Tackling Racial Disparities in Legal Education

A pioneer leadership program for Black professionals

Tackling Racial Disparities in Legal Education

This fall, the University of Victoria (“UVic”) introduced a first-of-its-kind leadership program for Black students known as the Black Professionals Leadership Program (“BPL Program”). A familiar set of data led the university here.

Most Black students starting law school either at the JD or, in the case of international students, at the graduate level immediately face a new reality: That they are often the only Black student in an entire first year cohort of up to 200+ students, or that they are one of two or three students. There is a diversity problem in Canadian law schools, and Black students are the most disadvantaged racial group.

Beyond law school, the legal profession in Canada has a similar problem. A 2019 survey by the Law Society of British Columbia reveals that while nearly 52% of BC lawyers are Caucasians, only 16.15% identified as “visible minority.” It is not clear what percentage of this figure are Blacks. While 23.61% did not disclose their identity, once we extrapolate from the data that Blacks make up only a fraction of the percentage of visible minority lawyers, the dismal ratio of Black to Caucasian lawyers becomes self-evident. This clearly has implications for access to justice for the Black community in all areas of law, including — and perhaps most significantly — in the criminal justice area.

For a community that faces institutional racism and is frequently and systemically policed, access to criminal justice is critical for the Black community. About a decade of police data obtained by CTV in 2018 shows that between 2008 and 2017, Blacks were disproportionately subjected to stops unassociated with any formal investigation and their information collected — a practice known as “carding” — though they make up less than 1% of the population. A year later, nothing had changed as the racial disparities in police checks persisted into 2019.

We also know that Blacks are overrepresented in Canadian prisons, accounting for over 8.6% of the federal prison population though they represent only 3% of the population. As a 2021 study by University of Toronto Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah reveals, about one in every 15 young Black men in Ontario has been jailed compared to about one out of every 70 young white men. This data shows an overrepresentation of Blacks in the criminal justice system and an underrepresentation of Blacks in the legal profession.

Access to justice is expensive and often a hostile experience for Blacks. In Canada, law schools too are historically perceived as unwelcome spaces for Black students. Besides the everyday racism on campus, the reality of being the only one of your kind in a three-year program can be intimidating.

The Black Professionals Leadership Program addresses these challenges starting with a simple premise: Black students belong in law schools too and law schools ought to give careful thought to their needs and wellness.

Supported by UVic’s Strategic Framework Impact Fund in its pilot stage, the BPL Program is a holistic professional support initiative that implements UVic’s strategic priority to entrench “equity, diversity, inclusion and dialogue throughout the university community so that all members feel welcomed, valued and supported to achieve their highest potentials.”

The BPL is unique in its offerings: Comprehensive support frameworks enhancing learning and promoting wellness for Black students enrolled in a university program. With the support of UVic departments and faculties and world-class advisors in Canada and the USA, the BPL supports Black law students through programs designed to improve Black student representation and retention in the legal profession, with a long-term vision of bridging gaps to access to justice. Three services are offered in these inaugural years: Faculty-Mentor support matching Black students with faculty mentors who offer culturally-sensitive learning support to ensure students excel in their core courses and programs; Practitioner-Mentor support matching Black students with legal practitioners; and Leadership-Development seminars and workshops offering skills for life beyond law school, for the job market, business and financial management, and mental wellness. These are provided through partnership with several UVic programs, including the School of Business, History, Engineering, etc., and the faculty-led Mental Health program, “UVic Bounce,” with plans of partnering with the BC Legal community, including law firms.

Black students belong in law schools too: The BPL supports this belonging.