Diversity a long-time focus at law firm (Guest commentary)

Blakes leverages diversity for strategic gains – to attract top talent and top clients

When Jaimie Lickers, who was raised on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Brantford, Ont., graduated from law school in 2007, her academic and other achievements attracted a job offer from Blake, Cassels & Graydon in Toronto.

“I never pictured myself working for a Bay Street firm,” she said.

What persuaded her to accept the job offer was not only the firm’s challenging litigation work but its reputation for promoting diversity among its ranks.

Lickers, an associate at the Ottawa office of Blakes, is among many legal professionals at the firm who, while being talented and exceptional lawyers first, also happen to come from unique backgrounds and cultures that create diversity in the workplace.

Efforts to cultivate a diverse workforce at Blakes have been deliberate and strategic. Though Blakes was recently honoured as one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers for 2010 for the third year in a row, awards are not the driving force for the equity and diversity initiatives.

While acknowledging a social responsibility to foster diversity, Blakes has long seen strategic advantages in both recruitment and business development and that has driven the firm to purposely seek out the “best of the best” from all walks of life.

Attracting and retaining top talent

From a recruiting and retention standpoint, Blakes was one of the first Canadian law firms to recognize the latest generations of graduating lawyers expect and want to work in a diverse setting.

Blakes competes to attract top talent and strives to create an attractive and dynamic work environment for individuals from across Canada and beyond. These efforts are often cited by candidates as their reason for choosing Blakes.

The firm has focused on equity and diversity efforts for many years. In fact, Canada’s first female lawyer — Clara Brett Martin — articled at Blakes in 1894.

In 1993, the firm created one of the legal profession’s first firm-wide equity and diversity committees. The mandate of the Blakes Equity and Diversity Committee is to encourage a culture of inclusion and acceptance, promote equitable treatment and foster understanding and respect among all members of the firm. The committee organizes numerous internal seminars, internal and external initiatives and sponsors many community diversity programs.

In 2008, the firm launched the Women at Blakes network to provide support, mentorship, client development and networking opportunities for women legal professionals.

Blakes is not only interested in hiring, retaining and promoting women but also in attracting talented lawyers and staff from Aboriginal, disabled, visible minority and gay and lesbian backgrounds.

Last year, Blakes introduced a firm-wide Diversity Champion Award to recognize employees who have taken steps to promote diversity at the firm, within the broader legal profession or their communities. Blakes also communicates regularly with its lawyers, staff and even clients on equity and diversity issues, and seeks input from these groups.

Blakes also recognizes it has a role to play in developing the talents of future generations. Through a series of community partnerships and initiatives — ranging from participation in the Toronto-based Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) high school program to sponsoring scholarships and bursaries across Canada — the firm has sought to engage and inspire young people.

Attracting top clients

Given the global nature of the economy, promoting equity and diversity is becoming an essential business strategy. Clients seek service providers that understand and value diversity.

Requests for proposals (RFPs), particularly from major companies in the United States, frequently ask responding law firms to provide statistics on equity and diversity hiring. This largely stems from a 1999 “call to action” supported by chief legal officers in more than 500 large U.S. corporations, pledging to improve diversity on all fronts, including the hiring of outside counsel. Since then, some RFPs have been won or lost in part owing to the depth of diversity in individual law firms.

Momentum among law firm clients in advancing diversity is not waning. In 2009, for example, in-house legal counsel from many Canadian corporations gathered and committed to a similar call to action for diversity in the law firms they retain.

Blakes also saw a clear business case for leveraging that diversity to identify and pursue opportunities in new markets. An example of this is the firm’s India initiative. The Indian marketplace offers many new opportunities for law firms to help Indian companies enter Canada and to help Canadian companies in that country’s markets.

A few years ago, Blakes assembled an India Working Group from its offices across Canada, the U.S. and abroad. Members include lawyers educated and called to the bar in India, lawyers born in Canada of Indian descent and others with Indian experience and ties. The backgrounds and experiences of these lawyers have allowed Blakes to identify opportunities while bringing a deep understanding of Indian business practices and culture.

As a result, the firm has a level of expertise in Indian business circles that is a comfort to companies expanding into Canada or looking for opportunities in India. Leveraging its diverse pool of legal talent, the firm has since been able to follow a similar strategy in other markets.

By holding diversity as a core value, Blakes has a real strategic advantage when competing in the international marketplace and representing a multi-national client base.

Andrea York is a partner in the labour, employment law and privacy groups at Blakes in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected]. Tariq Remtulla is an associate in the intellectual property group. He can be reached at [email protected].

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