Team Allyship: Collaboration that Includes the Whole Group

  • August 04, 2020
  • Barbara De Dios

Team Allyship: Collaboration that Includes the Whole Group

On the cusp of becoming a lawyer several years ago, in the midst of my licensing process, I was preparing for one of my first client intake meetings one morning, in anticipation of a solid learning experience. With the tunnel vision of a dedicated lawyer-to-be, I printed my intake forms, carefully organized each document, rehearsed the details of each item and excitedly prepared for the scenario that I had long awaited: the chance to speak with a client face to face, put my training to work, and truly engage in client management and relationship building.

Taking a deep breath, I strode purposefully into our reception area, ready to extend a hand to a real client, not merely a case scenario from a textbook. My expectation harshly collided with reality when I was, instead, met with a dismissive, “When the lawyer arrives, can you let me know? And can you grab me a coffee?”

Startled, I blinked.

Unconscious bias had suddenly manifested itself in my professional life. Without even introducing myself, how had my appearance conveyed that my role was merely that of a messenger and coffee fetcher? How did I transition from the role of a lawyer-to-be to a state of defensiveness in a span of seconds? And more importantly for female, racialized lawyers like myself, would defensiveness and self-justification be an inherent part of my job?

The front door creaked open, and a colleague strode in—a tall, male lawyer with absolutely no association to this particular file. The client’s demeanour changed. He blinked expectantly in his direction.

It dawned on me that this is what he expected his lawyer to look like. And so, my inner monologue continued: I didn’t look the way he expected a lawyer to look. Once I corrected him, despite my best efforts and solid training, would he doubt my abilities? Did my hard work and knowledge about his file even matter? How would I reconcile an ethical obligation to provide utmost quality service to this client who, through his own independent bias, had formed an opinion about me as a lawyer before I had even led him into my office?

It was then, at that very moment, that my student-level tunnel vision abruptly ended. It took a moment such as this to remind me that the very realities of bias, unconscious or legitimized, may persist no matter how much reading, knowledge or substantive preparation I completed. And it may come in the form of a client—an individual or organization to whom I hold an ethical obligation.

I also realized that bias wouldn’t only exist in my junior years. In fact, scenarios like these may chase me in many stages of my career. Whether it directly affected me or not, its presence may still exist in how an organization does business. Bias may rear its ugly head in corporate policies, when considering fit to certain roles and positions, when deciding whether to welcome an individual to the exclusive club of senior management, when determining salary bumps, among other examples.

When you experience exclusion or bias personally, it changes you. You remember those experiences vividly. It’s been several years since the scenario above happened, and yet, I remember that morning as clearly as I remember this morning’s breakfast.

Team Allyship

As our political climate continues to evolve amid current conversations on allyship, privilege and perspective, and as our organizations consciously attempt to educate and facilitate practical change in policy and governance, the question is… How? And what now?

Resisting unconscious and legitimized bias in our organizations requires us to reflect on two things:

  1. Bias may persist even in the most mundane, everyday circumstances: Who gets invited to poker night? Who is in charge of cleaning up the office after an event? Who prints your documents? Why do you ask your female articling student to grab you a coffee, rather than your male student? Why are male lawyers paid more than female lawyers at your organizations?
  2. Amid this complicated professional world of bias that rear its head in both big and small circumstances, allyship is the work of more than one person. Allyship is a team effort; it requires the efforts of various individuals to educate, resist and empower.

Perhaps more importantly, as we consider practical steps to facilitate awareness at our organizations, allyship may be propagated by embodying, assuming or collaborating with certain roles in the structure of it, all of which facilitate change to legitimized bias, whether mandated by governance or socially entrenched.

Some of these roles include the following:

  • The Encourager: Whether you sit in a management office or the trenches of a junior role, supporting colleagues by words of encouragement is not only appreciated but remembered. Shortly after the incident I described above, I began to understand that despite such negative experiences, the encouragement and support from colleagues and superiors made a difference: the encouragement and support to continue learning and secure best practices to handle circumstances like these; and the public and vocal encouragement and support of my abilities and career growth.

    Bias can rear its head in the most critical of moments, like the consideration of a promotion or the management of an important client meeting, and in social situations, where socially entrenched bias seeps into a professional setting. Stepping in as the Encourager to support other lawyers or colleagues in times where bias may win demonstrates the work, support and solidarity of an ally.
  • The Leader: Allyship is a professional perspective that can be assumed by individuals at any level. However, allyship at the executive and management level is vital. Written policies in our organizations mean very little if they are not put into practice by those making decisions on hiring practices and policies, promotions, wages and responsibilities, among others.

    Allyship is a perspective that can move fluidly. It is a perspective and way of encouragement that supersedes lines of seniority. Allyship in organizational policies must be supported and perhaps put into practice by Leaders who recognize the potential and benefits of allyship—from practical benefits like employee retention to more high-level benefits like the clarification and curation of organizational values.
  • The Mentor: I can say with certainty that scenarios like the above are not unique to me. So allyship may also be assumed in the form of the Mentor. Within our organizations, the Mentor educates, guides, provides examples, and offers ideas and benefits to updating governance frameworks and policies. Outside of the organization, the Mentor is a listening ear, and a voice of support and guidance regarding next steps, providing their perspective on how they have handled the past and how they plan on handling the future.

A Team Effort

Facilitating change to our organization’s governance, management structure, policy and even social practices to remove unconscious and legitimized bias requires the work of multiple people, such as the Encourager, the Leader and the Mentor, among others with parallel objectives.

Whether you sit in an executive advisory role in your organization, as legal counsel with ties to your HR department or as an in-house lawyer with an advisory capacity to governance or policy-making, assuming a perspective of allyship while using your leadership capabilities to facilitate inclusion, uncover bias and legitimize updated policies is a group effort.

I understand that it is a privilege to write this article. I am using this privileged position to carry out allyship in our profession and community to bring awareness to and challenge bias, and collaborate with those who feel the same.

Barbara De Dios is Corporate Counsel at Canadian Dental Services Corporation, a dental services organization acquiring businesses in the dental industry across the country. She can be reached at