been planning to work in that field from the start?

Ruth Goba: When I went to law school it was because I wanted to work in social justice and throughout law school I struggled, to be frank, and like everyone, got you know, wrapped up in the articling process, and you know, looking for jobs that would make you successful on Bay Street and I didn’t get an articling position. I think when I didn’t get the articling position I was so distressed. What it forced me to do was kind of re-evaluate the reasons that I went to law school in the first place and the reasons that I went were to work in social justice and work on issues of human rights.

And so, I made a decision at that point that I would only apply for jobs that I genuinely was passionate about and interested in, and that’s what I did and I think it turned out – at the time, I thought not getting an articling position was – for me, it was devastating, but it turned out probably to be the best thing that happened to me with respect to law school.

Vivene Salmon: Yeah. It always seems like bad that we don’t know the future, but somehow it knows what’s best for us in some ways. So as a black woman whose life experiences crosses out the intersectionality of race and gender, did you find it difficult to find mentors when you returned to Canada?

Ruth Goba: I did. I mean, my journey in law has been a little bit unusual. I came back to Canada – I didn’t really find mentors at that time. I looked up to people from afar, but in law school I was a little big isolated and subsequent to law school, I was as well. And so, I looked up to people from afar, I think, but I didn’t really have connections to people in my community. Certainly not in law, right. I had connections elsewhere, but I didn’t have connections in law to other women in the black community that I went to for advice or mentorship?

Vivene Salmon: How did you re-establish your career then? Because you talked about things, experiences of isolation in law school when you went abroad, when you came back, how did you then overcome these experiences of isolation and re-establish your career in Canada?

Ruth Goba: I went to India to work. It ended up being international articles and I had a phenomenal experience and made phenomenal contacts actually. I made contacts through the NGO that I was working with. My boss was appointed special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing for the United Nations a week before I arrived. So I got to travel to Kenya and to Geneva and met people throughout those travels and throughout that work that worked in Canada. So when I came back to Canada, I finished my articles at a community legal aid clinic called Arch Disability Law Centre which is a specialty legal aid clinic that works on issues of disability.

But then I went straight to an international – a domestic and international human rights organization called the Centre for Equality Rights and Accommodation and I had met the executive director and actually the women’s program manager in Geneva, Switzerland. I got a job offer from them and so I started working at CERA and that’s really where I started my domestic human rights work.

Vivene Salmon: So that sounds really serendipitous to some respects, but it also sounds like you were very methodical about your career choices and seeing, you know, to what some people is a very traditional carved path, and within that, did you feel that race impacted your career or race impacted your ability to get mentorship and how you got a mentor? Is that something that you felt was implicit there or explicit or is it something that you felt that you had to overcome to get where you are now?

Ruth Goba: I feel like it’s something I had to overcome to be honest. I would like to be able to say that I made very conscious decisions. I think the first decision around my articling wasn’t mine. The first decision was that I did not get an articling position, and looking back, given how I was feeling at that time and my confidence level – you know, I’m not surprised actually that I didn’t get an articling position. I’ve learned a lot now and for younger people – younger black women in particular who are looking for jobs, I speak with people who either – you know, who are looking for articling positions and we talk lot about how to approach it, what to do, what it means if you don’t get something, what to do better the next time, because I’ve learned that over the years.

I think after I didn’t get the job, I then made very conscious decisions. So while I’d like to take credit and say “I had the foresight to say, you know I’m just going to do what I want to do.” There was an intervening factor, which at the time I really viewed as a failure that caused me to make the choices that I made, but it ended up being a good thing.

Vivene Salmon: And let’s talk a little bit more about mentorship. Do you need a mentor to look like you? How can mentorship be used to breakdown systemic racism that racialized lawyers face in their career which holds them back from achieving their true potential?

Ruth Goba: Well – I mean, I can say that there are certainly some black women lawyers in the province that I look to and that I admire and I that I consider mentors, but I will also say that a lot of the people who have supported me in my career have not been black and they have seen, I think in me, something that they want, you know, that they want to support. And so, I’m grateful for all of the support that I’ve received, and all of the guidance and all of the encouragement.

Vivene Salmon: Yeah, I think it’s important for people to realize that people are not necessary looking for mentors like them all the time. It’s something that can play a role, but people really need allyship and sharing power and aiming for a true equal society. There’s a lot of talk about mentors. It’s one side of the coin in particular for women in racialized associates and young lawyers. Many people don’t normally see reflections of themselves in the C-suite. Part of the equation, I think for breaking the glass ceiling, seems to be sponsorship. How important is sponsorship in opening up opportunities for young lawyers and those who belong to underrepresented communities?

Ruth Goba: When you say sponsorship, can you clarify for me a little bit what you mean by – specifically by sponsorship?

Vivene Salmon: Somebody who champions your career. Somebody who really is vested in your success and making sure that others see that you are a strong candidate.

Ruth Goba: So I think that’s really critical for young black lawyers. I mean, when I went through the initial articling interviews, when you say that there isn’t a reflection, I remember going to the interviews and in every single interview, the only black women I saw, were black women serving food at gatherings or black women cleaning the premises. You know, that is 20-some years ago now. I think there have been some changes obviously, but not enough. And so, I think it is critical to be able to reach out to people.

One of the things I have learned along the way that I didn’t have when I started was someone to call for advice and someone to say “How do I approach this interview? How do I, you know, best reflect my skills and my cover letter?” Just very basic things. Very basic networking skills that – you know, I didn’t have a network. I think that’s often still the case, actually, in some cases and so I think it is a really critical part of supporting young black lawyers and young black women lawyers and giving young black people a platform to show their talents. I didn’t always have that. You know, I ended up having some of that as I got older, but that was really quite a bit later in my career. Early on, I didn’t have it.

Vivene Salmon: How do you get sponsored in the first place? I know in terms of your career, you’ve talked about the evolution of you as a person and your career in terms of having more self-confidence now than you’ve ever had before compared to when you’re a young lawyer. But in terms of this question of sponsorship, how does a young person get sponsored in the first place?

Ruth Goba: I mean, I think you have to be willing to reach out to people and part of that, when I talk about the insecurity, that’s part of what I didn’t have. I didn’t know who to reach out to, but I didn’t have the confidence to reach out. You know, I thought if I reached out that I was going to be bothering people, people were too busy, but I think what I had learned is that in the black community specifically, there is a real willingness and generosity of time and a willingness to share knowledge, a willingness to support and to uplift. And so, I would encourage, you know, younger black lawyers to – who are starting out to reach out to others for support. There’s a connection that you have. I talk about when I interviewed – when I did my interview for the Black Legal Action Centre, I was 49 when I did that interview.

And it was the very first time in my career that I was interviewed by an all-black panel, and when I think back, I had one interview in my entire career where there was a black woman on the panel, but outside of that it was the only time. And the difference that that made – so for, you know, it allowed a comfort level that I’ve never experienced before in an interview, right, because of the connection that I felt. And so, I would encourage – I mean, you know, I don’t know that everybody has that opportunity. It’s an unusual kind of circumstance, because it’s the Black Legal Action Centre, but I would encourage young lawyers to not be shy about reaching out to more senior lawyers and to just kind of – you know, seek advice, ask advice, ask for support, ask for guidance. It’s really a critical part of how we progress in the profession.

Vivene Salmon: So let’s talk about that progression a little bit more. A report done in Ontario a few years ago talked about the instrumentalization of diversity. Firms using diversity policies to track new hires and reassure clients that they’re diverse, but then not really creating an inclusive and supporting culture that would move these diversity hires on the partnership track or leadership roles or to be really true inclusive culture. Whose responsibility is it to change the culture of law firms and make the profession not only diverse, but faster belonging, inclusion and truly equal opportunity?

Ruth Goba: I think it’s the responsibility of the partners in the firm. I think it’s the responsibility of the Law Society. When firms talk about diversity, a firm may be diverse, but it may not have black people in it, right? And so, I would recommend – I would suggest – I’m a big proponent of understanding exactly what’s happening in your firm, who’s being hired, who’s being retained, who’s being promoted and I think that it is incumbent if law firms and the legal community is genuine about wanting to change the position of black people in the profession, and wanting to improve it and wanted to retain and promote then they have to look at the numbers, right.

They have to look at what’s actually happening through data collection, understanding what’s happening and make very conscious decisions about how they understand what policies are in place that may exclude the black community or how they improve policies to reach out for interviews, if they’re using search teams at times, make it known to the search teams that they want not only diversity, but black people to be brought forward to participate in interviews. That’s a critical part of things as well.

But I do think it’s incumbent upon the – it has to come from – it can’t be the responsibility of the black articling students, right, and the junior black associates to ensure that the firm is acting appropriately. There’s a burden already on young black people, because you are already dealing with all sorts of anti-black racism in the workplace, and I will say that that’s just a given and so to then have to be responsible for making sure that your firm is behaving in ways that doesn’t, you know, foster kind of further anti-black racism puts an additional burden that should not be there.

And so, I think it’s the responsibility of partners in law firms and senior people in firms to make sure that there’s a climate where if there are issues of discrimination happening that there is an ability to deal with it and not just shut it down and create what becomes a toxic environment where someone can’t talk about the discrimination that they’re dealing with. And I think that’s really critical. I think it’s not just critical in law firms. I think it’s critical across the private sector, quite frankly in government, too.

Vivene Salmon: So what it really comes down to is that it’s really [taught] from the top. People in positions of authority and power must lead and they must lead morally and they must make tough decisions and they must look inward in themselves to change and to lead change within our culture. So what role does institutional and systemic racism then play in the legal community?

Ruth Goba: I think it plays a really significant and negative role in the legal community. When I graduated from law school, I didn’t get an articling position. Most of the people who didn’t get articling positions were black or racialized. The impact of that I think is still seen now. Because of the economy I think that there are more people who are not racialized who are not getting articling positions. But they’ve actually had to deal with it now, right, because it’s impacting so many young people. But I still get calls all the time from people who are searching for articling – young black people who are searching for articling positions who have excellent grades, excellent – you know extracurricular activities and who are just not even selected for interviews.

And it may – you know, it still happens, the individual is not called because they have a name that isn’t a traditional name that you think of in law. And so, even small things like that play a role. Systemic racism in the legal profession is really significant and part of what I’ve always said is that I think the Law Society has a significant responsibility actually to deal with training in law school for lawyers and understanding of human rights and understanding of equity. Every law firm will tell you “No, we have –” well, every time you raise issues of raise, lawyers are the best suited to say “Oh, but we have all these amazing policies. We have all these amazing policies” but when you look across the spectrum of lawyers who are senior in the profession, our numbers are really low. [Laughs] Right? So that says something about how people, about how internally black people are viewed, accepted, encouraged, promoted.

Vivene Salmon: So tell me about the Black Legal Action Centre. What role does it play in challenging institutional racism and bias that upholds the structural inequalities that you’re speaking about?

Ruth Goba: So the Black Legal Action Centre is a community legal aid clinic. Our mandate is to combat individual and systemic anti-black racism across Ontario. It’s an enormous mandate to meet that goal. We are funded for seven people. Our resources are extremely scarce to meet the goal. We are a hybrid clinic as well, which means that we provide both individual legal representation to low and no income black people across Ontario, but we also do systemic work. We also do systemic advocacy, law reform, public education, community development. And so, part of the way that we can deal with systemic discrimination is to educate both in and out of community.

We advocate and we often are engaged in advocacy campaigns and then also litigating where necessary. You know, one example recently is the impact of Covid on the shelter system and on the homeless population. While we know because of statistics around poverty in Ontario that the black community is overly represented in the shelter system So in coalition with others we brought a legal challenge demanding that the city ensure the safety of people in the shelter system including a large component of which are black and indigenous people making sure that the shelter system is ensuring that there are social distancing measures in place to ensure the safety of people who have to rely on a shelter system.

We work both our community about educating them around their rights. We also work with others who are responsible for upholding those rights and challenge them where necessary to make change.

Vivene Salmon: So when we’re talking about change, CBA, Canadian Bar Association is trying to change too and one of the things that the CBA cares a lot about is access to justice. What do you think the key access to justice challenge is for the black community?

Ruth Goba: Most recently the government implemented or is in the process of implementing Bill 161 which changes fundamentally the Legal Aid Services Act which is the foundational legislation around legal aid, right. As a result of advocacy actually, as a result of significant advocacy, well they had removed the purpose of the Legal Aid Services Act which was to provide access to justice for low income individuals. And as a result of advocacy, they have included that purpose, but really the goal of the legislation now is efficiency.

And so, what that does is for all of the vulnerable communities across the province who rely on legal aid, the purpose of legislation is quite significant. You know, I think that’s one – certainly that’s one very practical issue that comes to mind with respect to challenges around access to justice, but one of the reasons that BLAC was created was because the black community – well, we conducted a needs assessment. The clinic prior to opening conducted – commissioned a needs assessment and one of the things that came out of that needs assessment was after speaking with black people across the province, was that they felt they weren’t being served by the legal community and we see that at BLAC all the time when people call us and need assistance.

You know, they have a criminal lawyer who is just pleading them out and not looking at issues of anti-black racism that may have played a role in, you know, how they were charged and why they were charged. You know, all sorts of issues around how black people access lawyers. What the needs assessment showed was that they were not – often people were not comfortable working with lawyers. They wanted lawyers who understood their position around anti-black racism and they felt often that lawyers didn’t understand, and if they raised issues of anti-black racism, they were kind of, you know, brushed aside. And so, those I think are significant issues around true justice for the black community.

Vivene Salmon: So what can we do as a legal community to build a pipeline, an environment where more black children not only see a future in law, but they’re also very confident that they can have a successful career and it’s not going to be based on being held back because of skin colour?

Ruth Goba: One of the things that has happened at BLAC when we opened our doors in March of 2019, I thought that we would be inundated by calls around policing, right, and the impact of policing on the black community. What happened actually is that almost 50% of our calls are related to education and I think that success in our community – future success in our community really depends on how the education system is managing the pervasive anti-black racism that exists and it exists from junior or kindergarten. It exists in childcare centers where young black kids are excluded from a nursery because of stereotypical assumptions about behaviour that don’t apply to other kids.

It exists in junior kindergarten where we have, you three, three year olds being suspended from school. I mean, what can a three year old do that warrants a suspension where six year olds are being handcuffed? There’s an impact on our kids. A significant impact on our kids and how they feel and the confidence they have. And then they get to high school, there’s hyper surveillance. There’s extra discipline, there is criminalization and all of this stuff, all of it, not just the criminalization, but all of the micro aggressions that happen in school impact the confidence of our kids and how they view themselves moving forward in the future and some of it has a very real impact on the their possibility for future earnings, right.

Like when kids are streamed, they don’t have the opportunity to go to university or when they are put in a course that is, you know, an apprenticeship course instead of an academic grade course, simply because of the colour of their skin and that is what we see at BLAC a lot. There’s a huge impact moving forward and those kids are off the bat precluded from going to law school, absent, doing a bunch of extra schooling. So I think that it starts – the support for our kids has to start – you know, I think the black community is extremely resilient and I am amazed by the parents in the black community and the caregivers who support the kids and fight for the kids all along the way, but there also has to be responsibility on government to make accountable a system that damages our kids from an early age and sets them on a path that they probably should not be on.

Vivene Salmon: And I would also [pause at that] part of that too, is for everyone to understand their history and by everyone I don’t just mean black and indigenous people to understand the legacy of slavery or the legacy of residential schools. I think it’s also incumbent for everyone to understand history and not, you know, give it a gloss that really isn’t accurate which shapes how kids are educated in school and outcomes later in life. What’s the best advice you’ve been given or what advice do you want to give to others?

Ruth Goba: Always call out racism. Always. You can do it in the way that is most comfortable for you. Everybody has different ways of doing, but always call it out.

Vivene Salmon: I’ve been speaking with Ruth Goba, Executive Director of the Black Legal Action Centre located in Toronto. We want to hear your stories about the changes you’ve seen in the legal profession or think the profession needs to make. Where do you see generational conflict and how do you suggest we overcome it? Let us know on Twitter @CBA_News. On Facebook and on Instagram at @canadianbarassociation. You can hear this podcast and others on our CBA channel The Every Lawyer. On Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Play and Stitcher. Wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe to receive notifications for new episodes and to hear us in French, listen to our Juriste branchĂ© podcast.