Canada: Diversonomics | Episode 1 - Why Your Firm Needs A Diversity & Inclusion Initiative

Podcast summary

In the inaugural episode of Diversonomics, co-hosts Roberto Aburto and Sarah Willis introduce listeners to the podcast and discuss their experiences with diversity and inclusion in the legal industry. They also outline some of the obstacles the profession faces with respect to adopting new strategies and overhauling old practices. 

Episode tip

"Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common." — Sarah Willis, Co-host of Diversonomics and an associate at Gowling WLG

Resources mentioned in this episode

Episode guests

Roberto Aburto

Roberto Aburto is an associate in Gowling WLG's Ottawa office, practising in municipal law and civil litigation, with a focus on real estate disputes, land use planning law and commercial litigation.

He is also an active member in the swimming and lifesaving community, serving on the board of directors for the Lifesaving Society (Ontario Branch) as the corporate secretary/legal adviser, and on the Lifesaving Society (National Branch) National Team Selection Committee for Lifesaving Sport.

He is also co-chair of Gowling WLG's Diversity and Inclusion Council and is committed to promoting these principles.

To learn more about Roberto,  visit his bio or connect with him on  Twitter or  LinkedIn.

Sarah Willis

Sarah Willis is an associate in Gowling WLG's Ottawa office, practising in the areas of commercial and civil litigation, and medical defence law. Sarah also has ecommercial and civil litigation experience in a variety of areas, including contractual and construction law disputes, tort actions, and small claims court claims. While in law school, Sarah was an oralist in the 2013 Willms and Shier Environmental Law Moot competition, sat as an executive on the Women and Law Association, and was the vice-president of the class of 2013 council in her final year.

To learn more about Sarah,  visit her bio or connect with her on  LinkedIn.

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Podcast transcript

­ Roberto: Welcome to Diversonomics. The podcast about all things diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. I am your co-host, Roberto Aburto, a lawyer at Gowling WLG in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and I have here with me my co-host, Sarah Willis. 

Sarah: Hi everyone. Sarah here. I am also a lawyer at Gowling WLG in Ottawa, Ontario and it is a pleasure to be here with you today. It's actually a pretty special episode because it is our inaugural episode. Very exciting.

Roberto: Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! Here we go, episode number 1. I love listening to podcasts and I'm very eager to take the driver seat of one. I'm always happy to hear the sound of my own voice so, at the very least, we'll have at least two listeners because Sarah has to listen to me as well.

On this episode we are going to talk about why we are interested in diversity and inclusion, why we decided to do this show and what you can expect from us in Season 1, as well as what you can expect to hear from our friends and colleagues. 

Sarah: Who are really just smarter and funnier and generally more entertaining than us so you are in for a treat.

Roberto: Very critical that at least we get smarter and entertaining people on. Hopefully that will help.

Sarah: It will minimize our impact.

Roberto: Exactly. Just to tell you a little bit about myself I did an undergraduate in business administration at Wilfrid Laurier University. I also did a joint program in law at Michigan State University College of Law, as well as the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, which is a real mouthful.

I am a Gowling WLG "lifer", having started in the Waterloo office in 2009 as a summer student, moved to Ottawa in 2013 and have had the privilege of staying with the same firm that whole time. I practice in municipal law and litigation with a focus on real estate disputes. If there is a fight that involves dirt I am all over that.

I also have the privilege of being one of the co-chairs of our National Diversity and Inclusion Council so that has been a real privilege and something that I have really enjoyed taking part in and certainly  has been big shoes to fill.

Sarah: I will tell you a little bit about myself. I am also a former Golden Hawk. I did my undergraduate degree at Wilfrid Laurier and I went to Queen's University for law school. I started my legal career in Toronto at a full service firm and I joined the Gowling WLG family last August. So it has been almost exactly a year since I joined Gowling WLG.

My practice is split between commercial litigation and professional liability. It is a bit of a mixed bag but it's very interesting and I have really enjoyed the last year here.

­ Roberto: In terms of my interest in diverse and  inclusion it comes from a few sources but formally at Gowling WLG, it really has its roots in the All Professional Conference that we had in 2014. It's an All Professional Conference where all professionals from Gowling WLG got together from all the offices across the world. There were sessions on numerous topics so you would hear about different practice areas.

From my commercial litigation work, the commercial litigation group got together and talked about endeavors and strategic planning and that sort of thing. Then on the plenary session we talk about broader issues that were addressing the firm as a whole and the legal industry as a whole. It was in this conference at one of those plenary sessions where Scott Jolliffe and Faithe Holder, Scott Jolliffe was then the CEO of Gowlings, as it was then, and Faithe Holder is a partner in real estate in Toronto, they did a presentation on the census results relating to diversity and inclusion at our Firm.

This was the first time that our Firm had taken on and done a census that investigated not just the demographics but also the more subjective inclusive nature and how people were feeling on an inclusive side. It was a real honest look at how are we doing as a Firm. Sort of recently coming through law school, just looking at the business community and having worked at a number of different  markets, the legal industry, we are not the best example in terms of diversity and inclusion.

We are improving; there are a lot of great champions but there is a lot of work to be done there. In terms of diversity and inclusion for Gowling WLG just turning the mirror on ourselves, looking at it honestly and saying "Look, we've got equity  female partnership with 27%, there are other areas where inclusion is not as strong in terms of visible minorities or sexual orientation, and there are things we can do. Here is the problem that exists. Let's look at it and see how we can improve and how we can do better at this." I saw that presentation and it really captivated me.

Following the presentation I sent an email to Scott and Faithe and said "Great. Thank you guys for shining a light on this. There is so much work to do but this is a really big step and this is very visible, and obviously took some resources, and shows that this important to us. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help." 

Well, careful what you wish for because a few months later my phone rang and said, "Hey, do you want to be one of the co-chairs of the National Council for Gowling WLG?" and I'll be honest that I hesitated at first. Practice of law is always busy and I have had a busy practice but if you really want to get something done you make it happen.

The additional work was not that much of a concern but what concerned me was whether or not I was authentic enough. I have white skin, my father is from Mexican descent, but  I have been fairly fortunate. I got a lot of positive breaks in my career and I feel like in terms of bias and discrimination, those really haven't been factors that have hindered me in my career. I was concerned and I believe there are real issues there, I believe there are lots of things we should do but am I the right voice.

I told them I would think about it but I spoke with my lovely partner that evening and she has been a real proponent of diversity and inclusion for much longer than I have, and is in a lot of ways more thoughtful than I am which is great. In speaking with her she said "If you think you can do a good job in this and you've got the passion for it, and I believe you could, you should do it."  I said "Yes" and I have never regretted it for a second.

One moment over the last year and half that really solidified was we had Joanne St. Lewis come in to speak for Black History Month. For those of you who don't know Joanne, she is a Professor at the University of Ottawa and she is also a Black Bencher. The Bencher's are like a board of directors for the Law Society which is the governing body for lawyers in Ontario.

Joanne has always been a great voice and in her talk she said "People are always looking at me to be the voice but sometimes I don't always want to speak up. Sometimes I am tired. I don't always have to carry the torch." She is being modest because she speaks up more than some of the time and certainly has carried the load more than many, many people in this Province. But it did speak to legitimizing allies and champions from all over the industry and it really needs to be something that is embraced fully and so I am very proud to be in that role and really excited that we have done that and excited to be doing this.

Sarah: That's fantastic and you are doing a fantastic job so far from what I have seen. Congrats on that. Just in terms of my background I'm a little bit of a newer, I guess,  intern into diversity and inclusion. I have always been very interested in diversity and inclusion, and in particular, gender and inequality issues. I was very involved in undergrad in a number of organizations and I was heavily involved in the Women and Law Association at law school.

We worked to create a forum to discuss issues faced by women in the legal profession. We would put on a number of events and that was a really great experience. Then joining Gowling WLG I was interested in the diversity and inclusion initiatives that had been taking place that Roberto and others had been spearheading over the last year.

When Roberto invited me to participate in this podcast I was obviously very excited and jumped at the chance. Though I am fairly certain that I am just here for comedic relief, which was maybe a misguided decision on your part, Roberto, given that I am queen of really unfunny bad jokes. I imagine there will be a lot of groaning this season, I'm sure, mixed of course with some great insightful discussions. I am definitely excited to be part of this initiative and I think it is a great way for us to really dig into diversity and inclusion issues, both in the legal profession as well as more broadly in Canada and internationally as well. Thanks for that.  

Roberto: There may be a real battle for the corniest joke of the year this year. I guess we'll see how it goes.

Sarah: We might have to have to a poll at the end of the season.

Roberto: Why do we care about diversity and inclusion and what do we mean by diversity and inclusion because those are terms that are used a lot and they have different meanings to different people.

Diversity is about bringing people together with different perspectives, life and work experiences, cultures, life styles and beliefs. It's the mix of people and ideas. Inclusion is about respecting and valuing these differences and insuring that every person has a feeling of safety, comfortable and is supported. It's really about getting the mix to work well together. I definitely stole this analogy but a good analogy is that diversity is getting invited to the party and inclusion is getting to dance, and we all love to dance.

Companies are increasingly instituting policies and educational programs and working to create awareness and vocalize their support for diversity focused programs. We are happy to move forward on that front and those are great endeavors and we certainly see great leadership from banks and some of the larger companies. Hopefully we can step up to the plate, match and challenge everybody to be even better.

Sarah: I agree. I think that the goal really is to include and make a safe space for those who otherwise would be excluded or marginalized, for example, racial or sexual minorities. The strides that have been made by the banks and some of the larger corporations, these efforts have stemmed probably in large part because of both the overall diversity in Canada as the increasingly global nature of doing business.

Companies and banks, and law firms for that matter as well, have really started to realize that understanding, welcoming and supporting differences is good for business.  Which that's fantastic and it means that there are a lot of great programs out there.

I think there is a quote, and I'm not sure who first said it but again, stealing a quote from someone else, "Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common." and it's a little bit cliché but it's very true. At the base level diversity and inclusion is really the right thing to do. It makes business sense, it positions us to attract better talent to offer better services to our clients and I think it is important that law firms and professionals within the legal profession take strides to match or exceed the efforts being made by banks and companies around Canada and the world.

Roberto: In terms of why we are doing this podcast some of it comes from a little bit of a selfish place. Over the last year and half we have really increased the number of lunch and learn sessions where we have addressed diversity and inclusion topics. We have had really wonderful internal and external speakers and I have learned a ton and really enjoyed that and just sort of that genuine educational moment has been wonderful.

I want to take that and have more of those discussions so this is a great excuse for us to do that and to corner interesting people and get their ideas and thoughts and to learn more about that. It really is a chance for us to have more of these discussions.

It is also part of our journey to find best practices and to make our practice even better. Really looking outside and seeing what is out there is going to advance us in a big way and certainly put us in a better position to get where we want to get. It's a huge topic. It can be very, very complicated at times. We are going to do our best but we are also learning so it's likely we may make mistakes in  terms of correct use of terminology. We even had a session on terminology in the LGBT context at Gowling WLG and it was really great to have that because it was an honest way for people to go and learn and to put everybody in a better position going forward so they are using the correct terminology and that people are comfortable.

We want to have that discussion to make sure that we are doing our best, so that we are in a position to promote diversity, but I am warning you that we will not be perfect and that is okay in diversity and inclusion. We are just going to do the very best that we can.

Sarah: I agree. That session was fantastic actually. I thought I was pretty up to date on appropriate terminology and the status of where diversity and inclusion was at in Canada but  I learned so much during that session. I think it would be a great thing for all companies to do. I think it definitely gives you a good sense as to what are appropriate terms to use, how to talk about some of these issues, because a lot of the times it is lack of terminology that really prevents people from being comfortable talking about it.  Just to give you an idea we will talk more throughout this season about great things that Gowling WLG is doing for diversity and inclusion in the legal profession but we will just give you an overview of what's been going on just as a starting point. 

As we mentioned we're both lawyers at Gowling WLG and to those of you who aren't aware, Gowling WLG is an international law firm. There is more than 1,400 legal professionals around the world and about 700 of those are found in Canada. We have offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Waterloo, Hamilton, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. I believe that is it.  We are spread out across Canada and there have been some great initiatives that the Firm has taken part in already which Roberto will talk about. 

Roberto: Just to add to that, we certainly grew significantly this past February where we combined with Wragge Lawrence Graham. We went from Gowlings to Gowling WLG so we may fall into the habit of saying Gowlings and the marketing people will get very upset with us. There has been a  lot of change and a lot of excitement on that front.

Just to sort of speak about the session that we talked about on LGBT, language and terminology, a big shout out to Pride at Work who were instrumental in that session and led that session. In terms of diversity and inclusion we'll call it "D and I" sometimes so you'll be on the ins with the lingo in the D and I world. It was not born in 2014 at Gowling WLG but we had that council come together at that point and formalize things more.

We'll have Neena Gupta on as a guest in a future episode, who is the other co-chair of the National Diversity and Inclusion Council, and she'll talk a bit more about the development of D and I at Gowling WLG. I am looking forward to that conversation.

Sarah: We're also working to get a guest speaker to speak on the topic of unconscious bias which will be really interesting and we intend to engage with our new colleagues in the UK which, excitingly, I'll be joining for a few months this fall. I am looking very forward to doing some on the road reporting from our UK office over the next few months though I think I'll have to brush up on some of my British slang.

It has definitely been quite interesting on how the combination that Roberto just mentioned between Gowlings and Wragge Lawrence Graham has been a hub for creating pressure to advance D and I. We will investigate this further in future episodes but it should be very exciting to talk to our UK colleagues. One of the great things that Gowling WLG has done is give us the support and resources to create this podcast which is fantastic. It's nice to know we have the Firm's support and they have definitely encouraged us to just jump in and do our best with this podcast. Thank you Gowling WLG.

Just to give you a little bit of information about what this show is and why we decided to do it. Essentially we decided to create the podcast because there really isn't a lot of diversity and inclusion specifically related to the legal field in Canada. There is not a lot of content going on around that.

Law firms have traditionally been really slow to implement changes in this regard and we really wanted the opportunity to discuss the efforts that lawyers and law firms and legal organizations have made in trying to further the dialogue on D and I. Our friends in the US have a little more content. There is a little more progress there but there is still not a lot and we really weren't able to locate any other podcasts on this specific topic. We noticed there was a gap and we thought this would be a great opportunity to open up that discussion and get this going.

There is a quote by Tiffany Harper that says the law generally has lagged behind its corporate counterparts and it's the most risk adverse profession. Even with technology law firms were the last to adopt email.  And it's true. Law firms tend to move very slowly and in some ways that can be good. They're risk adverse, we take our time, consider all the options, but especially in terms of D and I, to try to push things forward and really open up the dialogue regarding that. 

Roberto: In general as I mentioned off the top, we as an industry, we need to be better. There are significant issues. An example is that we saw the report on challenges facing racialized licencees in 2015 which was released by the Law Society of Upper Canada, again, the Ontario Licencing body for lawyers.

The fact that the report was done was excellent but the findings of the report are certainly revealing significant issues. There is a lot of work to be done so let's shine a light on those issues, let's talk about what is being done and let's try to create some positive pressures. We are going to look at a lot of Canadian examples but we are going to reach out to guests to get an international perspective as well and with Gowling WLG we are in a great position to do that.

Our goal is for positive discussion and look at constructive solutions for the future. Including looking at the broader issues and challenges facing D and I. 

We want to ask hard questions not just pay lip service, but again, really looking forward to this. Hopefully it is a small step forward on the D and I front. That's basically what you can expect from this show and, again, really looking forward to it.

Sarah: We are definitely looking forward to chatting with you over the course of the season and we want this to be interactive. If you ever have any questions or comments or you have ideas for topics and guests, please look us up at and get in touch with us. Also make sure to check out the show notes for this episode at Last but not least make sure to subscribe to us on iTunes so you don't ever miss an episode. While you're at it leave a review and let us know what you think. We're always happy to receive feedback.

Roberto: You can also follow me on Twitter on @robaburto. Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG and is produced by Jessica Bowman with special assistance from the IT department, without whom I would literally be unable to practice law.  Thanks to you folks for putting up with us and again, until next time, go forth linkand be inclusive.

Sarah: Take care.

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