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Valuing "My Experience"

Valuing “My Experience”


Do you find it hard to keep on top of all of the email flowing into your inbox? And does that torrent that doesn’t get read occasionally include ebulletins from the Law Society?

You are not alone—we all have trouble reading every piece of email that comes to us. I can’t leave an email unopened for fear of missing something important, but if I assess it as something that doesn’t need immediate attention, I leave it to cool in my inbox…. Indefinitely, sometimes.

But please take a moment to read the ebulletin that came out this week-the subject line refers to the My Experience submissions and a trust safety fraud alert. Trust safety alerts can be critical for lawyers, but the My Experience project is important for a different reason. -- And please read the joint statement from the three Alberta courts that was emailed today, too.

Its an opportunity for us to learn about the experiences of lawyers who are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC).

According to the Law Society’s 2019 survey about one-third of articling students have law degrees from a university outside of Canada. While this figure includes Canadians who go to law school in another country, many of these law school graduates are lawyers who practiced in their home countries (at Assist, we like to call them Internationally-Experienced Lawyers to recognize their experience). Since many of these Internationally-Experienced Lawyers are Black or People of Colour, this means that the percentage of Alberta lawyers who are visible minorities is increasing as well as the raw number.

I urge you to read the submissions from the twenty-five Alberta lawyers which form the My Experience project which you can read on the Law Society Listens website. There are common themes among them that I found upsetting—that fellow law students or lawyers would openly suggest that a BIPOC law student or lawyer only got into law school or got hired because of affirmative action, for example.  It is hard to say which of the experiences is the most disheartening, but it may be the student who was repeatedly asked during articling interviews what his or her views were on the September 11, 2001 events, presumably because the student appeared to be Arabic.

But one thread that ran through several of the submissions relate to the concept of “fit.”

As a lawyer engaged in a corporate HR practice for most of my career, my clients and I talked about “fit” as the secret sauce that led to teams’ success. People were routinely moved around or moved out for the sake of fit and cohesive teams.  And it was the great, all-purpose polite reason for terminating someone--they just didn’t fit, a subtle variation on “it isn’t you, it’s me,” only its “it isn’t you, it’s us.”

However, at the corporate level, I saw that organizations valued diversity of perspectives, so that hiring the best person for the job could involve hiring someone outside of the traditional demographic. I worked for one corporation that had a large research and development operation, staffed with scientists from around the world. Sometimes there were issues and culture clashes, but these were often the result of promoting people with technical expertise into managerial roles without enough sensitization to interpersonal issues.

One of the things that I enjoyed in my practice was providing training to management-level employees about respectful workplace and harassment/discrimination issues. At one point, I was delivering respectful workplace training with an HR Manager who shared an experience from early in his career when there was one Indigenous employee on a crew. The members of that crew joked around a lot, and they made a lot of Indigenous jokes, and the Indigenous team member joked along with them. When the Indigenous team member submitted his resignation, my HR colleague asked him why he was leaving. The answer: “I just couldn’t take any more of the Indigenous jokes.”

I saw the same dynamic in my harassment investigation practice when female employees were placed on historically male teams with a sexist or sexualized culture. Often, the new female employee would engage in banter with the team, even in sexualized banter, to fit in and be accepted. But over time, this would become toxic and demoralizing, and either a resignation or a harassment complaint followed. Team members would shake their heads in dismay and say “but she engaged in it, too” like the Indigenous man in my story above, as if to justify conduct that was objectively offensive. It fell to management and HR to educate the workforce that “going along with” racist or sexist behaviour was a common response in the face of being an outsider in a homogenous group.

When you feel like an outsider, it is natural to try to fit in and go along with how the group operates. You laugh at the jokes, sometimes even tell them yourself, and when it wears you down, you move on. This isn’t sustainable in the long-term. And employers risk losing people who can make valuable contributions because of cultures that exclude people who are different.

So I was disappointed to see the references to inappropriate comments, the insinuations that members of visible minorities only got their positions (in law school or at firms) because of tokenism, and the pervasive sense that people with different backgrounds couldn’t possibly “fit”, in many of the twenty-five submissions.

Twenty-four of the twenty-five participants wrote about negative experiences (but one had surprisingly positive experiences, which is inspirational to hear). Am I an idealist for believing that this is twenty-four too many?

This is Assist, where we help lawyers and students. Here are my thoughts about what we, as Assist supporters can do, as individuals who believe that our colleagues and classmates are worth supporting:
  • One person cannot change the world, but real change can come through incremental actions. We can each be open-minded about what other lawyers and students can bring to our interactions, and we can question our assumptions—should we assume that the person standing at the other counsel table must be in the wrong place because they don’t look like what we think a lawyer looks like? Or that someone with a “foreign-sounding name” must have gone to law school in a different country?
  • We can recognize that perceptions form our reality, so when another lawyer or student believes that he or she is being treated differently, we can try to understand what they are perceiving. Fundamentally, we may not always agree, but it is not our perception that matters.
  • We can listen. For those of us who haven’t faced racial discrimination, we may not see its more subtle forms, and it is very hard for us to see the cumulative impact of microaggressions. I read a story last year about a British barrister who was repeatedly assumed to be a defendant, a social worker or a reporter during one day at a busy courthouse (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-essex-54281111), even though she was wearing a black suit. What a toll must that have taken on her, doing a demanding job while asserting her right to be there, over and over again?
  • We can get to know lawyers and students from different backgrounds—don’t assume that you wouldn’t have anything in common with a lawyer trained in another country!
  • We can recognize that a lawyer or student in distress, regardless of skin colour, gender, race, religion or disability, is in fact just like us and engage our support resources.
Some Alberta lawyers may not have much interaction with lawyers from different backgrounds. It was my reality for at least the first 25 years of practice, and depending on your practice area and location, it can still happen. Consider stepping out of your comfort zone the next time you meet a lawyer—or anyone else—from a different cultural background. Don’t avoid being friendly for fear of saying the wrong thing—just ask the same questions you would ask anyone else: “How long have you been  practicing?”, “Where do you work?”, “What kind of work do you do?” You may be very curious about their background, but please don’t ask “where are you really from” or ask how long they have been in Canada based solely on your perception that they are somehow foreign. By having a normal conversation, they may tell you that they have practiced for 10 years, 3 years here and 7 years in their home country. Then you will know that they practiced elsewhere and you can ask questions about the difference in practice between the two jurisdictions. But they may also tell you that they attended the same law school you did.

But do think about questions before you ask them. Fortunately, as lawyers, we are used to thinking about our questions before putting our mouths in gear. Here is an example: I was at an event several years ago with a friend who was born in India. During our conversation, it came up that my friend and one other person at our table were church-goers. The other person looked at my friend and asked, “and how long have your people been Christian?” I was mortified but my mortification turned to glee when my friend explained that the apostle Thomas had travelled to India during his lifetime and that Indians from her region had been Christian since about 50 AD—i.e., way back, when our European ancestors were engaging in pagan rituals. There are a lot of ways to learn about someone’s background that don’t involve making inappropriate assumptions!

If you are uncomfortable about how to ask questions without sounding like a jerk, one suggestion is to make yourself humble and ask your question from that humble point of view, where you are seeking knowledge, not to show superiority. The woman at the event could have asked my friend if there were many Christians in India to open a dialogue—from a point of not knowing, rather than assuming that good European missionaries must have converted her ancestors a generation or two back. Same content, different context.

The most important way that Assist and its supporters can respond to the My Experience project is to ensure that lawyers and students who have experienced racism—from subtle microaggressions to overt discrimination—have access to resources, through professional counselling, peer support and community. But we all must think about the impact of these stories on us and commit to taking the steps that are within our power to say “never again, not on my watch.” This is how we take negatives, invert them, and create a positive in which we understand each other and treat each other the way that we would want to be treated.

Assist is unveiling concrete strategies to ensure that our peer support volunteers are well-equipped to provide support to BIPOC lawyers. We held a training session on understanding Indigenous culture to raise awareness for peer supporters in March, and we will follow this up with a role-playing session this spring. We are considering what training we can provide to other members of BIPOC community. Watch for more—or consider volunteering if you have expertise!

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Although this blog seems like a downer on what would normally be a subject of hope and renewal, I believe that the practice of law is up to the challenge of listening and learning how to be inclusive and welcoming.
 
On behalf of everyone at Assist, I would like to wish everyone a Happy Easter weekend, whatever that means to you. If it means the emergence of spring, the Easter Bunny, Find a Rainbow Day or something more, be well and enjoy, and may you find time to rest and renew.

Loraine