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When she went to law school in the early 1980s, Abena Buahene was one of six visible minorities in a class of 140 students.
In her first job after graduation, she was the only black lawyer in the middle-class suburb of White Rock, B.C. And, in her next job as director of legal education in Saskatchewan, she felt like she was the only black lawyer in the entire province.
“It was tough,” she said, thinking back to the days when she was 25 years old, naive and scared. “A lot of my career has been: ‘I’m it.’ I walked into a room and everybody looked at me. I felt I had to represent all my people.”
That responsibility eventually caught up with her in her fifth year of practice. She felt lonely and lost without a mentor by her side. She was frustrated with her career, and she had nobody to guide her, to steer her straight. So she quit her job and switched to the field of legal education.
Now associate director of continuing legal education for the Ontario Bar Association (OBA), she never regretted the change of career, but she does sometimes miss being a practising lawyer.
“I would not have left if I had had a mentor, a role model I could talk to,” she said.
It is a familiar story for visible minorities in the legal profession. Obviously capable and intelligent, Buahene was born in Edmonton and raised in Europe, the daughter of a Ghanian physician who encouraged her to achieve the best she could.
“He warned me that I would have to work twice as hard as anybody else,” she said. “But I never allowed gender or race to hold me back.”
Buahene was one of the lucky ones, a bi-racial student who made it through law school and found a niche she was happy with. But she is one of the few.
Canada may be a multi-racial, tolerant society, but study after study has demonstrated that visible minorities face palpable discrimination in the legal profession.
Race-based statistics are hard to come by, but studies by Michael Ornstein, director of the Institute for Social Research at York University, show that visible minorities are under-represented in the legal profession. They are paid less than white lawyers and fewer of them achieve partner status.
In fact, Ornstein found the legal profession lags far behind medicine, engineering and other professions in its treatment of immigrants, women and minorities.
His 2004 study, “The Changing Face of the Ontario Legal Profession,” was prepared for the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) using figures for 2001, the latest year for which statistics are available. Buahene and the OBA are trying to come up with newer statistics using voluntary disclosure of race, never an easy task.
In his report, Ornstein noted that the situation is changing rapidly in Ontario and may eventually reach equality over the next few decades. “The continuation of the trends of the last decade, however, will eventually bring the number of lawyers who are aboriginal and from most of visible minority groups identified by Statistics Canada close to their share of the Ontario population,” Ornstein said.
The profession may be changing, but Ornstein found clear evidence of discrimination in his 2004 study.
Only 0.6 percent of Ontario lawyers were aboriginals and 9.2 percent were visible minorities. That compared with the general Ontario population, which was 1.6 percent aboriginal and 19 percent visible minorities.
The vast majority of the minorities in law were black, South Asian or Chinese, with a sprinkling of other Asian and Middle Eastern groups, but virtually no Filipino or Southeast Asians.
“Except for the Japanese community, the visible minority communities identified by Statistics Canada account for far fewer lawyers than their share of the population,” Ornstein said and, in some cases, they represent less than one-third of their population share.
Among the fastest growing groups of minority lawyers are the aboriginals, mainly because they are starting to attend university in far greater numbers than a generation ago, and are proceeding to law school.
In 2001 in Ontario, there were almost no aboriginal lawyers older than 55, but 85 who were younger than 35. The trends are similar for the other visible minority groups, there were 155 minority lawyers over 55, but 1,230 in the youngest group.
Ornstein then compared the ratio of visible minorities in law with the number in other professions, and law did not show well at all. About 9.2 percent of Ontario lawyers are from visible minorities, compared with 25.9 percent of physicians, 27.3 percent of engineers, 15.2 percent of university professors and 11.2 percent of senior managers.
This apparent discrimination shows up in many other ways. Nearly half of aboriginal and visible minority lawyers are associates, compared with one-third of white lawyers. And the minority groups are more likely to work as in-house lawyers, in government, in business or as sole practitioners.
As for pay, minority lawyers earned $40,000 less on average than did white lawyers. That led Ornstein to conclude: “This suggests the systemic exclusion of aboriginal and members of visible minorities from the most lucrative jobs.”
Strong words, indeed.
There would appear to be a problem with discrimination in the Ontario legal profession. The question is what to do about it.
Professional groups such as LSUC and the OBA have put considerable effort into studies, programs and educational drives to find a solution to the problem, and then to follow through and fix it. They have created support programs, bursaries, mentorship plans and self-help groups, which encourage aboriginal and minority students to enter the law profession and help them overcome whatever hurdles they find.
Buahene would also like to visit high schools where visible minorities predominate to show the students that it is possible for a black to become a lawyer. Self-censorship, as she well knows, can limit careers.
Many of those programs have been remarkably successful, as demonstrated by Buahene and Jaimie Lickers, the Iroquois student who became a star associate at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP in Ottawa.
These two lawyers speak highly of the minority groups and the moral, educational and financial support that they can give. Buahene is particularly proud of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, a vocal and influential group, while Lickers was grateful to the Band Council of the Six Nations of the Grand River, which supported her with bursaries and praise.
“It is great that achievements are celebrated,” Lickers said.
Despite these initiatives, many critics argue that a substantial change in thinking — or even affirmative action legislation — is needed before the major downtown law firms open the doors to aboriginals and minorities in any meaningful way.
One of the most progressive of the “Seven Sisters” is Blakes, a firm that prides itself on its affirmative action programs, and has the awards to back it up.
“We communicate that our doors are open,” said Mary Jackson, Blakes’ chief officer, legal personnel and professional development. “We want to communicate that we are a good place to work. We show we are interested in people of different backgrounds.”
Those programs have paid off. Blakes has a strong contingent of minorities, and they are among the best lawyers the firm has on its staff.
“Our clients want the best lawyer they can get,” said Linc Rogers, a partner in Blake’s restructuring and insolvency group. And the best lawyer is often a member of a visible minority.
From the reserve to a Bay St. firm
Jaimie Lickers is the exception to the rule or, as she would prefer, the wave of the future.
An aboriginal woman, she has made her way from the reserve to a Bay Street law firm as an associate in the Ottawa office of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, where she is considered one of the bright lights in the litigation department.
And, to top it off, she has a balanced home life. She is married to an academic at one of Ottawa’s universities and she is doing the work she loves.
“I love being a lawyer for a big national firm because I get to see every litigation file that comes through the office,” said the 28-year-old. “It’s all new and exciting at this point.”
Lickers describes herself “as one of those people who always wanted to be a lawyer.” It didn’t occur to her that law was a tough discipline to enter, especially for an aboriginal child raised on a reserve.
But she was lucky to have the support of her parents and a progressive band council at the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, near Brantford, Ont., that has worked hard to foster education in their children.
An Iroquois, she did well in her local high school in Caledonia, Ont., went on to Queen’s University for an honours B.A., then got her law degree in 2007 before her call to the Bar in 2008.
Along the way, she went to Austria to compete in a commercial arbitration moot and received an honourable mention in a speaking competition. That was followed by an offer of a job in the litigation department at Blakes and a transfer to Ottawa to join her husband.
Lickers gives considerable credit to her family and the band council, who supported her through high school and university. She won many scholarships and bursaries from the council and from such national bodies as the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.
“It is great that achievements are celebrated,” she said.
Lickers also praises her employer, a firm that has a reputation for promoting diversity. “I never pictured myself working for a Bay Street firm,” she said. But she changed her mind while working on two highly controversial land claims issues, in Ipperwash, Ont. and Caledonia, Ont. She was impressed with the lawyers who worked on these cases and decided to join them.
Lickers still works on aboriginal issues in Blakes’ Ottawa office, where she can contribute her unique perspective, but she prefers the variety of litigation that comes her way, from real estate to construction, contractual disputes, money laundering and judicial reviews.
“There’s a real commitment at Blakes to help associates learn about every area,” she said. “But there’s also an opportunity to work on files that are of personal interest.”