Podcast summary

For episode five of Diversonomics co-hosts Roberto Aberto and Sarah Willis interview Cristie Sutherland, the Director of Student and Associate Programs in Gowling WLG's Calgary office. They discuss the firm's recruitment process and why it's not only important to hire the best candidates, but to put diversity and inclusion at the forefront of these important decisions. Cristie also shares her story of being an immigrant to Canada and how that's shaped her path to following the law and now hiring future lawyers for the firm.

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Episode tip

"...above everything be yourself. Life is too short to expend the kind of energy it would take to try to be one person at work and another person outside of work. Frankly, I think you are robbing yourself and you’d be robbing [your workplace]." — Cristie Sutherland, Director of Student and Associate Programs at Gowling WLG, Calgary


Episode guest

Cristie Sutherland is the Director of Student and Associate Programs for Gowling WLG's Calgary office. She overseas recruitment and mentoring programsn for associates and students, and is a chair of Gowling WLG’s Diversity Council Recruitment and Retention Working Group.

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

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Podcast transcript

Roberto: Welcome to Diversonomics. The podcast about all things diversity in the legal profession. I am your co-host, Roberto Aburto, a lawyer at Gowling WLG in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, practicing in municipal law and litigation and one of Gowling WLG’s co-chairs of our National Diversity and Inclusion Council.

Sarah: I’m your co-host, Sarah Willis also of Gowling WLG practicing in commercial litigation, including professional liability. I’m normally in Ottawa but I’m currently practicing across the pond in our Birmingham, England office. Today we are going to look at diversity and inclusion from a student recruitment and an associate development perspective.

Roberto: We are lucky today. We have with us, well she is in Calgary, Cristie Sutherland, who is the Director of Student and Associate Programs for Gowling WLG’s Calgary office. Cristie oversees the recruitment, orientation, mentoring and evaluation programs for associates and students in the Calgary office and is well plugged in for the Firm in that regard.

Sarah: In addition to her internal role Cristie also liaises with law students, law schools and law student organizations and oversees the student recruitment process, generally. Cristie also sits on the National Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is the chair of the Recruitment and Retention Working Group which I understand is a very big duty. We are very excited to welcome Cristie to the show today and to have the opportunity to speak with her.

Cristie: Thank you. I am happy to be here.

Roberto: Great Cristie. Can you tell us a little bit about your background. I know a lot of lawyers come from different backgrounds and experiences. How did you end up in a career, initially, practicing law?

Cristie: It was something I always had in mind. I had always considered it. I enjoyed school. I meandered a little bit. I got some funding to do grad work between undergrad and ultimately going to law school and so I did that. Got a bit disenchanted with the idea of continuing in more schooling at that point. So I ended up working at a big customs brokerage trade services logistics company as a market analyst for a few years.

It was about 3 years in that I decided that law was really what I wanted to do and it was at the same time that I was moving out to Calgary for family reasons so it all came together that I applied and ended up in law school. What I initially thought what I wanted to do from when I was fairly quite young eventually came to be some years after the initial plan was hatched.

Roberto: I certainly didn’t grow up dreaming to be a municipal lawyer talking about zoning bylaws but funny how life works out.

Sarah: You didn’t?!

Roberto: But I do enjoy it so keep coming back clients. When you started practicing what sort of law did you practice?

Cristie: Employment and labour primarily was sort of the mainstay of my 8 years in practice. I liked the litigation aspects of the labour employment practice so I ended up supplementing that practice with some commercial litigation as well. But throughout my active practice employment and labour was at least a substantial portion of my practice.

Roberto: Great. How did you end up in your current role and why did you decide to pursue that?

Cristie: In part, it was a timing issue as much as anything. I have moved now between our Calgary and Toronto office a couple of times. I had spent almost 6 years in Toronto after having first started articling in Calgary, working here for a little bit, went East and after about 6 years the Firm asked me if I would come back out West. I was really pleased with that opportunity and wanted to come back out to Calgary.

But it was the perfect storm from a timing perspective. I had come back on the cusp of partnership. I had been away for 6 years. I had a 1 year old and a 3 year old and it felt in many ways like starting over. I spent a year doing it; trying to rebuild the practice, rebuild the profile in the market place, refamiliarizing myself with the Alberta civil procedure rules and it all became a bit overwhelming at that point and at it was at that juncture that I thought perhaps opening an ice cream shop was going to be my next career move.

But fortunately this opportunity came up. But it seemed like a really good crossover from what I was doing. Having spent as much time as I had in an employment law practice, a big component of which is an HR advisory role, this job certainly seemed to be a good fit for my skill set. I loved working in the Firm, I had lots of great friends in the Calgary office and the opportunity to continue on with the Firm doing something different that matched sort of my background was an ideal opportunity. That’s sort of how I decided to make the transition.

Sarah: That’s fantastic. At this point how long have you been doing that role?

Cristie: A little over 5 years now.

Sarah: Obviously you know the legal profession has traditionally lagged behind other sectors in terms of diversity and inclusion. Given that this is a diversity and inclusion podcast and this is a perfect opportunity to talk about that, in what ways do diversity and inclusion issues or considerations impact the work you do in recruitment and student associate development?

Cristie: It’s sort of always front of mind. Particularly on the recruitment side. You want to make sure that you are attracting diverse talent but it’s not just about going out and finding all of those bright capable people. We need to do so much more to create an environment where they can contribute meaning when they get here. There is no point in bringing in people with fresh ideas and then directing them to do things the way we always have. It is a real challenge in the legal profession.

In many ways, we are resistant to change. That’s something that we are always focused on, on the recruitment side, is how do we find people from different backgrounds, that have different viewpoints, that can contribute in different ways and it’s much the same on the associate development side. We don’t have a formal work allocation system in the Calgary office and so in many ways it is trying to make sure that the work gets spread around and the opportunities go to people other than the “mini me’s”, as I like to call them. In those ways it is sort of always front of mind in terms of who gets invited to the table and also how those opportunities get distributed.

Sarah: What type of specific initiatives or programs have you been working on or are you thinking about implementing in terms of associate development, because I do think that it’s an interesting issue. It’s all well and good to bring in and have a diverse group of people working at a firm but in a situation where work is allocated informally and it is all about relationship building, it’s tough to break that down and really ensure that everyone is participating in the firm.

Cristie: Right. Some of what we’ve been doing is more on the recruitment side because I think getting a more diverse group into the office in the first place is important. We spent a lot of time over the past year just really focusing our recruitment efforts on ensuring that we’re attracting a more diverse work force.

In terms of sort of the integration and what we are doing on the inclusion side it is a lot of team building internally. It is a lot of trying to figure out how to disrupt those sort of traditional relationships where people’s teams have been defined by the way they have always done things. In many ways it is trying to make sure that there is an education process around, who has what skill set in our office, who has capacity to do work, who are we more able to plug into a team and give an opportunity to that wouldn’t otherwise be front of mind. A lot of that is an education process for us in this office. A lot of it is just communication and getting practice groups to work together and we’ve been really trying to put some emphasis on doing that.

Sarah: I guess you are in a unique role in the sense that in recruitment you’re getting the opportunity to interact with students and young lawyers who are really the future of the legal profession and the future of the firm. Obviously they will be at the forefront of any changes in the legal profession moving forward. Do you see the legal profession changing and how do you see it changing, if so?

Cristie: In some ways I think it is changing quite quickly, in terms of the adoption of our use of technology, big firms are becoming more globally focused, we are being pressured all of the time to adopt alternative fee structures. We are dealing with legal outsourcing issues. I think there are lots of things that are pressuring law firms to do things differently. In some ways, frankly, there is hardly any change at all. I think there is a real tension between those two things going on in the legal profession currently.

Sarah: Where do you see room for improvement? Obviously, I’m sure that list is quite long, but for the legal profession what are some key areas you think you can see room for improvement in the near future?

Cristie: I think certainly we need to see more women and minorities of every stripe represented in the firms and even where we are seeing them represented I think there are earning disparities that are hard to ignore. Just on those sort of big items there is obviously clearly room for improvement.

I think one of the things that will help shift the D and I needle is just how we manage milliennials in our work place, frankly. I think we could learn a lot from looking at how the next younger generation embraces technology, their working styles, how often they like to work collaboratively, ways of wanting to adopt flexible styles of working. I think all of those things will help us. If we can adopt that, if we can actually incorporate the way the millennials in our work place are sort of pushing the legal profession to change a bit, I think that will have tremendous spill over for the way we deal with diversity and inclusion issues. There is certainly room for improvement but I am a bit optimistic that this generation, more than anything, is going to help move the needle on how we get caught up on the D and I side.

Sarah: That’s fantastic.

Roberto: How do you ensure an equitable and inclusive recruitment process? What are the things we are doing to try to make sure we are getting that right?

Cristie: We’ve made a real point of trying to ensure that we’ve adopted competencies based selection criteria in terms of how we review CV’s when they come in. In the way we approach our interviewing techniques. Are we asking questions that sort of get to is this person capable of doing the job and it’s sort of the job at a stripped down level. We are trying to eliminate this idea that is a preconceived notion of what a lawyer should look like. If we can get down to what sort of tasks and the types of traits and skills that somebody is who is successful in the legal profession has, and then we try to use those competencies and those skills as our base line to evaluate whether we think somebody on paper has that skill set, regardless of their cultural background or whether English is their first language or if they’re of a minority or gender or sexual orientation or any of those things. We have tried very much more to focus on those competencies based selection in hiring techniques.

We’ve also tried to make our selection hiring committees more diverse. It’s no secret that untrained interviewers tend to favour candidates who are most like themselves. One simple thing that we have tried to adopt is in the way we’ve put together recruitment committees in our office, we’ve tried to ensure diversity. Diversity both in terms of ethnic and cultural and language and gender composition but also just in terms of different practice areas of the Firm and different ages and stages of practice. The more we can get our interview teams and our selection committees diverse. It’s not a perfect solution. I think there is a training component and we have done some of that as well but that’s at least a good starting point for trying to strip out some of the unconscious biases that would normally make its way into the recruitment process. We have consciously tried to do those things in recent years and even more so in the past year.

Roberto: You’re a chair of Gowling WLG’s Diversity Council Recruitment and Retention Working Group which is a mouthful and also thank you, thank you, thank you, but what interested you in taking on that role?

Cristie: Because I have worked both in the Toronto and Calgary office I felt like I knew the issues that are important to me. I came to Canada as an immigrant in 1986. I am not, I think, what you would describe as a member of a visible minority, but I am an immigrant that came from Guyana and came with an accent and didn’t have lawyers in my family and didn’t have a lot of financial resources when we came.

None of my immigration history visits any hardship on me these days. Most people, frankly, are surprised that I’m not just sort of a white Canadian woman. My own experience of coming to Canada and having to fit in and realizing that culturally there were some differences and having to make that transition is something that has always caused me to think that it was difficult enough for me who, frankly, could blend in on first blush, just because I didn’t look that materially different than everybody else who I was interacting with. It’s always led me to think that it must have been much harder, and it must continue to be much harder, for people who are physically or mentally, where there are differences that are more apparent than mine would have been. So it’s been a personal interest of mine and then I thought just given my familiarity with, look, I’ve been with Gowling WLG for 15 years now. I’ve worked in Toronto. I’ve worked in Calgary. I know quite a few people in the organization. I’ve worked on the legal side of the practice and I’m in a non-legal role now. I thought I had enough reach just given that background. I could potentially add value. So that’s what attracted me.

Roberto: What’s your working group been up to?

Cristie: It was a busy year last year. Our sort of first inaugural year going through a lot of the planning and development of programs. We focused a lot on recruitment in our first year. We tried to make sure that we, as much as possible, looked at the way we brought lateral professionals and students and staff into the Firm. Tried to make sure that we had a more obvious overt commitment to diversity. That it was publicly known and stated but that we also change some of our job descriptions, our hiring criteria, our approach to recruitment. It was a full scale overview of what we were doing in terms of how we bring people into the organization. I can’t say obviously that with a mandate of that size that’s it complete. It most certainly is a work in progress but it was a good opportunity to step back, take stock of what we were doing, measure all the places where we thought there was room for improvement and start to take concrete steps towards attracting a more diverse work place.

One of the things that we wanted to do sort of tending more on the inclusion side was to develop a maternity and parental leave tool kit for parents who take leaves of absence in our Firm. My own experience was that it was a little difficult to transition both leaving to go off on maternity leave and then returning and resuming a practice. I thought there was a lot we could do to improve that process, to make it more streamlined to get people looking at their practices and trying to figure out both the transition out, how we could do it smoothly. Then on the transition back, how we would create opportunities.

It is geared primarily towards women because we anticipate that it will be maternity leaves that are longer but certainly, if we have men and others taking parental leaves and having even a shorter interval being absent from the work place, if we could put more structure around how we get everybody involved and working together on their reentry we think people would be a lot happier, a lot more successful and the hope is, ultimately, that we’ll have less attrition. That fewer people will decide that the prize is not worth the fight trying to manage those issues of family and career and that if we can put this step in place, to at least help people coming back from a leave of absence, initially as I said, maternity and parental leaves, but hopefully over time all leaves, that we’ll end up not having people grow frustrated that they have missed opportunities because of their absence and ultimately leave us.

Sarah: For those prospective students or young associates who are eagerly listening to this podcast hoping to get an inside scope, do you have any tips for prospective students or associates?

Cristie: I think above everything be yourself. Life is too short to expend the kind of energy it would take to try to be one person at work and another person outside of work. Frankly, I think you are robbing yourself and you’d be robbing us. I know it’s a bit difficult and anybody who is a member of a visible minority or has identifiable characteristics that would put them in a minority category, I think it is a bit harder for them to sort of have the level of trust that I’m asking them to have but I think that’s a good starting point. Trust the law firms, and I think our Firm in particular, is starting to get it right. That we see room, and not just room, value in having people other than straight able bodied white men in the profession. I really do encourage people to come to work as being as much as themselves as they can possibly be. My husband jokes that he is amazed that I am continually employed because I say most everything that occurs to me and that is the one of the things that I have really, really valued about this organization is that I’ve always felt like I could come to work and be myself. Frankly, I think it would be a really difficult environment to be in where you had to hide a part of who you were from an identity perspective, to feel that you had room to be successful. That would be my overarching bit of advice, is be yourself. There are lots of people that can contribute meaningfully to this profession in different ways. And as I said, trust that we are starting to get it right and the opportunity won’t be foreclosed to you on account of it.

Sarah: That’s very well put and I agree. The Firm let us do this podcast so I think that tells you that you are able to be yourself and say what’s on your mind. Thanks so much for being here with us today Cristie. This has been an episode of Diversonomics. If you ever have any questions, comments or ideas for topics and guests please, please, please look us up at gowlingwlg.com and get in touch with us. Also make sure to check the show notes for this episode at gowlingwlg.com/diversonomics5. Last, but not least, make sure to subscribe on iTunes so you don’t ever miss an episode. While you are it leave us a review and let us know what you think.

Roberto: You can also follow me on Twitter @robaburto. Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG and produced by Jessica Bowman with special assistance from Mark Josselyn. Go forth and grab a coffee with someone you ordinarily wouldn’t. We’ll catch you again soon.