She was praised for the excellent work she had done on the case file yet when the time came to travel to another city to meet the client, Terrie-Lynne Devonish’s partner chose a White associate to accompany him on the trip.
In her first full-time legal job as an associate in the late 1990s, Devonish felt shunted aside.
“I did not feel like I fit into that firm,” Devonish told law students and other delegates at last weekend’s 20th annual Black Law Students Association of Canada (BLSAC) conference in Toronto.
Three years after becoming the first Black lawyer in that firm in 1997, she quit and joined HSBC Securities (Canada) Inc. as a legal counsel. She was later appointed chief compliance officer, general counsel and corporate secretary in 2002.
In 2004, Devonish went to work for Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc. as general counsel and corporate secretary and three years later switched to Aon Canada Inc. as their in-house chief counsel.
“Looking back now, if I had to do it all over again, I might not have been so quick to leave my first law firm,” said Devonish who graduated from Osgoode Hall in 1995 and is one of Canada’s sparkling legal stars. “A lot of it was my own fear and not knowing how I could make myself fit. I worried about it a lot at the time.
“There are going to be people that you would be able to connect with easily and there are others you are not going to have the same success with. The fact is you are there because you can do the job.”
Devonish, who three years ago made Canada’s preeminent Top 40 Under-40 list of distinguished business leaders, sat on a panel that addressed the challenges that Black lawyers face on Bay St. and in other major law firms.
The other panelists were Marcus Snowden, who is a partner at Blaney McMurtry; Fasken Martineau associate Hadiya Roderique and Gowlings partner Faithe Holder, one of just 18 Black Bay St. partners.
“There is subtle racism and I have personally experienced some challenges,” said Holder, who was called to the Bar in 2002. “I think not having a pre-existing network on Bay St. is also something that’s a bit of a challenge. There are a lot of people who went in practice at the same time with me who had family members on Bay St. to guide them, so they knew what to expect. It was a bit of a learning curve for me in terms of bringing myself up to speed.”
Holder said she was once asked to leave her law office’s servery set up for articling students and lawyers under the assumption that she was an assistant and as a result should not have been in that area. She also said lawyers have dropped off material on her desk requesting she type them.
“Quite frankly, these things happen and you can’t let it stop you from doing what you need to do,” she said. “Use it as an educational experience for yourself and also to try to educate someone and pull them out of their place of ignorance…You will encounter challenges, but you need to rise above them.”
Close to 140 delegates from Canada and the United States participated in the three-day BLSAC conference the theme of which was The Evolution of the Black Students Association: 20 Years Strong.
“Though our numbers have increased, Blacks are still under-represented in law schools, legal practice and the judiciary” said BLSAC outgoing president Keri Wallace who is enrolled in law school at the University of Western Ontario. “This is an important time for our current generation of Black law students. We stand on the shoulders of our extraordinary predecessors with a responsibility to continue the legacy they have left us for the benefit of those who will follow.”
This was the third BLSAC conference that Wallace has attended.
“You are always surrounded by amazing people at these conferences,” she said. “It’s also a great opportunity to network.”
Devonish fully agreed.
“In my third week of law school, I thought I had made the wrong decision,” she said. “I was trying to figure out how I would tell my parents I wasn’t actually going to be a lawyer after them telling me that for 23 years. The BLSAC conference really uplifted me and made me feel that I belong.”
Holder, who acts for a wide range of companies in the infrastructure, real property and construction sectors including owners, contractors, developers, borrowers, property managers, facility managers and governmental entities, concurred with Devonish.
“BLSAC in an incredible organization,” she said. “From my experience in law school, it absolutely made all the difference in the world. There are a few people I met at BLSAC while I was at Osgoode who are still my friends. They are probably the only people who I have consistently seen over the course of any given year.”