NowNS: Law firms working toward diversity goals

Like all brain-based and knowledge-powered professional services businesses, law firms rise or fall on their ability to attract and retain the best and brightest.

That’s no easy win, however, in a global hiring market where the hunt for top talent gets only harder — or in a province that’s fast running out of workers.

No surprise then that all three of Nova Scotia’s largest law firms are using diversity and inclusion strategies to help them hire, engage and subsequently keep employees from as wide a labour pool as possible.

Corporate lawyer Candace Thomas joined Stewart McKelvey from another firm in 1999 and was admitted to the firm’s partnership in 2005. She sits on the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee, launched in April after the August 2015 appointment of Lydia Bugden as CEO and managing partner. Bugden is the first female to take on the firm’s most senior management role.

Thomas, the firm’s second African Nova Scotian partner following now-retired Senator Donald Oliver, told the Chronicle Herald the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee had very recently completed a draft strategy and that it was currently up for consideration by the firm’s partnership board, it’s most senior team in terms of governance.

She said the four-fold strategy aims to reduce bias and increase diversity in recruitment; to help Stewart McKelvey become better at retaining and advancing lawyers and non-legal employees particularly those self-identifying as belonging to diverse or under-represented groups; to improve education and training relating to diversity and inclusion; and to ensure the firm’s leadership support and champion it in its culture and related initiatives.

Thomas said that while the firm currently has lawyers and staff from diverse groups, the strategy aimed to make the firm “more representative” of the communities and clients it served.

It would also help everyone working at Stewart McKelvey to feel great about coming to work and motivated to do their best work, she said.

Thomas says she and the other members of the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee — along with the firm’s management and HR teams had very recently completed training to reduce “unconscious bias when it comes to how our partners and employees work with colleagues and external stakeholders.”

The training aimed also to improve partners’ and employees’ “cultural competence,” she said.

While community outreach is a key part of the firm’s draft strategy, the strategy follows rather than pre-dates the firm’s efforts to connect with marginalized and disadvantaged communities.

For example, in May Thomas was one of five lawyers who hosted a firm-sponsored information session on the legal system in East Preston, where she grew up.

Approximately 35 African Nova Scotians turned up, said Thomas, who carves time between closing deals to volunteer at such events because she believes they both broaden young peoples’ awareness of career opportunities and help Stewart McKelvey conduct vital employer brand building, often via mentoring.

During July’s Pride Week the firm celebrated its lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or ‘questioning’ (LGBTQ) partners and employees and took time to “pulse check the evolving legislative landscape of LGBTQ rights and educate our lawyers and staff about recent developments in LGBTQ rights and how much work is still left to do,” a spokesman said. The firm was one of several that joined the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (NSBS) in this year’s Pride Week march, alongside representatives of the Canadian Bar Association.

Stewart McKelvey has a female regional managing partner (Rebecca Saturley), while approximately 80 percent of its directors were female, the spokesperson said.

Nova Scotia’s two other large law firms, meanwhile, are also making gains in tapping fresh talent streams.

McInnes Cooper, which has 200 lawyers on its firm, lists “respect and inclusion” as one of six values and launched its own strategy in 2013, said Lynn Iding, that firm’s managing director of legal professional resources.

“We have many colleagues and clients from different backgrounds and perspectives. Creating a culture of diversity allows our members to deliver innovative and strategic solutions to our clients,” Iding said.

The firm’s progress to date includes creating a diversity council comprised of senior firm leadership as well as a diversity advisory committee to oversee implementation, she said.

Besides getting partners and employees out for Pride Week, Iding said the firm has hardwired diversity and inclusion into the firm’s HR operations include hiring; bias and cultural competence training; reviewing firm policies through a diversity lens; and creating an online repository of diversity and inclusion information.

Bar society insiders say McInnes Cooper is also a strong supporter of Ku’TawTinu:, a ground-breaking shared Aboriginal articling program set up by the society to help Aboriginal law students secure career-critical four-month-long opportunities to article, the profession’s standard.

Meanwhile, Iding said McInnes Cooper was also a founding member of the Justicia Project, a national initiative design to improve the retention and advancement of women lawyers in private practice.

“In addition, we regularly support cultural events that showcase the traditions of minority populations. We’ve hired employees through work placement programs such as the Prescott Group Community Employment program and the New Brunswick Association of Community Living. And we support organizations such as reachAbility and Special Olympics,” she says.

In 2013, Cox & Palmer, which also has 200 lawyers _ along with Stewart McKelvey _ was one of the original Atlantic Canadian signatories to the Law Firm Diversity and Inclusion Network, a group of more than 20 Canadian law firms that collaborate to promote diversity and inclusion among their people and the broader profession.

Cox & Palmer was also the first Atlantic Canadian business member of Pride at Work, a non-profit organization which supports the inclusion of LGBTQ employees in the workplace.

And this year, litigation partner Loretta Manning — chair of the firm’s Regional Diversity Committee — won a Zenith Award for her work to promote diversity and inclusion in and out of the province’s profession.

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