These Days the Slaves Fight Back

The Seven Sister law firm Davies LLP ran the above ad in several issues of Obiter Dicta, Osgoode Hall’s law student magazine, the last one running on January 9, 2012.  The law firm is known for working its law students and associates exceptionally hard, earning it the informal nickname, “Slavies.”

As you can imagine, outrage ensued.  Especially worth reading is Osgoode Hall’s Kisha Munroe, who stated in a letter to Obiter Dicta on January 16, 2012,

That Davies saw fit to run an ad invoking the shameful, genocidal, dehumanizing practice of forced, unpaid, lifelong labour and suffering that was essential to the power the Western world now enjoys is despicable.

What is even more offensive is that the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, is still alive and well with regard to disparities in access to employment, education, wealth and justice that the descendants of slaves still suffer. It is beyond distasteful for them to jokingly compare the rarified privilege (however rigorous) of working at a Bay Street lawfirm with this history.

To their credit, Davies LLP did print an apology in the paper,

The intent of the advertisement was instead to try to suggest that the nickname students have used for our firm for many, many years should not dissuade students from considering applying to us for summer or articling positions. We were aiming for some selfdeprecating humour. It did not occur to our team that we would be seen as making light of slavery, rather than simply poking fun at ourselves. Obviously it should have.

We thank those who brought this to our attention and accept their criticism. We sincerely apologize to those who were offended. We will not run the advertisement again.

Frances Mahil
Director, Student Affairs
Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP

No public apology is available yet on the Davies website.   Yes, this is an issue that concerns and has offended a much broader audience than just Osgoode Hall.

The fact that this occurred in the first place does highlight the insensitivity and insularity that exists in Canada’s “top” law firms.  I can already hear the voices of many lawyers I know dismissively saying that those offended are “too sensitive.” In fact Andrew Emery, another 2L at Osgoode,  wrote in to the paper,

There is nothing offensive about playing on the perception that Davies students work like slaves. It is as offensive as just saying the word “slave”. Just saying a word doesn’t make it offen sive. The joke is so mild even my Grandma could laugh at it and she thinks women shouldn’t show their elbows on television.

The lack of sensitivity by major law firms, especially at the decision making level, should actually be used to hold them accountable.  Apparently Davies LLP was not concerned enough about dissuading minority students from applying to summer or articling positions.  And rather than realizing that the strenuous hours and unrealistic work assignments that have fostered the negative reputation should be an incentive to change the firm culture and create better internal supports, the firm still thinks it’s reasonable to flaunt this reputation as a “learning experience” akin to “slavery.”

Davies does have a “diversity page” on their site which states,

The creativity and different perspectives that are brought to our practice by lawyers from diverse backgrounds and communities have helped to define who we are as a firm today, and we believe that they will continue to be key factors that enable us to endure as market leaders in our chosen areas of practice.

Their NALP profile states under “diversity,”

Our goal is to recruit, hire, retain and promote exceptional students and lawyers who share Davies’ commitment to excellence…

It continues,

Our goal is to hire exceptional students who share our commitment to excellence. We are committed to our student program as the primary source of new lawyers and hire back students anticipating they will become partners of the firm very early in their career. This early partnership structure is unique among law firms and we have a very high ratio of partners to associates. As a result, very early in their careers our talented young lawyers learn to act like owners, rather than employees, and to view the firm’s relationships with its clients from that perspective.

Unlike many American law firms, Canadian ones are highly resistant to releasing statistics about their associate and partner diversity.  Of course you don’t need much time to flip through a website to get an idea of what kind of diversity they have.  And as well all should know, the real issue of  law firms diversity has a lot more to do with retention than it does recruitment.  Nobody announces it on their departure, but the insensitivities of law firm culture is one of the primary reasons why minority lawyers don’t feel fully accepted, can’t be completely productive, and ultimately choose to find more comfortable work environments.

But aside from dissuading law students and even lateral hires, there could be other implications for insensitivity by law firms.  Some clients in the American legal context have historically demanded proof that a legal team will have sufficient diversity.  In-house counsel of minority backgrounds may opt to choose another large law firm to do their legal work instead.

In other words, there are financial consequences to these poor decisions.  And although the managing partner may not be able to identify on a budget why some clients are choosing alternative service providers or explain recruitment issues, it is worth noting:  in today’s world, the “slaves” actually fight back.

22 Comments on "These Days the Slaves Fight Back"

  1. Joy Wakefield | January 24, 2012 at 12:53 pm |

    As I stated in my reply to Mr. Emery, and as I have stated in a message to the VP Academic at Queen’s, lawyers need training in cultural sensitivity. Sad that it comes only with the pressure of penal consequences or economic loss. The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has some interesting things to say, and the author sums up their decision as follows:

    “cultural competency requires knowledge, skills, and attitudes and that the failure to be culturally competent isn’t just insensitivity but can result in a miscarriage of justice and a wrongful conviction.”

  2. Mitch Kowalski | January 24, 2012 at 1:16 pm |


    If Davies had said it works its students like “dogs” would PETA object?

  3. Mitch,
    Normalizing inhumane workloads presented to students by humourously alluding to slavery is not just offensive to minority students, but to law students, period.

    If Davies wants to improve its reputation there is only one way to do it – improve their working conditions.

    Increasing their diversity quotient in decision-making roles might be a nice addition at this point as well, but I won’t be holding my breath for either.

  4. Omar, thank you for speaking up on this important issue.

    Hard to any African or Caribbean Canadians would consider employment with Davies after seeing this offensive ad.

  5. Whether you agree or disagree with Omar’s views, it’s still true that if Davies had “poked fun” at other ethnic, religious, and/or social atrocities, people would probably be more outraged.

  6. Slavery is an issue that goes far beyond that of the North American context. Slavery is still a live issue in parts of the world today, particularly in the context of women and the sex trade. To localize it to one point in history is also offensive.

  7. Mitch Kowalski | January 24, 2012 at 3:22 pm |

    Omar – As long as Davies is successful, it will not change its business model. Students are always free to work elsewhere – students are not forced to work for Davies, they freely choose to do so.

    Bob is also very correct.

    Every race and culture has condoned slavery at one point in its history. To suggest that the term “slave” only applies to one particular race, or one particular culture or one particular point in history, is shockingly uninformed particularly in a post-secondary academic environment.

    And while the issue of “sensitivity” is very important, it is just as important for us to avoid advocating extreme self-censorship – to the point where we begin creating Newspeak and Thought Police.

    Sensitivity should not be used as a crutch to oppose Ads, views or law firms that students simply don’t like.

  8. I strongly disagree with Mitch.

    The ad sends a message to law students, particularly racialized law students, that they are not welcome at Davies. The fact that the advertisement was not screened out right away, simply reflects the lack of diversity at Davies.

  9. Mitch,
    As we both know, law firm indicators of “success” are rather subjective and poorly assessed.

    The firm claims the very reason they launched this ad was in response to recruitment perceptions. Arguably they already come across students who choose to work elsewhere, not satisfied with so much sacrifice for marginally higher compensation.

    My point is that those taking offence to this will invariably take actions that will affect Davies’ financial success, but likely through means too subtle for the firm to attribute it to them. I’ve already seen it happen numerous times with other firms in the Canadian marketplace.

    Cultural sensitivity, as Joy points out, is simply good business sense. Law firms, I think we can agree, are not the frontrunners in business innovation and ingenuity.

  10. Mitch,
    As we both know, law firm indicators of “success” are rather subjective and poorly assessed.

    The firm claims the very reason they launched this ad was in response to recruitment perceptions. Arguably they already come across students who choose to work elsewhere, not satisfied with so much sacrifice for marginally higher compensation.

    My point is that those taking offence to this will invariably take actions that will affect Davies’ financial success, but likely through means too subtle for the firm to attribute it to them. I’ve already seen it happen numerous times with other firms in the Canadian marketplace.

    Cultural sensitivity, as Joy points out, is simply good business sense. Law firms, I think we can agree, are not the typically used for benchmarking in the business world.

  11. Y’all do realize that the Davies recruitment lady you bullied the apology out of IS a “racialized” lawyer, don’t you?

  12. Hey Omar!

    Thanks so much for shedding light on this madness. It’s nice to know there are folks out there who think and see things reasonably. Are these weak animal rights analogies the best folks can do in their efforts at gatekeeping? It’s embarrassing. You’d think people would buck up their arguments.

  13. Joy Wakefield | January 24, 2012 at 10:44 pm |

    Not just good business sense – but good “I won’t get sued and get disbarred because the Court of Appeal just handed my client his case” sense. But if you don’t have any qualms about professional responsibility, ethics, or even shame, then I guess it boils down to business.

    And it sounds a bit disingenuine to mock a serious point about slavery referencing animals, and then come back and say it’s extremely offensive because we don’t talk about modern slavery. It’s here now in comments, but it’s also all over facebook.

  14. Joy Wakefield | January 24, 2012 at 11:06 pm |

    Facepalm: Everything is part of the marketing strategy. Who better to give the apology or recruit students?

    Tell me why is it that with all the other firms at least having diversity programs to promote women and minorities in practice, this firm has a blurb about how it’s important? Look at its page for yourself – even just the front one.

    It’s time that we stop putting all of the burden on minorities to stop racism – it’s not their job to clean up this mess.

  15. You mean, the person who placed the ad in the first place? The student recruiter?

    Let me explain how you make partner at a WASPy firm that doesn’t want you to make partner because you’re brown.

    1. Do your job well.
    2. Start bringing in business.
    3. Once you have a steady client stream, tell the managing partners that if they don’t make you a partner, you’re going to leave and take your clients with you.
    4. Watch them fold like cheap umbrellas.

    (Bonus round:
    5. Send your kid to top schools so s/he learns there isn’t anything mystical about any of these places.
    6. Have said kid watch a bunch of people who don’t know a darned thing about these places weave conspiracy theories about hiring policies, and then feel compelled to do a _double_ *facepalm*.)

  16. “Facepalm,”

    I think it should be clear from my post and comments above that:

    • The offence here is beyond just minority law students, and is also directly related to the normalization of questionable work practices
    • I went through the firm directory, including the individual who wrote the letter to Obiter Dicta
    • We don’t have the facts or details about the process through which the ad was placed, which is why it’s probably not a good idea to focus on any one particular individual.

    Let me explain to you how to make partner “at a WASPy firm that doesn’t want you to make partner because you’re” a visible minority (terminology is important here):

    1.  Do your job better than everyone else, because you will be under greater scrutiny just because of the way you look.
    2.  Magically develop contacts with high-profile business people who will refer your firm work, even though:

    a) you have less time than everyone else because of 1. above
    b) you did not grow up going to the country club and/or private/religious school where such networks would be formed
    c) your parents are not lawyers/judges/politicians who can pressure their friends for you

    3.  Even if you have miraculously developed a steady client stream, don’t dare challenge managing partners, or any partners for that matter. Always be subservient and deferential. Especially when others in the office make racial/ethnic/socio-economic jokes. If you really want to ingratiate yourself you can initiate these jokes yourself.
    4.  Realize that even if you do all of the above over the course of 7-10 years, you may still be rebuffed as “not one of us,” “not a good fit,” or “not a team player.”  Of course the rules of the “team” are their social norms, never yours or a place half way in between.   Or maybe you didn’t improve on your golf game enough.
    (Bonus round):
    5.  Send your kid to top schools (private and/or religious) so s/he learns how to ingratiate themselves and behave accordingly deferential to non-visible minorities. Of course it’s important to have said kid with a non-visible minority heterosexual partner to ensure that s/he doesn’t stick out as much.
    6.  Have said kid properly insulated from socio-economic struggles and any history/awareness of oppression or institutional racism. If said kid does attempt to point out any such systemic barriers they will obviously be dismissed as being “too sensitive” and subscribing to “conspiracy theories.” Such concepts will only foster resentment, and likely manifest itself in objections to racial/ethnic/socio-economic jokes. More importantly, the will not likely produce the desired levels of subservience and deference.

    And with that I hope this is your last comment here under a pseudonym, given that nearly everyone else above has used their real name.

  17. I agree that there is an issue with Davies being insensitive in referring to slavery in a trivial manner, but didn’t the term “Slavies” originate from us law students?

    I, for one, found it amusing when I first heard of a big time Bay Street law firm being referred to as “Slavies”. And I thought it was funny, and gave credit to Davies for poking fun with its reputation, when I saw the ad a couple weeks ago. Had Davies started a new marketing campaign trivializing slavery, there is no doubt I would be offended. But the “Slavies” nickname was started by law students.

    Perhaps before we sound off on the law firm we should be asking the law student body how come we have allowed this insensitivity to go on for so long amongst us.

  18. Wait, there are people who thought it was Davies who came up with the Slavies nickname? Srsly? Law students have been calling it that for, like, a decade. Personally I’ve always found it pretentious — reading through documents is not exactly pyramid-building, folks — but I’d understand the op ed line here was that Davies ought not to have tried to dampen the sting by appropriating it: stiff upper lip and all that. If there were some who thought that Davies itself came up with all this, they really need to delve a bit deeper.

  19. I came here from ATL’s item (with which I generally agree) though I first read about it at lawandstyle.

    The ad is not objectively making light of slavery or inherently offensive (except for that I generally agree with “C” above), though some people CHOOSE to subjectively take offense. If this gets these law students that worked up, they’ll never survive in the real world. Also as “C” noted, quaere how many of the people complaining now would ever have called a fellow student to task for referring to “slavies”…

  20. I agree with David. Obviously “slave[ery]”, in the formal sense of the word, is an awful, despicable and unpardonable practice but the term “slave” has been used colloquially in the English language for as long as I can remember to refer to one who endures harsh working conditions and/or receives inadequate compensation for that work (obviously it is only the former in this case, but it is already hyperbole to use “slave” in its colloquial sense so where is the harm in a bit more hyperbole?).

    Most dictionaries I have seen include that usage among others. I must have heard it used hundreds if not thousands of times in that during my 30 years on this earth and this is the first time I’ve ever heard of anyone taking offence to it. Ascribing any ‘insensitivity’ to Davies for this campaign seems unfair given the commonplace colloquial use of the term and the lack of any criticism of that colloquial use. If you really want to delegitimize the use of that term that is fine but you have to at least lay the groundwork for that before you accuse others of insensitivity.

    Seems like a tempest in a teapot to me.

  21. The Osgoode Black Law Students Association (BLSA) has provided an excellent written statement here.

    …The responses to the ad appeared to be two-fold: some were offended about the use of “slavies” in regards to the demanding nature of billable hours in the legal profession, while others were offended about the use of the term as it regards the Trans Atlantic slave trade.

    While other Bay Street firms advertise promoting a meaningful work-life balance, Davies took a different approach. The dictionary states that a slave is “a person who works very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation.” It is troubling that a corporation would make light of an employer-employee relationship in such a manner. As lawyers and law students, it is discouraging to think that one’s hard work will be either meagerly or under-compensated. Further, by no means is employment in a Bay Street firm like Davies actually slavery. However, the ad works to discourage the increasingly illusive work-life balance necessary for both the mental and physical health of our professionals…

    The apology from Davies stated: “it did not occur to our team (emphasis added) that we would be seen as making light of slavery.” For those who took offence to the ad or thought it to be in poor taste, the apology begs one to question the composition of their team. Many years ago, law firms were described as being an “old boys club.” A brief examination of the class photos around Osgoode symbolizes this time in history. As more women enrolled in law school and joined the legal profession, the “old boys club” had to change their attitude in response to the growing number of women around them. Although the attitudes in response to women in the legal profession are not perfect today, they are better than they once were. As a result, one could successfully argue that advertisements like “slavies” would not have made it to print if a more diverse group of individuals with varying sensitivities previewed it. If an individual on their team was sensitive to the issue of slavery, although they may appreciate Davies’ attempt at self-depreciating humor, they would likely err on the side of caution and take a stance that such an advertisement not run due to its potentially offensive nature.

  22. I’m black and am ashamed that this is a controversy. Context is everything and this is not about race or racism. Give me a break.

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