Equity, diversity now compliance issues for law firms

Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are now compliance issues for Ontario law firms.

Following a contentious vote at its late 2017 Convocation, the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) adopted a series of EDI-related requirements for its licensees.

The official move was long overdue, yet many progressive law firms have already taken steps to enhance the diversity of their workforces.

The aim is to break down racial and gender barriers and opening up opportunity in a profession that has been traditionally dominated by white males.

Regardless of mixed feelings about the new rules, there are practical implications that law firms must consider.

For example, the LSO’s most controversial change was the requirement that all of the province’s lawyers create and abide by a personal statement of principles (SOP) that “acknowledges their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in their behaviour toward colleagues, employees, clients and the public.”

The requirements have spurred a court challenge launched by a law professor who claims it amounts to forced speech that violates the Charter, as well as an online petition in protest.

Despite the backlash, the LSO has been quite accommodating, creating templates that lawyers and paralegals can use as the basis of their own versions, and promising not to assess or even look at individual members’ SOPs.

It’s pretty straightforward. Lawyers can take the templates and tailor them as they wish. Some of the firms I work with did a simple “cut and paste” that they asked each lawyer to sign and store for the record.

In addition, the LSO has amended its mandatory continuing professional development (CPD) policy, requiring licensees to complete three hours of accredited programming focused specifically on EDI by the end of 2020, and one hour annually in subsequent years. However, all the hours will count toward the 12 hours of CPD required of lawyers annually.

The LSO accredits programs that can count toward the EDI CPD requirement and has also developed its own free three-hour program, consisting of a series of self-directed, online learning modules. It has been noted that it’s been a challenge coming up with meaningful EDI CPD topics to date.  Hopefully this will improve.

Lawyers are supposed to record the hours through their private LSO portal in the same way they do for their other annually required CPD hours. For law firms with 10 or more licensed lawyers or paralegals, the new rules also require them to create and implement a human rights and diversity policy for their workplaces.

According to the LSO, the policy must address “fair recruitment, retention and advancement,” and be available to members of the professions and the public upon request