WINDSOR ? Rethinking the "market model" for articling might be one of the best ways to provide more entrance opportunities to minority law students into the profession, says University of Ottawa professor Joanne St. Lewis.
And if this means setting up a professional fund to hire more students to article outside the big downtown firms with limited placements and narrow niches of practice, so be it.
"We might have to think of that kind of innovation," St. Lewis, a law society bencher who also chairs the society's equity and aboriginal issues committee, told delegates at the annual conference of the Black Law Students' Association of Canada (BLSAC), marking the organization's 15th anniversary.
St. Lewis said too many articling positions tend to be not only in larger firms but also in a narrow specialty of interests, such as tax or corporate law, that don't meet the goals of many minority law students nor serve the public's wider legal needs.
Admittedly, she said, firms have to think of the "viability of their practices and meeting the needs of their clients" but this sets up a gap that is difficult to close and makes the need for some alternative system that much more apparent.
And, she said, while more articles have been available lately in, for example, public interest law, minority students "aren't getting the articling positions in the [other] areas they want."
If the articling gateway to creating a more racially diverse profession and serving Canada's minority communities is too narrow, delegates at the three-day meeting were told that collegiality among themselves as well as networking within the university and legal communities could be improved.
St. Lewis, for example, says she makes a point of inviting minority students and professors to a dinner at her home to get to know one another. But that does not necessarily happen at other campuses. And she said students themselves need to reach out to wider academic circles, for example by taking part in environmental or intellectual property law groups or organizing campus events.
Moreover, by not getting involved, "you also limit your connection" to more individuals in law, which can limit career advancement, she said.
And while an organization like the BLSAC plays an important role during law school, upon graduation this network can collapse.
"I hardly know any students from Osgoode even though I graduated from Osgoode," one audience member said.
St. Lewis suggested students could also create a community through on-line journals by "capturing our experience" as they proceed from law school through articling and into professional practice. She also said that "outrageous things" still happen in the legal community, such as offensive articling interviews or demeaning assignments provided by firms.
Such journals would be "another way to hold them accountable," said St. Lewis.
By way of illustration, at another session, Michelle Williams, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University, said representatives of a firm at a job fair told her that it only practised tax law yet a white student was told the firm had a range of practices. And, she said, even when minority students enter practice they face a more insidious form of discrimination: "the fear of students to complain, because you're in a very vulnerable position."
Williams, a member of the Ontario bar, and who chairs her university's Indigenous Blacks and Mi'kmaq program, said pro-active initiatives can break structural barriers. In Nova Scotia, for instance, prior to the report of the 1989 Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr. Prosecution, there were a dozen black lawyers and no Mi'kmaq lawyers out of the 1,200 lawyers in the province. Since that time there have been 90 black and native graduates from Dal law.
Well and good, she said, but as pointed out in reports such as professor Michael Orenstein's for the Ontario law society on the changing face of the legal profession, minorities will probably not be partners but are more likely to work for government or work part-time.
"I do say that to help you be prepared for the realities," Williams told the crowd.
One of those realities is age-old racist stereotyping regardless of one's professional status.
Toronto sole practitioner Selwyn Pieters told of the late December incident of 26-year-old Toronto lawyer Jason Bogle, stopped by Toronto police in the wake of a high-profile shooting death of a white teen. Bogle reportedly showed police his Ontario Bar Association card but said the officer told him, "'Oh, so you're a lawyer and a drug dealer.'"
Bogle is suing Toronto police for false detention, racial profiling and slander. A Toronto police spokesman maintained the officers acted professionally.
Pieters, who has represented a wide range of people in minority groups, including black officers within the Toronto police service, said too many minorities remain oblivious to the issue of race "and it comes back to bite them." He personally deals with this by being a "dogged advocate" with the goal that "one by one" people who perpetuate racism "get taken out" of their positions.
On the realities of a practical job-seeking sort, Frank Walwyn, president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers and a partner at WeirFoulds LLP ? one of the few black partners at any Bay St. firm ? told a session that the same realities apply to minorities as apply to all articling applicants: the competition is stiff, resume honing is a must, and connections help.
Walwyn said his firm receives as many as 400 resumes for four or five positions and interviews up to 40 candidates. "The very first thing I look for are marks,"
he said, since they show intellectual rigour, a chief attribute in a firm that refuses to be "compromised by mediocrity."
He said personal letters also count, and they should be no more than one page. Knowing the firm's practice areas, why a student wants to practise, and even what the candidate has achieved outside academics, in fields like the arts or athletics, are important, if they show "a history of commitment to perfection," he said.
And to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of other applicants, Walwyn added, candidates should make a point of stating they know someone at the firm. "You can't overstate the importance of making it personal."
He said that mentioning involvement in an organization like BLSAC doesn't hurt either.