Investigating the white, male culture of private practice law

“If you are a well-connected, affluent, good-looking, white, Anglo-Saxon male, you have a certain amount of credibility that is given to you without question. If you don’t fit that…you’ve got to prove your credibility in a way that the hypothetical ideal does not.”

A racialized woman lawyer gave me this response during my interview with her about what prevents diversity in private practice law. Her statement corroborates the results CCDI consistently sees in our ongoing Diversity by the Numbers: The Legal Profession project. Over the last four years, this project has looked at the demographics of lawyers in eighteen private practice firms in Canada and, every year, we find the same result: racialized and women lawyers are under-represented in leadership and partner roles in law firms, even though they are highly represented as articling students and associates. Leaders and partners are primarily men, and white.

This year, we wanted to look deeper into private practice culture to better understand why they maintain this profile. We conducted focus groups and interviews with twelve women and / or racialized lawyers, asking them about barriers that may prevent advancement for minority groups in private practice. Doing qualitative research rather than just focusing on numbers allowed us to delve into norms and values in private practice culture that benefit some groups over others.

Through these focus groups and interviews, it became clear that private practice culture is based on the idealization of a rigid concept of masculinity. Many of the behaviours and practices that are normalized in law firms assume that firm members are upper-class, white men, who can devote their entire lives to work. People who do not fit that ideal become part of an out-group. Respondents told us of several personal experiences where they felt like they did not belong at work, or had to change themselves to move ahead in their careers.

Some of the topics they discussed included having to give up any semblance of work-life balance (including family responsibilities), forgoing their physical and mental wellness for work, having to engage in social activities that were opposed to their interests and values to get ahead (such as golf and drinking), and feeling disadvantaged because of a lack of connections in the “Old Boys Club”. These are issues that, over time, wear on people and their ability to succeed. It is difficult for women and racialized lawyers to succeed within a system that was not built for them, and the culture of this system, in effect, drives many of them out.

Our research coincided with a surge in media on the same topic, spurred by former private practice lawyer Hadiya Roderique’s article Black on Bay Street in The Globe and Mail. Roderique’s article describes the numerous ways in which she experienced often subtle forms of discrimination at work, and the ways she did not fit in. The experiences of our respondents and of others, like Roderique, suggest the urgency for firms to transform workplace cultural norms that push certain groups out the door.

Our full qualitative research report can be found here.

 

by Carmina Ravanera

Founding Partners