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Cultural inclusivity in the legal profession: “This is not Morocco – it’s Australia 2016”

Cultural inclusivity in the legal profession: “This is not Morocco – it’s Australia 2016”

By Steven Sapountsis

Discrimination 

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At the Conference of Council last Monday, one of the sessions was entitled “Diversity in the workplace – emerging challenges and opportunities”.

During that presentation, one speaker reminded us of the difficulty in identifying and dealing with unconscious bias.

The 2016 Australian of the Year, David Morrison, has been applauded by most for his acceptance speech when he said:

"For reasons beyond education, or professional qualifications, or willingness to contribute, or a desire to be a part of our society and our community, too many of our fellow Australians are denied the opportunity to reach their potential.

"It happens because of their gender, because of the god they believe in, because of their racial heritage, because they're not able-bodied, because of their sexual orientation, and we as a nation . . . should be able to give them the chance to reach their potential.

"Because when they do, we all benefit, and that's what true diversity is about and why I am so passionate about it and so honoured to have been chosen as your Australian of the Year in 2016.”

One expects that, in 2016, the legal profession would certainly be free of blatant prejudice and that we would have gone quite a way to identifying and eliminating unconscious bias.

Two incidents relayed to us in the past week suggest that is not the case.

In the first, an employee in our legal system, when asked who had conduct of a case, was heard to respond, “The wog lawyer has it”.

In the second incident, reported during this week’s Conference of LIV Council, a senior legal officer told a Muslim client of a lawyer, “This is not Morocco. In Australia women have rights. Do you understand me? Women have no rights in Morocco do they?”

The remark was completely unnecessary and not relevant at all to the facts in dispute.

That such bigotry and prejudice is openly paraded in Australia is a surprise, but that it is done so by anyone holding senior positions in the law, is shocking and unacceptable.

As the Honourable Michael Kirby pointed out in his address to launch the NSW branch of the Asian-Australian Lawyers Association last year, diversity is especially important in the law, because ultimately the law is about power and about the values that affect the exercise of power. The law, more than just about anything else, has to reflect the diversity of values in the community.

For the legal profession, it is probably the case that unconscious bias holds lawyers back, or does not let them develop to their full potential or to contribute to the firm’s business as fully as possible.

The president of the Muslim Legal Network, Jazeer Nijamudeen, told the conference how lawyers from diverse cultural groups bring unique skills, networks and perspectives. This can lead to increased innovation, opportunities to expand into untapped markets and a workforce that is more capable of leveraging connections from language and culture to improve organisational outcomes.

A culturally inclusive workplace is good for business, good for clients, and good for practitioners, as it allows them to be comfortable to be themselves.

It is also fair and just.

Here are some small accommodations that can be made to be inclusive to a culturally diverse workforce, as suggested by Mr Nijamudeen:

  • Messages from the top. Have a leader who encourages employees to share their cultural celebrations. The organisation will better understand the cultural differences of their colleagues.
  • Encourage Harmony Day celebrations. Different food can be shared with different conversations about culture.
  • Diversity training. Have employees undertake seminars or workshops. In the meantime, check out a range of resources on diversity on the LIV website.
  • Proudly inform new starters that the organisation values diversity. This builds rapport from day one and helps the employees build a sense of belonging that may otherwise not be present when they start.
  • Remember everyone is individual and despite how they look they might not necessarily practise their religion or culture the same. When in doubt about a potential cultural difference, respectfully ask questions in a private setting.
  • Be mindful of the cultural and religious obligations of employees. For example, Muslim lawyers often attend prayers at a local congregation at lunchtime on Fridays. As they can usually attend the earlier or later congregation, they can easily manage work commitments by attending the more convenient session if there is open workplace communication. Most employers would check before scheduling lunchtime meetings anyway, and checking with the employee helps by not forcing them to choose between work commitments and their religion.

In discussion, the conference delegates agreed that bad behaviour, and that is what prejudice is, must be called out.

So I encourage all of you to make some small changes in your workplace, to try and break down barriers, and make the law a much more culturally inclusive and diverse profession – and to call out the racists and bigots.

Steven Sapountsis, 2016 LIV President


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