LSUC releases first-ever report on aboriginal lawyers

The Law Society of Upper Canada has released its first-ever report on the province’s aboriginal lawyers, revealing findings that suggest many continue to face barriers within the legal industry.

“The majority of the respondents in the survey indicated that they faced challenges during law school, during the bar admissions course, and post-call,” Susan Hare, a member of the law society’s equity and aboriginal issues committee, told January Convocation.

“Respondents also identified lawyers, other lawyers, friends, and family as their key sources of support. Slightly more counted aboriginal people among their friends than non-aboriginal,” said Hare. “A clear majority identified non-aboriginal lawyers as mentors, as opposed to aboriginal lawyers, perhaps because of the numbers.”

The report is the end product of the law society’s Aboriginal Bar Consultation project, which began in 2004. The project included a mail-out survey and individual consultation with aboriginal lawyers. A working group of the law society’s equity and aboriginal issues committee created the survey.

The survey was mailed to 225 members of the aboriginal bar in May 2006. By August of that year, 68 respondents had finished the survey, with 33 agreeing to take part in future consultations.

A preliminary report by The Strategic Counsel was submitted on Aug. 27, 2006. Based on that report, the law society’s aboriginal initiatives counsel, Marisha Roman, and the Aboriginal Working Group created consultation questions in June 2007. From August 2007 to March 2008, 29 consultations were conducted.

The survey revealed an unprecedented set of demographic data on Ontario’s aboriginal lawyers. Of the 68 respondents, most (62 per cent) identified themselves as status Indians, with 22 per cent self-identified as Métis.

The majority of respondents (54 per cent) said they faced barriers during law school, the bar admissions courts/licensing, and post-call. Their specific areas of resistance at law school included “discrimination and lack of awareness of aboriginal issues and the aboriginal community among other students, faculty, and staff,” a lack of aboriginal content in course work, struggles finding summer and articling jobs, and “difficulty reconciling their aboriginal cultural background with the environment of law school.” Those who had a good experience at law school said they garnered support from fellow aboriginal students and lawyers.

During the bar admission course/licensing process, 24 per cent said being aboriginal was a negative factor, while 10 per cent considered it a positive factor. The most common reason for those who viewed it as a drawback was “their perception that their aboriginal status related in some way to their feelings of isolation and exclusion during the program,” said the report.

Turning to respondents’ post-call experience, the report stated that 34 per cent “indicated that their aboriginal status was a positive factor and they tied it directly to their feelings of connection to other aboriginal lawyers and their membership within a small group (aboriginal lawyers) within the legal community.” However, of the 26 per cent who reported that their aboriginal status was a negative factor to their post-call experience, most pointed to “the racism and discrimination that they faced in their work experiences,” stated the report.

The University of Toronto Faculty of Law attracted the highest number of aboriginal law students, according to the study, with 26 per cent of the respondents. Osgoode Hall Law School, at 21 per cent, finished second, and the University of Ottawa, at 12 per cent, placed third.

In terms of paying for their legal education, the most common source of financing for respondents was band funding, at 62 per cent. Summer job income placed second at 54 per cent, and part-time employment during school finished third at 43 per cent. The highest percentage of respondents reported that they accumulated no debt during law school, 16 per cent took on between $7,501 and $15,000 in debt, and 13 per cent finished with between $15,001 and $25,000.

The most common practice areas for respondents were criminal law (34 per cent), employment/labour law (27 per cent), and administrative law (27 per cent). However, 42 per cent identified their practice specialty as “other.”

When it comes to earnings, 26 per cent pegged their anticipated income for 2006 at more than $100,000 but less than $199,999. Most (38 per cent) expected to make between $50,000 and $99,999.

The report included the following “proposals for action”:

 The law society’s continued support and development of mentoring and networking programs for aboriginal lawyers and law students;
 the creation of a CLE course in aboriginal law; 
 the creation of a certified specialist program in aboriginal law; and
 expansion of the members’ annual report practice categories to include aboriginal law. That would help the law society identify possible mentors, attendees to aboriginal law continuing legal education seminars, and possible candidates for the certified specialist designation in aboriginal law.

Kimberly Murray, a member of the Aboriginal Working Group and executive director of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, says she is “completely supportive” of the report’s recommendations. But she says the report should have taken a firmer stance toward issues of discrimination.

“It’s almost like they’re highlighting the good things that people reported, and are just kind of downplaying the bad things,” she says. “So I was a little disappointed there’s no recommendations at the end on how we deal with the racism.”

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