These Days the Slaves Fight Back

By: Omar Ha-Redeye · January 24, 2012 · Filed Under Law Career, Marketing/PR in Law · 22 Comments 

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.