'Wellness crisis' brewing for racialized lawyers

By Staff

For years, the legal profession turned a blind eye to the reality that racialized lawyers experience challenges that are different than those of non-racialized licensees — but the prevalence of these unique hurdles has finally become an accepted fact, Toronto-area civil litigator Darryl Singer writes in The Lawyer’s Daily.

As Singer, principal of Singer Barristers Professional Corporation, explains, the recently released Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group Final Report — a 51-page law society report presented to Convocation in December 2016 — outlines the hardships, systemic discrimination and other difficulties facing racialized licensees. It also sets out an action plan for the regulator and the profession to move forward to mitigate these concerns.

“According to the report, 18 per cent of lawyers in Ontario identify as racialized, compared to 26 per cent of the population as a whole. Unlike 25 years ago when I graduated from law school, the gap between racialized members of society and their representation in the legal profession is narrowing. All it really means, though, is that more racialized individuals are choosing and entering law as a viable career goal. This is also where the difficulties begin, as opposed to end, for those from marginalized backgrounds,” writes Singer.

Racialized lawyers, says Singer, are more likely to come from moderate or meagre socioeconomic circumstances, more likely to struggle with the high cost of law school tuition and more likely to start their careers in debt.

“In addition, according to the report, racialized lawyers, may find it more difficult to secure articling positions,” he writes, which is also evidenced by the advent of the Law Practice Program (LPP), an alternative to the articling licensing stream.

“LPP’s own statistics indicate that in the first two years of the program, there were 524 candidates, who among themselves had 57 different first languages,” he adds. Indeed, writes Singer, after having been involved with LPP since its inception, in his opinion, a disproportionate number of LPP candidates are racialized.

“All of this sets the stage for racialized lawyers to more likely become sole practitioners, without formal mentorship in the formative early years of practice. They are often, as a result, forced into representing a client base that itself is more marginalized.

"As these lawyers are more likely to be from larger cities, their overhead is high, yet their income may be significantly lower than their peers because of the client base they serve and the areas of law they are likely to practise. This, in turn, means they are less likely to have any or enough full-time support staff, and thus must work longer hours and take less vacation,” writes Singer.

In addition, he says, many racialized licensees are often seen as beacons of hope and bastions of respect within their ethnocultural communities, which may exacerbate the need to constantly prove oneself and a seeming inability to seek help when it all becomes too overwhelming.

“Having achieved their life’s dream of becoming a lawyer, young racialized lawyers must continue to endure the abuses of societal racism while at the same time dealing with potential clients and opposing counsel who may not treat them with the same level of respect as if they embodied the traditionally expected norm of what a lawyer should look or sound like,” he adds.

From a wellness perspective, Singer says, consider the issues faced by the most “successful” lawyers from the top tier firms — such as drug use, alcohol abuse, financial stresses and marital strife.

“Now imagine those issues overlaying the unique challenges that face racialized lawyers and you can see the wellness crisis brewing,” he adds.

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