FLSC President's Dinner

  • October 16, 2019

Thank you for your kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be here, speaking on behalf of the 36,000 members of the Canadian Bar Association.

Given where we are tonight, it seems appropriate to engage in communications discourse. Signal Hill is where Guglielmo Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic wireless signal in 1901. That set the stage for more than a century of heart-stopping technological advances. The twentieth century began with dots and dashes, and ended with bits and bytes. Now we have access to the vast bulk of the world’s knowledge in our pockets – that is as long as we can get a signal and the battery doesn’t die.

Yet, basic communication hasn’t changed. It is fundamental to everything we do as humans.. We can look at paintings dabbed thousands of years ago on cave walls in Lascaux, France and other places around the world and not only understand the stories they tell, but identify with them emotionally. We can visit places like Hampton Court in the UK, and imagine not only the Tudor Court brought to life, but identify with the emotions Anne Boleyn must have felt when she was wrongly accused of adultery and sentenced to death.  

The farther we get away from face-to-face, one-on-one interactions with people, the more opportunity there is for miscommunication.

That’s why we value occasions such as these, when we can come together, get to know each other, and share thoughts and ideas of mutual interest.  Talk, but more importantly to really listen to others. The more we hear from other groups – and the better listeners we become – the more we can understand each other.

Communication is one of the cornerstones of my presidential term, across a number of platforms. Face-to-face, to be sure, as well as on social media; through videos, telephone calls and teleconferencing.

I will be trying to initiate conversations between people who have yet to fully learn each other’s language. I myself, embody four different groups who have traditionally had to fight for a place at the table in the legal profession. I am a young lawyer. I am an in-house counsel. I am a person of colour and I am a woman. As CBA President I hope to serve as a bridge between the profession’s traditional power centres and these groups, all of whom are vital to the future of the Association.

Last year, as part of its new podcast channel, the CBA started a podcast series called Conversations with the President. In my podcasts I hope to bridge the generational divide. People who graduate from law school this year enter a very different professional environment than those who graduated twenty-odd years ago, or those who graduated after the 2008 recession. There are misunderstandings on either extreme of the age gap about what the other side’s expectations and wants are. I want to address those differences, to find the common ground that I know exists between senior and younger members of the Bar. This is a conversation that the FLSC, as the regulator of the profession, should be keenly interested in as well. Young lawyers are bringing different expectations to the job, expectations that could bring about change to the way law firms operate, survive and thrive. These pressures could also mean we need to look at the way we educate and license new lawyers. We need to ask ourselves: do our current methods serve both the profession and the public?

As an in-house counsel, I am part of a constituency that is the fastest-growing sector of the profession in general, and of the CBA in particular. And yet the private sector seems to take up more than its fair share of air in the room.

Being a woman of colour gives me another tie to the in-house bar. We don’t have a lot of data on the makeup of Canada’s legal profession. One thing we do know anecdotally, and from isolated or local studies, is that women and people from equity-seeking groups make less money than men, tend to leave private practice, or never enter it in the first place. Instead, many choose to build careers in the public sector or in-house – often not by choice. And those same studies and anecdotes will tell you they do so for several reasons – work-life balance is one. The traditional hyper-masculine culture of many firms that gives preference to straight white men is another, which enforces the concrete ceiling.  

That dearth of statistical information about the makeup of the Canadian legal community, and the movements and motivations of the country’s lawyers, has long stymied attempts to make changes to the profession. Without hard data, it is impossible to know whether your situation is relatively bad, relatively good, or relatively average.

Earlier this year the CBA’s Law Students and Young Lawyers wrote to the FLSC asking it to take a leadership role with the law societies in establishing national benchmarks for the profession. The call followed on a Law Society of Ontario survey where one-fifth of respondents reported experiencing harassment and discrimination during their articles. This is a global problem and was front and centre at the annual International Bar Association conference in Seoul.  In a similar study published recently by the Law Society of Alberta, in conjunction with the law societies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, that number rose to one-third of respondents.

The CBA asks all the law societies to conduct these kinds of surveys across the country, in order to monitor and improve the experience of articling students. A cross-country survey would enable us to compile important demographic information, creating a useful, comparative data set. The Federation must take up that task, or at least facilitate the work, by creating a standardized questionnaire that includes information about the respondents’ age, gender identity, sexual orientation and ethnicity, as well as the location and setting of their articles, their salary, law school and the amount and type of debt they carry.

These questions and others can help us – the association, regulators, legal educators and legal profession as a whole – identify the holes in the system … The weak points that need to be shored up, the wrongs that need to be righted … The places where it’s working well and should be supported. This information can help us ensure the system has a baseline, not only within each province and territory but across the country.

When it comes to communication we should never be content with the status quo. And we should never assume that what works for the majority will work for everyone. The Canadian Bar Association, as the voice of the profession, and the country’s law societies, acting on behalf of the public, have an obligation to speak to everyone, to improve the justice system, to make it less biased, both externally and internally.

To that end the CBA is working on a number of initiatives stemming from the recommendations made by our Truth and Reconciliation Task Force earlier this year. We recently launched a website that outlines the Association’s advocacy efforts, and provides resources, tools and educational offerings for lawyers working with Indigenous clients. It is information aimed at helping lawyers to understand the impact and legacy of residential schools and the colonial system on Indigenous peoples.

As well as being full of information, the website is beautifully illustrated with artwork by Indigenous artists, and I invite you to check it out on cba-dot-org. It’s really, really beautiful.

We are building on the success of our leadership bootcamp for racialized lawyers, held in Toronto last May. In December we’ll be holding our first-ever leadership summit for senior racialized lawyers – 10 years of call or more.

An equity-seeking group we talk about less than others is the economically marginalized, but it is a large factor in the access-to-justice crisis, and deserves attention from both the Association and regulatory bodies. For this election season we’ve been running a campaign called #LegalAidMatters to draw attention to the need for stable, sustainable legal aid funding for those people who are just one legal issue away from personal disaster. And this includes the working poor, those with full-time jobs who are just getting by.

Socio-economic factors are also at the root of a certain homogeneity in the profession. The path to a legal education is effectively blocked for anyone who can’t afford to pay soaring tuition fees – or take on crippling debt – first generation lawyers, single-parent families, etc. Graduates are forced seek work in larger centres where the pay is higher, leaving people in small towns and rural areas without access to legal representation. This spring we wrote to the federal employment minister asking that a debt-forgiveness program currently available to certain medical professionals be extended to lawyers willing to work in rural and remote areas.

Communication needs to be inclusive in order to be effective. In 2016 the Law Society of Ontario attempted to address systemic discrimination in the legal profession by requiring lawyers to adopt and abide by a statement of principles that advocated equality and diversity. A regulation that was welcomed by some was derided by others as compelled speech. The latter side won out and the statement of principles was rejected this year, in favour of an acknowledgement of a professional obligation to abide by human rights legislation.

On a personal note, I have to say -- as a member of the Law Society of Ontario, and as a member of a group that the original statement of principles tried to reach -- that I’m saddened by both the debate and the compromise solution, which effectively turns back the clock on diversity and inclusion. I look forward to a future where there is truly equal opportunity for all.

Just a little more than a century ago, Marconi sat in an abandoned hospital near here, watching a kite hold his antenna aloft, awaiting a transatlantic signal from Cornwall. In the past month I have travelled to Korea and the UK and have been able to communicate with people at home, with the time difference being the only obstacle. Communication technology has come a long way. But we must remember: whatever tool we use, communication itself is the key to move things forward, to create change. We must open channels to different groups, listen to what they say and make sure that we are in turn are understood by them. This is the only way we can fulfil our obligations, to the public and to the profession.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak to you this evening. Enjoy the rest of your dinner.