Gap in the legal field diversity pipeline | Fatima Ahmed

By Fatima Ahmed ·

Law360 Canada (April 18, 2024, 3:01 PM EDT) --
Fatima Ahmed
Diversity in the legal field is an ongoing discussion that has been occurring repeatedly within our profession’s ranks for many years. The problem was identified years ago and continues to plague the industry as a mainstream area of concern. Despite many law firms recognizing the necessity for diversity in the workplace, many of them continue to be predominantly white and male. Anecdotal and qualitative data have demonstrated repeatedly that the legal profession, while getting incrementally better, is not moving the needle enough on the diversity scale. Law firms and law schools alike often place the blame on one another. Meanwhile, the diversity pipeline is running dry, and we have yet to identify the root cause.

There is no national data on diversity statistics for the legal profession. However, a quick look at the largest law societies’ data paints a telling picture. The latest data from the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) shows that only 4.3 per cent of the province’s lawyers are Black despite making up 5.4 per cent of the population. Similarly, only 1.4 per cent of the province’s lawyers are Indigenous, despite making up three per cent of the population. The Law Society of BC (LSBC) states that only 2.9 per cent of the province’s lawyers are Indigenous, despite making up 5.9 per cent of the population. Unfortunately, the LSBC does not track the representation of Black lawyers at all. Instead, it only collects data on lawyers who identified as racialized or of colour in their latest publicly published statistics. Clearly, the legal field is falling short of accurate representation as it pertains to Black and Indigenous lawyers across the board.

It is no surprise, then, that law firms struggle to recruit a diverse array of lawyers. This problem is compounded more so due to the lack of data provided by law firms on diversity markers, making it impossible to analyze the root causes. In fact, law firms are finding that there are not enough diverse law school graduates applying for jobs and, thus, they have to engage in active recruitment to diversify the applicant pool. And so, the blame is bounced to law schools to supply the diversity pipeline.

A 2023 report by the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) surveyed 23 Canadian law schools and found that Black law students were underrepresented in the majority of entry-level programs at law schools across the country. A similar study for Indigenous law students does not exist, but anecdotal evidence points towards a similar underrepresentation. When these issues are raised at law schools, they are often told that there aren’t enough applicants to admit to law schools to begin with. Thus, the blame game gets pushed further and further down the diversity pipeline. There aren’t enough diverse law school applicants, so there aren’t enough diverse licensed lawyers and, hence, there isn’t enough diversity in Canada’s law firms.

Systemic barriers to law schools have kept marginalized populations at the periphery of the legal field for as long as the profession has existed. Outside the financial limitations, one very prominent barrier to law school entry is a lack of network or insider knowledge. Moreover, many marginalized students feel like the legal field is not for them to begin with as they lack professional connections and mentorship opportunities (See “Marginalized Law Students and Mentorship” by Suzanne Bouclin). We therefore find a glaring blind spot in the legal field diversity pipeline — an understandable lack of industry know-how for marginalized populations to pursue a legal career in the first place.

To combat this, Level Justice proposes a novel, long-term solution to the diversity problem in the legal profession. Level has been working with marginalized youth populations for over 10 years, delivering justice education to students across the country. Level’s youth programs target the lack of exposure racialized youth have to aspirational and positive justice content. To that end, Level operates the Indigenous Youth Outreach Program (IYOP) and the Black Youth Justice Program (BYJP) for students aged 11 to 18 years who are interested in learning about law and the justice sector. This involves experiential learning, industry knowledge, and mentorship opportunities with Indigenous and Black law students, lawyers, and judges.

“At Level, we offer young people access to public legal education resources and community to support their future contributions to a diverse legal profession and justice systems,” says Level’s executive director, Shelan Markus. “When we provide these early entry points to legal education, we can collectively pave the way to build equitable access to justice and meaningfully serve diverse communities with fairness and dignity.” Level’s youth programs include curricula that have been developed carefully and strategically to motivate and empower Indigenous and Black youth to seriously consider legal careers from ages as young as 11 years old.

Research has shown that legal system courses in school play a crucial role in the education stage starting from as early as junior high school. Such courses help students establish their views, behavioural norms, and values. Studies have also found that law-related education has a significant impact on the classroom, engaging students on a civic level (See “Using La-Related Education to Engage Marginalized Urban High School Students” by Anand R. Marri). Level’s programming offers students just that: a way to establish their relationship with law and the legal field. The programs have had great success doing so. IYOP is now present in 36 locations across Canada and BYJP, despite being in its first official year, is already operating in three locations. Participants have provided overwhelmingly positive feedback, further proving that this strategy works. An Indigenous student who participated in the program writes, “[I learned] that when I grow up, I maybe want to be a lawyer and I can succeed at being a lawyer.”

It is clear that diversity in the legal profession is a problem that still needs efforts from all sides and the blame game proves to be counterproductive. However, it is worthwhile to stop and analyze blind spots for the diversity movement in the legal profession, such as the lack of exposure and networks for students at the secondary level. It is equally beneficial to uplift and support organizations that are working on the ground to tackle such blind spots. It is fortunate that organizations like Level (and others, like Ontario Justice Education Network and Law in Action in Schools) are leading the charge on this front.

Fatima Ahmed is a Pakistani Canadian immigrant, lawyer and social justice advocate. She is currently serving as Level Justice’s Social Justice Program Manager while also pursuing her LLM degree at Osgoode Hall Law School, where she was awarded the Harley D. Hallett Graduate Scholarship, and serves as a graduate research fellow with the Centre for Refugee Studies. 

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.   

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