There were many defining moments this past year that led me to run for bencher of the Law Society of Ontario.*
In early 2018, I wrote an article about my experience as a racialized woman in law. I was nervous to be so candid about my experience. I was afraid to reveal that I often felt alone, that microaggressions and lack of representation within the profession deeply impacted me, and sometimes I felt like my race was an insurmountable barrier to my success in the profession. I was nervous about the reception the article would receive in light of the small, but seemingly powerful group of lawyers who advocate against the statement of principles and who deny the existence of systemic discrimination. Although I was nervous, I am glad I put myself out there. The feedback was overwhelming and positive. People from across the country reached out to me to say my experience resonated with them. The positive reception sparked my confidence that my voice was an important one for the profession.
This experience was foundational to me being able to put my name forward. The specific desire to run for bencher came later though.
Convocation has made and continues to make decisions that impact junior members of our profession and those who are not even part of our profession yet. Yet, the perspective of recent calls is not reflected at convocation. There are no benchers in their first 10 years of practice. 75% of Toronto benchers were called in the 1980s. I knew there was a problem. In particular, I was troubled by the licensing debate (i.e. the debate about whether we should eliminate articling, the LPP program or revise the programs) after observing the demographics of current benchers.
In the fall of 2018, I became frustrated after observing Convocation’s debate on governance reform. A working group presented a robust set of recommendations on governance reform. One recommendation was that term limits should be reduced from 12 years to 8 years and that the notion of ‘life benchers’ ought to be eliminated. I was troubled when at Convocation, in hopes of persuading benchers not to ratify those specific recommendations, a life bencher compared himself to elders in First Nations communities as justification for the continued role of life benchers. I was also troubled when a bencher stated that longer term limits were needed because ‘women and minorities need more time to gain traction at Convocation in order to obtain senior positions at Convocation.
Frustrated with the discourse at Convocation, I wanted to run for bencher. I wanted to run because I thought I would bring a different kind of voice to Convocation. But I needed some pushing. I was encouraged by a lot of amazing women in law to run. Lots of research shows that women need to be asked or convinced to run before they make that leap themselves. It turns out I am not immune from that phenomenon. Putting yourself out there in such a way is nerve-wracking and difficult. I needed encouragement even though I knew in my heart I wanted to run.
Sadly, only 28% of bencher candidates are women. This is a huge problem because it suggests Convocation will not have gender parity this upcoming term.
As YWL members, I encourage you to vote. Vote for women. Vote for recent calls. Most importantly vote. It is time our perspectives are heard.
*The Law Society of Ontario is the governing body for lawyers and paralegals. The Law Society of Ontario regulates lawyers and paralegals to ensure competency of the profession within the public interest. A bencher is essentially a member of the board of director. Together, benchers are referred to as ‘Convocation.’
Author: Atrisha Lewis
Atrisha Lewis is a litigation associate at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, a trial advocate, and a champion for diversity and inclusion. In the last year, she won the Precedent Setter Award for being a precedent setting lawyer, the University of Toronto Arbour Award for outstanding volunteerism, and the inaugural Inclusion Now Award at McCarthy Tétrault, in recognition of her contribution to diversity and inclusion, at the firm. Learn more about her at atrishalewis.com or @atrishalewis.