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Strong business case for promoting diversity in law firms: Bentley

It makes good business sense for law firms to embrace equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), says Chris Bentley, director of Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone (LIZ) and Law Practice Program (LPP).

Ryerson LPP hosted an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference on Oct. 9 at the Ted Rogers School of Management to emphasize the business case for promoting these values in the legal sector.

"We thought it would be an interesting and interactive way to inform our LPP candidates and members of the bar to help advance their knowledge and to share strategies about how equality, diversity and inclusion should and can be embraced both from a business case perspective in addition to being the right thing to do," Bentley tells AdvocateDaily.com. "It is in their enlightened self-interest to embrace the diversity of experiences, backgrounds and talent that surrounds us.

"We advocate treating people equally but the legal profession continues to struggle with valuing and including women and racialized minorities in the profession, particularly in positions of leadership," he says.

More than 340 licensees and members of the profession attended the conference where arguments around the benefits, the challenges and the need for accountability were discussed, Bentley says, adding the first part of the program focused on the business case for EDI while the second half involved workshops where attendees discussed and developed strategies for advancing equality, diversity and inclusion within small and large legal environments.

“The return on investment and the social wisdom of a more diverse culture is essential if we are to connect with those we represent,” he says.

Businesses have long recognized that the more they embrace EDI and open themselves to understanding and adopting different views, the stronger and better their decisions will be — and the broader their consumer base will become, Bentley says.

“There are a number of studies that indicate that promoting EDI leads to better bottom-line profitability,” he says.

Bentley says a diverse workplace increases the number of entry points into various communities, expands viewpoints and enhances a firm's ability to connect with the diverse market.

"The market has evolved," he says. "It’s global, multicultural, diverse and more than 50 per cent women. It's all about the consumer and answering their needs. From a broader market perspective, EDI makes sense, and from a fairness perspective, it always has."

The conference opened with an address from the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) Treasurer Malcolm Mercer, Bentley says.

"He highlighted LSO efforts and recommendations related to EDI and the need for more to be done," he says. "Ranjan Agarwal of Bennett Jones LLP and Alexie Landry of Deloitte shared their experiences in dealing with EDI in the professional services sector and Toni De Mello, director of human rights services at Ryerson University shared the overall landscape and current issues in the EDI space."  

A number of leading practitioners from private practice, government, in-house and legal clinics facilitated 15 EDI strategy workshops, Bentley says.

Conference speakers discussed the "numbers case," demonstrating EDI's positive return on investment, Bentley says, noting clients frequently ask law firms to embrace equality and diversity initiatives such as including women and/or underrepresented groups in leadership roles.

“Many firms are looking at the market from a global perspective, so better connections with customers are crucial,” he says. 

Bentley says attendees discussed strategies for establishing diverse hiring committees, using technology to remove the potential for unconscious bias in applications, increasing EDI training for leaders and teams and encouraging a more open onboarding process.

"Not all solutions work for every group and even the typical work schedule may itself create obstacles for people who use technology differently, work differently, have external demands or accommodations that require greater flexibility and so on," he says.  "We will be preparing a summary of the ideas and strategies that will be circulated to all attendees in a few weeks. The goal is to ensure everyone has concrete options about how to advance EDI within their own environments."

The legal profession often views itself as a leader in society, but Bentley says it's important it's seen as leading in this important area — by reflecting its consumers and creating greater opportunity for everyone.

“Through the power of all of us we can rise to the challenge of becoming more equal, diverse and inclusive,” he says.

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