Discrimination a daily reality for minority lawyers: report

TORONTO – Discrimination is an everyday reality for black and other visible minority lawyers that must be addressed, according to a new report by the body that regulates the profession in Ontario.

The blunt Law Society of Upper Canada report, titled “Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees,” contains some disquieting findings.

“Overt discrimination and bias are a feature of daily life,” the paper concludes.

“Racialization is a constant and persistent factor.”

Ontario’s legal profession has seen an increase of visible minority lawyers in recent decades. Latest figures indicate about 17 per cent of lawyers – and 28 per cent of paralegals – are not white, up from about 9.2 per cent in 2001.

In 2012, the law society set up a working group to study the issue of racism and discrimination in its ranks.

Despite the dramatic increase in minority numbers, professional acceptance is still hard to come by, according to the study.

Alienation, lack of entry and promotion opportunities and disrespect are among the problems “racialized” lawyers say they face.

“The challenges faced by racialized licensees have an impact on the reputation of the legal professions, access to justice, and the quality of services provided,” the report states.

Minority participants in the study complained that colleagues, judges and clients commonly assumed they were incompetent or ineffective. They talked about being shut out from professional opportunities or excluded from workplace social gatherings.

Last year, for example, Ontario’s top court found that two black lawyers had been racially profiled in 2008 when an administrator at a lawyers-only lounge at a courthouse in Brampton, northwest of Toronto, asked them – and only them – to identify themselves.

“I don’t disagree with the experiences of many lawyers who are from minority backgrounds,” Toronto criminal lawyer Roots Gadhia tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“I’ve seen lawyers and paralegals who may not speak the Queen’s English be dismissed because of their accents, be rushed through their submissions, interrupted by the court, and given the ‘hand’ by others who work in the system,” says Gadhia. “I’ve seen their looks of dismay at the treatment, yet through it all they have conducted themselves professionally.”

Gadhia says she knows and understands that “many experience a lack of respect and sometimes encounter hostile players within courts from clerks, reporters, court officers, Crowns, other defence counsel and judges,” she says. “Although I personally have never experienced overt racially-motivated disrespect, I find that every once in a while I get an inkling that someone’s behaviour is motivated not by just a bad day, but an inherent dislike of me.”

Gadhia says that in her early years as counsel she “would be mistaken for the accused. I remember being told by a judge when I was an articling student waiting to speak to a matter that I was not permitted past the bar. He berated me in front of a packed courtroom. He had no idea I was a law student and obviously assumed I was a layperson. When I explained that I was a student at law he grumbled and grudgingly let me sit down.

“Do I see that as racism? Or just an honest mistake? I was a new face in the courts and I chalked it up to just that.”

Meanwhile, Gadhia says that she has seen “overt racism directed towards my clients by every player within the courts. Most of my clients are people of colour and socioeconomically disenfranchised. I’ve heard police officers use the ‘N-word,’ and noticed clerks, court staff and lawyers – both defence and Crowns – give dirty looks, show contempt, be indifferent to their enquiries and treat them like second-class citizens.

“I don’t see my white clients treated the same way,” she says.

“Subtle forms of racism exist everywhere, but it’s too cumbersome to think of it and take a slight,” says Gadhia. “I have a job to do and no time to waste thinking or wondering if I’m being treated rudely simply because of my colour.”

She notes that at some point “you have to look past what others think of you and be the best that you can be in this profession. Professionalism, hard work and civility will garner respect where it wasn’t expected. I don’t fit a stereotype and I refuse to be intimidated by petty ignorance. I choose to carry my head high.”

Gadhia adds that she thinks it’s more difficult for black male lawyers.

“Mirroring racial stereotypes in society, black male lawyers battle similar forms of racialization, more so than any other ethnic group,” says Gadhia. “Yet, many of these lawyers who I’ve had the opportunity to see in court, and on the bench, have stood proudly and committed to being exceptional individuals in their own right. They have pushed past stereotypes and forced the profession and the public to see past it’s own biases.”

Criminal lawyer Gordon Cudjoe, the sole black student in his class when he graduated from the University of Toronto in 1999, said classmates received 10 to 15 articling interviews. He received only four, two of them “pity” interviews – none on Bay Street.

During his entire articling years, he was kept away from clients.

“It is not ideal,” said Cudjoe, who works on his own. “It has not been easy.”

While the report won’t surprise anyone from a minority background, Cudjoe said, the law society has been slow to come to grips with the issue. He also expressed skepticism that much has changed in terms of better opportunities for minority lawyers.

“At the end of the day, we’re dealing with private corporations that will only do it if it brings a profit,” he said.

Law society data show black lawyers disproportionately practise in the smallest firms. Relatively few black lawyers practise in the largest firms.

“There are firms that believe if they hire black lawyers they will lose their clients,” one participant said.

The report found paralegal minorities face similar, possibly more serious discrimination than their lawyer counterparts, and minority women have it especially rough.

“Women are still working to be taken seriously in this profession and being a racialized woman means that you often have even more to prove,” one female lawyer said.

The law society is now asking for written feedback before next March on a series of approaches aimed at improving the professional experience of minority lawyers.

One idea would be to require firms and organizations with lawyers to adopt standards set by the law society for the recruitment, retention and career advancement of minorities.

The society is also asking for input on how it should deal with discrimination complaints, and the best way to gather accurate demographic data _including whether to force firms to supply such information.

Aboriginal lawyers, subject of a separate report, were not included as part of this study. – with files from AdvocateDaily.com

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