CABL launches ‘first-of-its kind’ survey to study experience of Black lawyers in Canada

By Amanda Jerome

Last Updated: Wednesday, July 19, 2023 @ 9:50 AM

Law360 Canada (July 18, 2023, 11:54 AM EDT) -- The Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) has launched a “first-of-its-kind study to examine the experiences of Black lawyers in Canada.” The organization’s current and past president both hope it will be the “beginning of a conversation” and encourage collaboration across the profession.

According to the survey, which was issued June 21, CABL is “interested in understanding the work experiences, career paths, opportunities and challenges encountered by Black lawyers in Canada, with a particular interest in experiences with medium or large national, regional, boutique or corporate law firms.”

In an interview with Law360 Canada, past president Raphael Tachie noted that the survey has been a long time in the making, as its inspiration came from conversations with his predecessor, Justice Lori Anne Thomas.

Raphael Tachie, former president of Canadian Association of Black Lawyers

Raphael Tachie, former president of Canadian Association of Black Lawyers

“This came up when I was talking to my predecessor about a project that she wanted me to support with the Law Society of Ontario around the Statement of Principles,” he explained, noting that the conversation highlighted for him the issue of law firms self-reporting data, usually due to privacy concerns.

He came away from the conversation thinking, “I know a ton of Black lawyers that are willing to self-report based on our experiences. So, how do we get to a place where we could tell that story?”

Tachie reached out to the philanthropic arm of Toronto Dominion Bank to see if it would sponsor the research, but the survey plans were interrupted by the pandemic.

When the conversation around developing a study resumed it was in a post-George Floyd world, Tachie noted, and TD agreed to support CABL in this initiative.

When Tachie was discussing the survey with TD, he shared a couple of articles written by Black lawyers. One was by Michael St. Patrick Baxter in 1992 and another was by Hadiya Roderique in 2017. Although the articles were written by different people, over a decade apart, they were “telling very similar stories,” Tachie explained.

“Those are the same stories that I know,” he said, noting that while these are “qualitative stories,” what the profession doesn’t have is the “aggregate story of the Black experience on Bay [Street].”

“The genesis of the research project was really hearing some of the challenges that the law society was dealing with in terms of reporting” and “some of the challenges” law firms were experiencing, Tachie emphasized, noting that “hearing those things and knowing that, as Black lawyers, we want to be able to tell our stories and we’re struggling … this was a great way to be able to tell a community-wide story.”

Tachie also noted that after George Floyd was killed, law firms were signing the BlackNorth Initiative pledge, a commitment to take action to address anti-Black racism.

“Part of the conversation involved CABL talking to some of these law firms about ‘how do we do better as a profession’ ” and how do they commit to the pledge? He said, noting that from a “CABL perspective, we thought that there was already significant work in the profession around the Report on Racialized Licensees that were talking about what firms could do.”

A lot of the feedback received during those conversations was around “capacity building,” Tachie added, noting that although Black candidates were encouraged to apply for jobs at law firms, few are seen in senior roles.

He explained that “some of the rationale for doing a qualitative and quantitative data analysis is to say that ‘yes, there’s an issue with how many people are getting through applying and the pool of candidates. But there’s also an issue around retention and development.’ ”

“And that if we can tell the story about how many people have at least applied; how many did not get in … or how many got in and left. We will tell a better story. We will tell a broader story about the Black experience at corporate firms then if we kind of just accept the position that it’s just a capacity issue,” he stressed.

With data and a more complete picture of the Black experience, “we’ll come up with better solutions,” Tachie added.

“A lot of this work is to really say, ‘we are willing to share our data, so that it can spur conversations within firms and make firms more willing to share the data to say this is where we’re starting off today.’ This is where we want to get to. These other things we’ve identified, how do we build off that? How do we make things better? I think that’s a better conversation than just reverting to, ‘we don’t have enough [in the] pool of candidates,” he explained.

Kyle Elliott, CABL president

Kyle Elliott, CABL president

Current president, Kyle Elliott, noted that the legal profession hasn’t “always done a good job” of collecting and sharing data.

“We’re talking about demographic data. We need to talk about data that’s related to inequities that result from systemic racism, discrimination, inequality. You need to be looking at the qualitative data and the quantitative data to understand that better,” he said, noting the survey is CABL’s way of saying, “here’s our contribution to that project of building out the bigger picture, and helping everyone understand what it is.”

“Our members know what it is to be Black in this profession. Our members know what it is to be Black in Canada,” he said, acknowledging that lawyers “love evidence,” so having this type of data is “really important to better understand the disparate outcomes and the barriers that exist for Black lawyers in this profession.”

Elliott noted that it’s also CABL’s mission is to be “a strong voice for Black lawyers and Black communities in this country.”

“In recent years, we’ve really been sharpening our voice through different types of advocacy. But I think conducting research like this,” he said, “only strengthens our capabilities, allowing us to speak to the specific and unique experience of Black lawyers.”

“With the data, no one will be able to dismiss what we’re saying as being anecdotal, or limited to isolated incidents or experiences. Studies like this, over time, will also allow us to speak to whether conditions are improving,” he explained, noting that “once we have a clearer sense of what the big picture is, and what folks are actually dealing with on a day to day, and we have reports, we can develop more strategic tools, and come up with more thoughtful plans to combat some of the barriers and, of course, help make this a more inclusive profession overall.”

The survey’s closing date is July 31. CABL’s intention is to release a report based on the survey results.

CABL has engaged The Counsel Network “as a partner to support” the research project, Tachie noted.

“In terms of collecting and analyzing and putting out a report, we wanted to make sure that it was as rigorous as we could make it,” he added, noting that he anticipates people to challenge the report’s findings.

“People are going to challenge whatever results we bring out. And so being rigorous about our process being, rigorous about how the report is generated, was important to us,” he stressed.

Parts of the research will focus on location to see if the “Black experience is the same regardless of the geography,” Tachie said, noting that it will also highlight the “intersectionality of male/female.”

“I think, for me, I want this research to tell a story about, yes, the challenges that Black lawyers face, but also the opportunities that are available to firms and to legal employers if they were invested in certain communities,” he said, hoping that “some of the reporting and the results will at least direct firms to think about the impact on communities when they bring in new and different lawyers.”

Elliott also stressed that “the importance of understanding and highlighting intersectional experiences here, and understanding the different challenges that result or that come up in different parts of the country, those different regional dynamics are going to be super important because” they will be used to develop tools and strategies.

“We’re not assuming that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach here because there isn’t. Certainly, within the Black legal community, within Black communities in Canada, there’s quite a bit of diversity,” he explained, noting that CABL’s members are “quite diverse in terms of the work that they do, where they work and what their experiences are” and within “their own identity.”

“There’s going to, hopefully, be a number of different tools, and number of different strategies that are going to be useful for different parties in the profession to promote change, and to promote a more inclusive profession,” he added.

Tachie said CABL intends to continue to work on research and the organization is always looking for partners to support these initiatives.

“We’re all volunteers, so it takes retaining services and researchers to support that work,” he said.

Tachie also hopes that this kind of research will be picked up by other legal organizations.  

“I’ll call on other similarly situated organizations to consider doing something for their communities and for legal firms to consider being a little bit more open about their reporting,” he said.  

“This is hopefully the beginning of the conversation. And to me, if that’s the case, then this work would have been worth it,” he added.

Elliott emphasized that “CABL has a long-standing history of being a strong voice for Black communities and all underrepresented communities in this profession, and we are very much intent on continuing to be that strong voice.”

“This study is one that we’re very excited about, because, put simply, this is really about making sure that our truth is heard and then to help ensure that our truth is not ignored. That’s important,” he added, noting that CABL wants the conversation that results from the survey to be “collaborative.”

“We know that to really drive progress, we need others to be part of the conversation. And so, we’re always here with open arms to include others in that conversation,” he added.

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