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What law firms can do to support the BIPOC community

Recent events around the world have highlighted now more than ever the need to be intentional about understanding the experiences of and supporting members of the BIPOC community.

Lungile (Lulu) Tinarwo, founder of Tinarwo Law in Edmonton
Lungile (Lulu) Tinarwo, founder of Tinarwo Law in Edmonton

As lawyers, we are leaders in the larger community and hold privileged positions in society, benefits that come with a duty to use our privilege in a positive way. The murder of George Floyd was not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last; but what is different this time is that these kinds of injustices are increasingly being captured and shared publicly. The crisis is one that can longer be ignored. Watching a man lose his life while pleading for his mother is an experience unlike any other and one which will be etched in our memories for years to come.

So, what can we as lawyers do at a time such as this? First, we must not forget how seeing Mr. Floyd dying made us feel, individually and collectively, because there is a real risk that we will forget and continue with life as it was before. Then, we have to examine ourselves and determine whether and how we are a part of the perpetuation of the problem and how we can change that.

As a profession, we need create spaces – welcoming spaces – for people of the BIPOC community, and to do so intentionally and with purpose. What do I mean by that? Well, I will use myself as an example – although I am the owner of a small law firm, I specifically seek out students of the BIPOC community completing their legal studies who are looking for opportunities to give them a chance, a space. I offer at least two students at a time the opportunity to article with my office. It is something I do because I understand what it is like to be a student sending out hundreds of resumes and not getting the “call.” I also do it because I continue to hear the stories of students who have to defer their articles for a year, sometimes longer, because no one will hire them. What is troubling is that often the students I speak to are briliiant and have a wealth of valuable experience to bring to a firm.Sadly due to some inherent biases or systemic issues, they are often passed over for other candidates who “fit” better.

The “fit” culture of law firms is inherently flawed because it presumes that whether someone “fits” is based on an assessment performed by what are largely homogenous groups doing the hiring. As such, the lack of diversity within the group doing the hiring itself is going to lead to more homogeneity at the cost of excluding others whose experiences are different in one way or another. It is time for all firms to review their hiring policies with a view to understanding how those practices attract students of particular backgrounds while not appealing to a more diverse group of candidates.

In addition to reviewing hiring practices, it would be worthwhile for all law firms to consider adding targeted marketing and advertising protocols which encourage applicants of different racial and other backgrounds to apply. There is clearly a need to revamp practices and policies within law firms which encourage diversity and inclusion. And for large firms with more resources than their smaller to medium sized counterparts, this is a prime opportunity to be a leader in the industry and the community at large. There are and will continue to be sponsorship opportunities that all law firms can contribute to and I encourage law firms to think outside of the box in making decisions for their upcoming fiscal year with the intention of attracting and retaining talented lawyers who identify themselves as part of the BIPOC community. Real change in the legal community is possible because, as lawyers, we are trained to identify the problem and work towards finding solutions.

This does not mean that candidates from the BIPOC community are to somehow receive an advantage in the hiring process. Rather it means that qualified candidates are intentionally sought out with particular attention being paid to their racial identification as an additional factor. Now, more than ever, a gap has been clearly identified, one which needs to be addressed to increase the diversity within law firms that serve clients from the BIPOC community. By creating space and doing so intentionally and purposefully, law firms can be on the front lines, breaking down the systemic barriers that have existed for generations. They can set a positive example for other participants in the legal system within our country.

Lawyers  are respected by the community at large and this is the time to put our money where our mouths are and meaningfully address racial disparities within the profession, and not content ourselves with hiring individuals as tokens to look good on the website. Change need not be slow. The broader community is ready to take real action because our collective sensibilities have been offended, and there is no time like the present.

Finally, numerous organizations and individual consultants are doing incredible work in the area of equality, diversity and inclusion. I encourage all firms to engage these organizations and individuals to obtain practical tips on how to increase diversity within their law firms. Every bit helps. Hiring a student for an articling position means one less student who must defer their articles or forego a legal career entirely simply because there are no opportunities for them. And, if every firm commits to hiring at least one BIPOC student each year, as a profession we will be one step closer to breaking down the barriers faced by members of those communities. Once there, firms will benefit greatly from understanding how diverse experiences will be a source of strength as it will encourage applicants from diverse communities to see themselves as part of those law firms of the future.