By Suannah Alleyne
The Unsung Hero column is intended to introduce a member of our profession who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership, innovation, commitment, or made significant contributions to social justice and community affairs.
Rani Wong has dedicated her practice to Family Law and Wills and Estates; however, she began her 20-plus-year career practicing as a corporate commercial lawyer. Rani has practiced with some of Canada’s top tier national law firms in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary. She is the current president of the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) and previously chaired the AWL Membership committee and Mentorship committee for many years. Rani also lends her time to volunteering in various roles with the CBA, such as co-chairing the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Committee and she remains an active member of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (FACL). As an experienced lawyer with a booming practice and as an active volunteer within the profession, Rani is an invaluable member of the Alberta legal community and an unsung hero who is doing her part to make sure that the legal profession represents those that we serve.
This question is the ultimate challenge in summarizing: What do you do and why do you do it?
I am a family law lawyer and I volunteer a lot of time with organizations that promote values that I am passionate about and believe in.
Why do I practice family law? Well, I started my career as a corporate commercial lawyer and I practiced in that area of law for 14 years before starting my career in family law. The reason that I made this career change was in pursuit of more meaningful and personally satisfying work. In my current practice I am helping families resolve their legal issues which directly impacts not only my clients, but also their children and it is my hope that the impact is always for a more positive outcome and path forward. In doing this work, I have found the personal satisfaction that led me to this area of law in the first place.
With respect to my volunteer work, I have been on the board of the Association of Women Lawyers for over 12 years. I have also been a member of the Canadian Bar Association for many years and volunteered with various committees, sections, provincial council and the Legal Futures Initiative. In recent years my volunteer work has been around diversity and inclusion. Why do I do this work? It’s about giving back to the community and helping others overcome challenges and issues, some of which I have personally faced throughout my career.
I also paddle and race with the Sistership Dragon Boat Association for breast cancer survivors. These incredible, courageous woman paddlers have supported me and taught me how to thrive as a survivor and I intend on doing the same for new survivors.
Much of your volunteer work is around empowering women, with some of it focusing on women of colour. How did this develop?
This developed out of my personal experiences and challenges that I’ve faced in life generally, and more specifically in the legal profession. From the moment I began my legal career as a summer student in a law firm in the mid 1990’s and again during articles, I feel like I faced considerable challenges as a woman and as a visible minority. I’m not sure I even recognized them at the time, but these challenges included sexual harassment, gender and racial discrimination and cultural misunderstanding. For example, I was raised in a culture where it is not appropriate to be openly aggressive, assertive or question authority – however, these are often qualities that are seen as admirable, and mandatory even, in our profession. Looking back and recognizing what I faced, I wanted to turn around and help others in similar situations by supporting them and helping push them forward and upwards.
I appreciate your courage in sharing your personal experiences. How would you say you overcame those challenges that you faced in the workplace?
I think that particularly in the Big Law environment, and especially “back in those days”, hard work was how I rose above the adversity I faced. I feel like I had to work harder than my contemporaries, particularly my white, male colleagues, to try to fit in and to find mentors and champions that would facilitate good work opportunities and offer you the training that you needed. I made a lot of personal compromises to “try to be like everyone else” so that I was trusted with the work that I needed to be able to build my career.
Having faced the challenges you have shared, and worked hard to overcome them, what would you say diversity means to you?
In the legal profession, to me it means having lawyers from diverse backgrounds — whether you’re looking at race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, different abilities, age, socioeconomic status and other identifying factors — in the profession. It is also having these diverse lawyers feel that they are respected, included and given equal opportunities to succeed.
Why do you think everyone is talking about diversity these days? Is all this chatter good? Bad? Both?
People have been talking about diversity for a long time. The Law Society of Alberta commissioned a study in 2004 on diversity in the profession and in Ontario studies and discussions have been taking place for even longer periods of time. These days, I think there is more discussion because there is more awareness. I think there’s a forward momentum, as we’ve reached a critical mass of people who are aware of these issues and want to push the conversations around diversity forward into further action. I think all the chatter is good. The profession and society as a whole, benefits from not only more discussion about diversity but people taking action and implementing policies around diversity and ensuring that lawyers and law students feel included and respected.
What are some of the most promising changes you are seeing in the profession today? Why do these changes give you hope?
In the past year or two, some of the most promising changes I see include the Law Society and other organizations hosting training sessions and seminars on recognizing and challenging unconscious bias and respecting cultural differences. I also see that almost all of the large law firms have developed or adopted policies on diversity and inclusion and are working on implementation in a practical way. When you look around today, you are seeing more and more diversity at the bar and on the bench and tha definitely gives me hope. These changes and the continuing discussions around these issues were not happening on the same scale 20 years ago. I’m also encouraged when I see large corporations, particularly multinational corporations who I think were way ahead of us in this regard, not only adopting diversity and inclusion policies but implementing them by demanding that their legal service providers adopt similar policies and practices.
What are some of the gaps with respect to diversity that you think the profession needs to work harder at closing? What are your thoughts on how we tackle these persisting issues?
The existing wage gaps between genders and then among different groups of racialized minorities need to be closed. The principle of equal pay for the same work is fundamental to the success of our profession.
I’m also concerned about the experience of diverse lawyers in the legal profession and measuring this is sort of an attempt to measure the intangible, but I want to know, are these lawyers feeling valued and respected in the workplace? Are they sought out for their opinions, perspectives and the solutions they might bring to the table?
And of course, there’s a gap in the profession reflecting the communities we serve. Statistically, law school students, lawyers at the bar and the bench do not mirror the diversity in our society.
How do we tackle all of this — we need to keep up the good work we have been doing and continue to offer training to our members and increase their awareness around the issues facing diverse lawyers. For example, the Law Society in conjunction with the CBA Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee that I co-chair did just release model policies about respect in the workplace; and, this past November the CBA Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee partnered with the University of Calgary Law School and a group of high school student leaders to organize the Youth Leaders in Law conference where high school students were encouraged to consider careers in law and had the opportunity to hear from members of the bar and the bench about our profession. I think projects and collaborations like these need to continue and occur more frequently in order to close the gaps that still exist around diversity and inclusion in our profession.
What would you say to some of the diverse lawyers who are newer to the bar and who may feel disenfranchised, or who are struggling with challenges around equality and inclusion today?
In short, hang in there! I would encourage them to find mentors and champions who will advocate for them and, when they can, to speak up and support their peers facing similar challenges. Join professional organizations that are working to provide encouragement and advocacy for them such as AWL, FACL and CABL and build a strong network of support to help you face these challenges.
Where do you see the conversations around diversity taking us in the future?
Well, that’s a difficult question. I want to say that conversations are good and they should continue; but, from my perspective enough studies have been done, we’ve had enough conversation around the recommended actions we need to be taking as a profession. These conversations have to take us to a stage and time where the legal profession reflects our diverse society, so that’s where I’d like to see the discussions take us. More of us have to commit to take action and train ourselves to recognize and be aware of diversity and bias issues in all aspects of the workplace environment including hiring, training and compensation decisions. That’s what I’d like to see. That’s the profession I want to be a part of in the future.
Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us about them. If you know a lawyer who deserves to be recognized, please send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the lawyer’s name and the reasons why you believe they are an “unsung hero”. The only formal requirements for nomination are that our “unsung hero” be an Alberta Lawyer and a CBA member.
Susannah Alleyne is an associate at Matkovic Allan LLP, where she practices primarily in the area of family law. Susannah sits on multiple CBA committees, and also volunteers with the Association of Women Lawyers, Calgary Legal Guidance and with various associations in Calgary's Caribbean community.