Donna Walwyn knows that Black partners are rare in influential downtown Toronto law firms. She was stunned though to learn she’s only one of 17 and the majority are recent hirings.
“That’s atrocious and ridiculous because it’s not representative of the Black legal community,” she says. “Not every Black lawyer wants to work on Bay Street or at a big firm. Yet, it’s unbelievable that major law firms are still lagging in terms of hiring Black partners.”
Walwyn, who in March 2008 became a partner and head of Pensions & Employee Benefits Practice (Toronto) at Baker & McKenzie, and the other Black partners were toasted at a special reception last week.
“It’s good to be recognized,” said the University of Western Ontario Law School graduate who advises corporations and other organizations in all areas of pension and employee benefits law and regularly liaises with third party service providers and consultants on the behalf of clients.
Walwyn’s brother – Frank – was also acknowledged at the event. He’s the president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) which hosted the reception.
“We have emerged as leading members of the legal community in a broad spectrum of practice areas,” said Frank Walwyn who was called to the Ontario Bar in 1995 and is a partner at WeirFoulds. “The CABL is recognizing those members who have become Bay Street partners since, historically, we have been under-represented in some of the country’s largest business law firms.
“The toast is not simply an acknowledgement of past achievements, but focuses on showcasing the progress that has been made and continues to be made through excellence, hard work and perseverance.”
Walwyn said he’s proud of his younger sister’s accomplishments and the other five female law partners who were recognized.
“It’s satisfying to know that Black women can become partners in a firm for it’s a much tougher road for them,” said Walwyn who has developed a niche in multi-jurisdictional litigation. “Unfortunately, there are many more hurdles for women associates so every time I see one or a visible minority achieving status in this profession, I applaud them.”
Nearly 30 years ago, University of Western Ontario law graduate Michael Baxter was the only Black articling on Bay Street.
Now a partner at Washington-based Covington & Burling which advises multinational corporations on significant transactional, litigation, regulatory and public policy matters, he was invited to deliver the toast to the 17 legal trailblazers.
“Your presence here tonight demonstrates that a ‘Black Bay Street lawyer’ is no longer an oxymoron,” said Baxter who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1983. “Each of you has blazed a trail where none existed before…As I toast you, I challenge you. You have beaten the overwhelming odds and succeeded on Bay St. Do not become elitist. Share your knowledge and experience with those who follow and recognize that you did not reach where you are on your own. None of us ever does.
“While it’s tempting to believe that your success is solely the result of your own prodigious effort and considerable talent, recognize that each of you, whether knowingly or unknowingly, has taken advantage of the efforts of others. Many who have gone before you have laboured to make your journey an easier one than they had. They laboured to build bridges that you have crossed and their efforts have allowed you the opportunity to go where they were denied. Honour the contributions of your predecessors and also recognize, as they did, the obligation to those who follow.”
Baxter, whose expertise is in corporate restructuring and bankruptcy re-organization, reminded the lawyers they should not become so absorbed in their own careers that they are unable to lend a helping hand to those who follow.
“Lift as you climb,” he challenged them. “Being the first Black lawyer at your Bay Street firm is indeed a historic accomplishment. But it will be a fading accomplishment if you do not build upon it. Whatever your professional accomplishment, if you leave your firm with no more Back lawyers than when you arrived, you should question whether you really have been successful.”
Osgoode Hall Law School graduate Peter Ascherl, who was called to the Ontario Bar in 1986, is the most senior Black Bay Street lawyer. The 57-year-old Fasken Martineau DuMoulin partner spent several years in Germany where he became that country’s first Black hockey player.
In the past five years, Ascherl’s practice has focussed on energy law where he has participated in the financing, development and acquisition of Canadian wind farm projects.
The other law partners recognized were Andrew Alleyne, Sandra Barton, Blair Bowen, Al Burton, Olivier Guillaume, Michelle Henry, Faithe Holder, Arleen Huggins, Dominique Hussey, Kathy Martin, Andrew Nunes, Linc Rogers, Junior Sirivar and Cornell Wright.
Several of the partners have Caribbean roots, something Frank Walwyn — a member of the bars of St. Kitts & Nevis, Dominica, Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands – took note of.
“The assumption seems to be that when you achieve certain positions in Canadian society, it’s only because you have Canadian experience by virtue of birth in Canada and moving through the system here,” said the Kittitian-born Queen’s University Law graduate. “That certainly is not true. Some of the honourees, like me and my sister, were raised in the Caribbean.”