It was, unfortunately, an unusual sight 23 floors above Bay Street. Sipping wine and eating hors d'oeuvres at a reception at the offices of Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP was a crowd of mostly black faces.
The event, organized by the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL), was held to honour the 17 black lawyers who are partners at major Bay Street firms - a number believed to be the current sum total among the more than 2,000 partners at work in the country's financial heart.
Among them was the association's president, Frank Walwyn of WeirFoulds LLP, who told the crowd of more than 60 people that while Bay Street's black partners should be praised for their achievements, so should their firms, which have started to turn the profession's ample rhetoric about diversity into reality.
"What these firms have done, effectively, is not just talk the talk, but walk the walk," he told the crowd last week.
Bay Street's most prestigious law firms are clearly more diverse than when Mr. Walwyn started his career in the mid-1990s, when he says there were perhaps just two or three black partners. But despite the progress, Mr. Walwyn warns that a worrying sign of the fragility of the gains blacks have made in the profession has emerged.
According to a report commissioned by the Law Society of Upper Canada and released earlier this year, more women and visible ethnic minorities overall were entering the ranks of the profession. But the numbers, drawn from 2006 long-form census data, actually showed a surprising dip where one might expect a gain: According the to study, there were a significantly smaller proportion of black lawyers in the younger 25 to 35 age bracket than before.
The report found that black lawyers across Ontario made up just 2 per cent of the profession in the 25-to 35-year-old age group. That was down from 3 per cent in the age bracket ahead of them, 35- to 44-year-olds.
"All the other groups seem to be going in the other direction," Mr. Walwyn said in an interview. "It is obviously a huge concern. ... We don't know why the numbers aren't coming in, but boy, it's a scary realization that the numbers seem to be going down."
Mr. Walwyn hopes more research will reveal what is behind the apparent drop.
York University sociologist Michael Ornstein, who compiled the numbers, echoed Mr. Walwyn's worries: "It's hard to be very conclusive. But my intuition is that there's a problem, and the figures point downward. And I think it's an issue of real concern."
There was no hint of this kind of pessimism at the reception last week, other than the obvious statement by many that despite the recent progress, Bay Street has a long way to go before its ethnic makeup reflects society at a large.
Among the speakers was Michael St. Patrick Baxter, a Canadian and now a prominent lawyer in Washington,D.C.?, who articled on Bay Street in the 1980s. Despite applying to 50 firms with a top-notch CV that included graduate study at Harvard and clerking for Ontario's chief justice, he couldn't get a job here at that time
He wrote about this experience in a widely cited 1998 article for the Canadian Business Law Journal entitled "Black Bay Street Lawyers and Other Oxymora." In it, he argued that Bay Street's "gatekeepers" had little experience with black people and "a tendency to make conscious or unconscious assumptions" based on stereotypes.
"Your presence here tonight demonstrates that a black Bay Street lawyer is no longer an oxymoron," Mr. Baxter told the assembly last week. "... Each of you has blazed a trail that has not existed before."
He also warned the new generation of black lawyers to avoid becoming "elitist" and called on them to act as mentors for others.
"Being the first black lawyer at your firm is indeed an historic accomplishment. But it will be a fading accomplishment if you don't build upon it," he said. " ... If you leave with no more black lawyers than when you arrived, you should question how successful you have really been."
Bankruptcy lawyer Linc Rogers, who made partner with Blakes in 2007 and was among those honoured at the reception, said demands from clients for more diverse legal teams have caught the attention of many firms. But the generation of black lawyers ahead of him also worked hard to change the culture of Bay Street, he said.
"When I was in law school, in 1994, Bay Street, I was told, was a hostile environment, somewhere where you wouldn't be welcomed," Mr. Rogers said. "[I was told]that if you wanted to succeed as a black lawyer, you should be thinking about immigration, family, criminal and those other areas, as opposed to corporate/commercial areas. I think the Bay Street culture has changed, and I think it has changed because industrious, hard-working black lawyers have changed it, along with people that champion the cause."
Mr. Walwyn said the obstacle to increasing the number of black partners on Bay Street is not overt, old-fashioned racism: "Do you find racist remarks as a culture of a Bay Street firm? Absolutely not. But is there a way in which visible minorities can be adversely affected by practices in firms? Yes."
For example, he said, for young lawyers to make partner, they need good mentors, and exposure to clients at an early stage in their career. "Is it easier for a mainstream white male to find a mentor in a larger firm than it is for a black female? I think so. That's one of the realities, I think. So, there's a lot of work to do. I mean, 17 is not a large number."
BLACK PARTNERS HONOURED
Seventeen black partners at Bay Street law firms were honoured at a Toronto reception on Sept. 23, organized by the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers:
Andrew Alleyne, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP
Peter Ascherl, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP
Sandra Barton, Heenan Blaikie LLP
Blair Bowen, Fogler Rubinoff LLP
Alstair Burton, Thomson Rogers
Olivier Guillaume, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP
Michelle Henry, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP
Faithe Holder, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP
Arleen Huggins, Koskie Minsky LLP
Dominique Hussey, Bennett Jones LLP
Kathy Martin, McMillan LLP
Andrew Nunes, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP
Linc Rogers, Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP
Junior Sirivar, McCarthy Tétrault LLP
Donna Walwyn, Baker & McKenzie LLP
Frank Walwyn, WeirFoulds LLP
Cornell Wright, Torys LLP