This past summer, the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others have brought to light issues of racial injustice that have long plagued our institutions. At home and abroad, these events have led to protests, policy debates and many difficult conversations about what we can individually and collectively do to combat anti-Black racism. It reminded many that the fight for equality and inclusion is as urgent as ever.
It was, in part, these conversations that led us to officially launch Black@Blakes, an affinity group for Black legal professionals that is a critical step in advancing our diversity and inclusion strategy. It’s an important addition to the well-established and ongoing programs and initiatives in place at Blakes to support women, LGBTQ+ lawyers and other traditionally under-represented groups.
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How Black@Blakes came to be
Shortly after I joined Blakes in 2017, I received an invitation for coffee from Linc Rogers, a partner in the firm’s restructuring and insolvency group, who is also Black. Not long after, Linc set up a lunch with me and the firm’s other Black lawyers and law students — an admittedly small group.
These may seem like small things, but it was only at that point that I realized how critical it was for my success to see other Black lawyers succeed at the firm where I work. Unsurprisingly, many of the Black law students I speak to echo this concern. Although our group was small and our meetings informal, this support system stood in stark contrast to my previous experience at another full-service, Bay Street law firm where I was the only Black legal professional in an office of 150 lawyers. In that space, going for coffee or grabbing lunch with another Black colleague was not an option.
For years, Black legal professionals at Blakes have gathered informally in this way. We’ve gone for coffee or lunch as a way to build community, exchange ideas and share advice. It also has been a means to check in with each other, to make sure everyone was doing well. After the events of this summer that need became all the more acute.
The Black lawyers and students met virtually the week after George Floyd was killed. We talked about the global outcry regarding anti-Black racism and the ensuing protests. Many of us were having a difficult time processing these events while still trying to do our work and, like many people, we felt a call to action. We decided to find time to meet regularly (virtually of course) to check in with and provide support to each other, but also so that we could discuss the ways in which our workplace could better support us.
After several productive and meaningful meetings, we decided to propose the establishment of an official affinity group to firm management. Black@Blakes was presented as a means to invest in the success of the firms’ Black legal professionals, to acknowledge the unique challenges faced by Black legal professionals and to ensure the concerns of Black legal professionals are being heard. Firm management promptly and wholeheartedly supported the idea.
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Why programs are needed
While informal networks provide meaningful and necessary support, it is critical that firms openly recognize the challenges faced by Black lawyers. It is undisputable that progress has been slow when it comes to diversity in the legal profession. The simple truth is that Black people are under-represented in the profession and more support is needed to foster Black talent. This is true whether you are looking at Bay Street or elsewhere. A lot of work remains to be done before we can say our profession truly reflects the communities it serves.
Moreover, keeping in mind that women, people of colour and certain religious minorities were prevented from practising law in Canada for much of its early (but still recent) history, the dominant culture in Big Law still caters to and supports a homogenous majority. So while certain strides have been made to advance diverse representation in law, creating a truly inclusive environment remains a significant challenge.
The tales of being the lone Black lawyer in a firm, of being a Black lawyer whose credentials are challenged, or of being mistaken for anything but a lawyer are still far too common. The near inescapable feeling of isolation — that you are facing these challenges alone — can often be too much to bear. Affinity groups like Black@Blakes are substantive ways for firm management to demonstrate that the firm is committed to supporting a diverse workplace and profession. Black@Blakes is a way to move the dial in the right direction.
Formalizing the Black@Blakes initiative is important and significant because those of us who have felt the pangs of exclusion personally always knew that these conversations matter and are necessary. With official firm sanction, it meant that Blakes knew that as well. Black@Blakes is a commitment to do more and is modelled after the successes we have had with affinity groups like Pride@Blakes and Women@Blakes.
Officially, Black@Blakes is an internal network of Black legal professionals dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion and fostering the long-term career success of its members. It serves as a forum for its members to exchange ideas, promote relationship building and encourage mentorship.
With strong firm support, it is intended that Black@Blakes will help improve our recruitment strategies and outcomes for Black legal professionals. By promoting meaningful relationships and helping members feel connected, we also hope it will improve retention. Lastly, by providing mentoring and coaching that allows for members to receive practical guidance on how to successfully navigate the practice of law, Black@Blakes will help drive the advancement of our Black legal professionals.
Unofficially, and in light of the ongoing conversations around anti-Black racism, Black@Blakes is a way to keep the conversation going. It is a way to normalize these conversations in the workplace and to bring others into the fold. Most importantly, Black@Blakes is a way to make sure the Black members of our firm feel supported, that their voices are heard and that they are most certainly not alone.
Kyle Elliott leads the diversity and inclusion outreach initiatives at Blakes, which are designed to attract students from diverse backgrounds to the practice of business law.
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This article was originally published by Law360 Canada – providing Canadian legal news, analysis and current awareness for lawyers and legal professionals who need a real-time view on the shifting legal landscape.