What should ‘Diversity’ and ‘Inclusion’ look like in your Practice?

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By Barton Soroka, B.A, J.D; Merchant Law Group LLP

My name is Barton Soroka. I am a white, queer, cisgender man who graduated from the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in 2017. While attending Law School, I was the LGBTQ Student Community representative on the Dalhousie Student Union, a member of OUTLaw—our LGBTIQQ2SA+ campus group, and served on our Law Student Society Executive as first year exec rep, VP External, and President.

While in school, I was surrounded by incredible people from all sorts of backgrounds. Black and Indigenous People of Colour, non-binary folk, trans people, queer men and women across the spectrum. I could spend every word of this post giving thanks, so I will single out Lee Staps. She was instrumental in radicalizing the way I exist. Thank you.

Today, I am going to invite introspection. Look at your firm, and yourselves, and think about what “diversity and inclusion”—three words plastered on every hiring notice in the country—mean to you.

Jaime Burnet (credited as Mary Burnet) wrote an excellent piece while articling at Pink Larkin in Halifax about “professional presentation” and its specific effects on queer legal professionals.

Jaime’s writing has stuck with me for years. It resonated when I asked a group of lawyers during a “Dress for Success Event” how they adjusted for their bias against individuals not being able to afford outfits that were up to standard, or dressing in a way that didn’t line up with tradition. I will forever appreciate the honesty that I received: “I don’t. I hire people who fit my client’s culture.”

My résumé is full of Queerness. I’ve represented, advocated, and protested for queerness and LGBTQ+ initiatives since I was in high school. And I’m thankful—most firms won’t throw out a résumé because I’m a queer man anymore. I’m not sure if that was true ten years ago. I doubt it was true twenty years ago. But I am concerned, whenever I put myself out there, that people will see “advocate” and“representative” and read “Social Justice Warrior”. That they’ll assume I won’t fit in with their client—or their firm’s—culture.

Lawyers need to eat and advocate, and in about equal measure. Without clients, we wouldn’t be able to do either. In certain markets, we think we know what our clientele will be—and assume the average Reginan is going to balk at the idea of Jon Lawsmith doing their intake with a fresh manicure of brightly painted nails. I’ve never seen the data to back it up, but studies are expensive and risk is… well, risky. When something has worked for a few dozen years (suits, ties, slacks), it seems like an unnecessary gamble. So when the person you’re interviewing clarifies that they use gender-neutral pronouns, or the person you code as a woman corrects you and says “it’s he”, or you see the side of the head shaved with a pattern tattooed under it, you know that they just won’t fit in.

It is not exclusively queer people who are asked to be different in a professional environment from the way they are in their private lives. Nobody wants to see the partner in a bathrobe. But today I’d askyou to look at your firms hiring guidelines. Do they talk about diversity and inclusion? If they do, ask yourself what exactly that means. That you would be happy to hire someone who was LGBTQ+, but only if you could barely tell that they were? Or does that mean that you’ll stand by the new lawyer if the client says they don’t want to work with a “fag”? I won’t tell you the magic checklist to become theperfect workplace—it doesn’t exist. There will always be people saying you haven’t gone far enough. But be honest about how far you’re willing to go. I encourage you to not only accept, but celebrate those who are different.

While I was in law school, I was surrounded by people who not only accepted my Queerness, but celebrated it. At my first year “Pith and Substance”—our annual variety show—I wore makeup, tights, and heels. I was surrounded by peers I had known for a few months, and professors from my classrooms, and members of the administration. After a few shocked looks, the rest of the night was nothing but compliments, photo requests, and some desperately required tips on eyeliner. And then my peers elected me to represent them as their VP External. They selected me to host Pith and Substance the next year. Not once did I have to deal with anything mean-spirited. I credit that to a bit of “crowd control”—people who might have wanted to say something rude, mean, or cruel saw other people staying positive and kept their thoughts to themselves.

I’m not asking for the courts to open themselves up that far. Yet. But I am asking you to think about what you’d do if someone you perceived as a man applied with rainbow painted nails, or someone you thought was a woman in a suit and tie, or someone who (heaven forbid) indicates their preferred pronouns during their interview—especially if they’re “they/them”. What you’d do if your Articling Student suggested that you upend your entire client onboarding process by putting a “pronoun” section on your intake form. Or if Adam came to your office in a skirt and finally told you her name was Eve, and correspondence should reflect that from now on.

Diversity and inclusion are not—in my opinion—accepting people who are different from you when you can’t tell. Don’t get me wrong, I stand in thanks for every man who brought their male partner and woman who brought their female partner to events in the past. Without you paving the way, I wouldn’t be able to suggest what I think the next steps should be. But to me, diversity and inclusion mean work. They mean going above and beyond candidates you would normally hire and accepting someone who might not win on your “softs”—someone who’s qualified, intelligent, and hardworking, but otherwise does not fit in with what you’d traditionally consider to be in your client’s “culture”.

I loathe to make an economic argument—I still think I believe that the “right” thing is the “moral” thing and should supersede the bottom line. But, I do have an economics background. I understand looking at every potential employee as a bundle of billables. Look at your current lineup of talent in the bullpen—what kind of clients your lawyers bring in. Maybe you’ll find that lawyers who look like certain people tend to get those folk as clients. I’d suggest to you that there’s a growing group of sexual/gender diverse folk who are looking for lawyers who respect their identities and support their community. Not to mention all the incredibly clever, talented, and already trained in argument LGBTQIA+ people graduating from law school every year. It’s not just—in my opinion—right to make room for genuine diversity. It’s a competitive advantage.

I’ve spoken a lot from personal experience in this article. If you think there might be something I’m exaggerating, maybe your local LGBTQIA+ colleague could give you their thoughts. I bet they disagree with something I have to say. And if there’s nobody in your office that can offer that perspective, ask yourself why not.

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