Legal firms concerned about staff diversity

Retention of minorities, women needs improvement. High tuition a barrier

Large legal firms are growing alarmed as they watch women and visible minority lawyers leave private practice after a few years, says Amy Gough Farnworth, chair of the equality committee at the Canadian Bar Association.

“A lot of women are leaving large firms and going into in-house counsel in corporations or in the government. Private firms are losing a lot of people at a certain point in their career. The firms train people and they leave. The same goes for lawyers of racial minorities. And these are people who are successful in obtaining new positions. They haven’t been fired or anything; they leave on their own volition,” said Gough Farnworth, an employment lawyer at Saint John-based Stewart McKelvey Stirling and Scales.

The trend of people leaving private practice isn’t hard to prove. The reasons why are. To help law firms identify the barriers, overt or otherwise, the Canadian Bar Association is developing an equity audit template that will probe beyond the numbers.

The equity audit template will be developed early next year, after a forum attended by a few big law firms and by stakeholder groups fleshes out the issues that would have to be reviewed and measured by such an audit.

“It’s a complex issue. It’s not just about hiring so many people based on a quota. There may be subtle systemic factors,” said Gough Farnworth. “Take file allocation, for example. Do files get distributed in the men’s washroom where guys meet when they pee? Does client development happen on the golf course where there aren’t many women or persons from other countries?”

Every step along a lawyer’s career path should be assessed, she said. At articling interviews, for example, what do firms project as what they offer and what they expect? In terms of training and development, how do associates get feedback on their work? How are they helped along in terms of client development?

“Are there mechanisms that, although without intention, are cutting people out of opportunities to develop within the structure of the firm, and hence has a potential impact on retention, because people feel that doors are closed to them? Firms may not realize these are occurring.”

Once set up, the audit template can help firms identify the reasons they’re not able to hang on to lawyers from the four equity-seeking groups: women, visible minorities, Aboriginals and people with disabilities.

The Canadian Bar Association is also raising the question of rising tuition at law schools across the country. With tuition fees reaching $16,000 a year in some schools — a severe increase when compared to the average tuition of $2,500 per year in the early 1990s — the concern is that visible minorities and people with disabilities will be affected in two ways.

“The first is they will not even apply to law school because the cost is so prohibitive. And the scholarship or grants system hasn’t really kept pace to address that huge jump in tuition,” said Gough Farnworth.

“The second is people graduating with a huge debt load are unlikely to work in legal aid or poverty law clinics or with particular equity groups. That’s because you don’t make a lot of money working in these areas. If you’re $125,000 in debt, you’d probably have to go work at a Bay Street firm.” As a result, marginalized communities will continue to be under-served.

Since fall of 2002, a coalition of lawyers’ associations, including those representing Aboriginal lawyers, black lawyers and other minority groups, has been voicing concerns about the tuition rise. In Ontario, the issue is on hiatus after Premier Dalton McGuinty’s new government instituted a tuition freeze.

“We’re not saying that fees can’t increase, because it’s not for us to say what law schools can charge,” stressed Gough Farnworth. “Our concern is whether the law school has looked at the impact a fees increase has on equity issues. And if there is an impact, how might it be lessened, such as through scholarships or government funding or that kind of thing.”

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