Since its inception six years ago, Queen’s Chapter of the Black Law Students’ Association has been vigorously empowering a new community of legal professionals
It was in the autumn of 2014 when Michael Coleman, Law’17, had what can only be described as “a grand idea.”
The Toronto native was 22 and still orienting himself in first-year studies at Queen’s Law. While attending an event staged by the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, Coleman met students from other law schools who were members of the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada (BLSA). Founded in 1991, this national student-run non-profit organization supports and enhances academic and professional opportunities for Black law students.
It also promotes interest in and awareness of the legal profession among Black high school and undergraduate students and in Canada’s Black community generally. Hearing about the work of the BLSA set Coleman thinking.
One of the reasons he’d chosen Queen’s was his admiration for the legacy of Jamaican-born Robert Sutherland (1830-1878), who in 1852 emerged as the university’s first Black graduate and three years later became British North America’s first-known Black lawyer.
While Queen’s Law has made and continues to make a concerted effort to attract Black students, there were only a handful at the school in 2014. Despite this, it seemed incongruous to Coleman that while the school’s Black students had been taking part in BLSA events for more than a decade, Queen’s Law didn’t have its own chapter. He decided it was time to change that.
“Michael approached me one afternoon and asked me if I’d help him start the Queen’s chapter of the BLSA,” recalls Leah Thompson, Law’17. “I remember thinking that we’d be starting from scratch. We soon found out that Queen’s Law had an active network of Black alumni who’d been involved in BLSA in the past and who were interested in connecting with students and supporting our group.”
In that inaugural year, BLSA-Queen’s organized some trial events and initiatives, mainly panel discussions in which Black alumni took part and offered some mentorship and networking opportunities.
Paying that latter concept forward today, Thompson (now clerking with the Federal Court), like Coleman (now an associate with Fogler, Rubinoff LLP, Toronto), strongly believes that an important way to grow Black representation in the legal profession is to find ways to show Black students in high school, even in elementary school, “that law is a viable career option for them,” as he puts it.
At the same time, both Thompson and Coleman are enthusiastic promoters of mentoring undergraduate students and providing them with LSAT study tips and advice on how to apply to law school and succeed as students. It’s partly with that goal in mind that BLSA-Queen’s extended its activities in September 2018 by forging an affiliation with Queen’s Black Academic Society. The two groups now host gatherings where JD students mix with undergraduates, as well as with Law’s LLM and PhD candidates and exchange students from the University of the West Indies.
Such initiatives have helped BLSA-Queen’s emerge as one of the most vibrant of the national organization’s 16 chapters. Initial recognition of that distinction came at BLSA-Canada’s 2019 national conference. There Nigel Masenda, Law’20, 2018-19 and 2019-20 president of BLSA-Queen’s, Tiye Traore, Law’19, and the other chapter members were singled out for praise. In addition, Masenda took home a BLSA Scholarship, and his article “Dispelling the Monolithic Myth: The Nuances of Black Law Students” won widespread praise and publication in the BLSA magazine (blsac.com).
Despite the individual honours Masenda garnered, he says such recognition was really “a reflection of our team’s hard work and the bright future of our chapter.”
Though already engaging with 150 Queen’s community members annually, a year ago chapter members began reaching out to students in other disciplines to help address the lack of Black representation in professions other than law.
At the core of all this success is the teamwork of students, faculty, and a supportive group of Black Queen’s Law alumni who have been generously volunteering their time and expertise. Masenda says it’s the mentorship component of those engagements that is the “greatest accomplishment of BLSA-Queen’s because of the impact it has.”
Among the distinguished alumni who have stepped forward are Justice Donald McLeod, Law’95, of the Ontario Court of Justice, the first Black Queen’s Law alumnus to be called to the bench; Frank Walwyn, Law’93, of WeirFoulds LLP, one of the first Black partners at a Bay Street law firm; Gerry McNeilly, also Law’93, former director of Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review (2008-2019); Esi Codjoe, Law’03, a lawyer with Turnpenney Milne LLP in Toronto, past Vice-Chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (2017-2019); and many other Queen’s Law alumni who are partners in private practice or working as solo practitioners, government lawyers, and in-house corporate counsels.
“Alumni like getting involved because they understand how challenging law school and the practice of law can be,” says Coleman. “We want to share our wisdom in any way we can.”
Stella Gore, Law’18, both the 2017-18 BLSA-Queen’s President and BLSA-Canada National Chair, agrees. Gore, who’s now a Corporate Associate in Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP’s New York office, says she also recalls the student perspective on the value of such interactions. “It’s particularly important to have access to minority lawyers who share their experiences and offer mentorship and advice, especially as we navigate through law school, articling, and beyond.”
Part of that “beyond” experience includes community involvement and being visible.
“I think it’s important for the legal profession to reflect the diversity of the clientele it serves,’ Gore adds. “Improving Black representation professionally starts with improving Black representation in law schools, and that likely starts with improving the outreach to potential law school applicants and making sure there are ample resources available so that the process at Queen’s isn’t as isolating as it often is for visible minorities in this space.”
BLSA-Queen’s, Michael Coleman’s timely grand idea, does all that. And so much more.
By Ken Cuthbertson, Law’83, with files from Lisa Graham