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A Seat At The (Counsel) Table: Giving Juniors More Than A "Folding Chair"

3 minute read

Recently, the Chief Justice of Ontario and Associate Chief Justice of Ontario released a statement encouraging senior counsel across the legal profession to create more opportunities for junior counsel to participate in oral advocacy before the Court. One reason cited is that “the courts have an important role to play in fostering an environment that makes space for…all members of a Bar that is increasingly reflective of the diversity of the province it serves.”

How right they are.

Our profession has been going through what you may call "growing pains" over the last several years. We are living in this really engaging time where we are talking about – and calling out – issues of diversity and inclusion like never before. Legal workplaces like firms have taken on the necessary responsibility of making themselves more appealing to diverse talent in a myriad of significant ways. This is, of course, welcomed news for persons who have traditionally been underrepresented in the profession. However, as the term suggests, an increase in diversity is only half of the equation when tackling issues of diversity and inclusion.

The statement from Chief Justice Strathy and Associate Chief Justice Fairburn brings to the forefront the other half of the equation, namely what it means to actively contribute to inclusion. It is one thing to open the profession’s door to diverse and underrepresented talent – doing so is necessary, essential, and frankly long overdue. It is another thing entirely, though, to give these junior counsel a meaningful seat at the proverbial table.

Even with the best of intentions, if the door is opened without a true chance to participate, this can be the equivalent of giving juniors a "folding chair" upon their invitation to the table. Sure, in the literal sense they may have a seat with senior counsel; however, the symbolism of the "folding chair" can inadvertently send the message that a junior is an unexpected guest, transient, or someone who is not truly part of the process, and is therefore not seated at the table in a meaningful way. While this is often not intentional messaging communicated by senior counsel, it can nonetheless have a tremendous impact on the message received by junior counsel.

The statement from the Chief Justices emphatically speaks to the simple truth that inclusion in the courtroom means meaningfully involving junior counsel in oral advocacy before the Court. In other words, giving them more than a "folding chair" when you invite them to sit, and offering them your own chair when it comes to some of the oral submissions.

By creating space for and supporting the advocacy of junior counsel in the courtroom, senior counsel directly play a role in the development of young lawyers, especially those who are increasingly coming from backgrounds that have not been traditionally represented in the legal profession. It is paramount that our courtrooms hear the voices of an array of young lawyers that, as the Chief Justices put it, reflect the vibrant diversity of the province our Bar serves.

Diversity may mean you are seated at the table, but inclusion means you have a voice when you are seated.[1]

Now more than ever before, the legal profession is increasingly being populated with more women, people of racialized backgrounds, 2SLGBTQIA+ persons, and other underrepresented individuals, and we all deserve to have a meaningful seat at the (counsel) table.

Without the folding chair.

[1] Liz Fosslien, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work.

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