If there’s a word to describe the three years Michael Coleman, Law’17, spent as a student at Queen’s Law, it’s “transformative.”
Not only did he earn his JD degree and emerge from the experience a changed person, he also left an important legacy when he co-founded a Queen’s chapter of the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA) of Canada.
Today, Michael is thriving in his role as an associate with Toronto-based Fogler, Rubinoff LLP, where he works in the firm’s commercial real estate and banking groups. But he still marvels at how much his life has changed since his first day of law school in September 2014.
Michael was 22 then. While earning an Honours BA from York University, he’d hoped to have a future in law. “I was inspired by my grade 12 law teacher who shared positive stories about being a lawyer, and I was always encouraged by my immediate family and (now) fiancée, Schenelle Dias,” he says. “I developed a strong sense that I wanted a legal career. That was something no one else in my family had ever accomplished.”
Michael was the third of four children born to Jamaican-born immigrant parents. After coming to Canada in the early 1980s, Michael’s father, Fedrick, toiled as a transportation dispatcher, his mother, Evadne as a personal support worker. The Colemans worked hard to build better lives for themselves and for their children; education was integral to that goal.
Michael chose Queen’s Law for two reasons. One was the legacy of Robert Sutherland (c1830-1878), the brilliant Jamaican-born man who was the first black graduate of Queen’s, the first black lawyer in British North America, and one of the university’s most important early benefactors. “I found his story particularly inspiring,” says Coleman.
A second reason he chose Queen’s Law was the collegial approach to learning at the school. “The students support each other, and the professors are passionate about the subjects they teach. They challenge you intellectually while encouraging you to think, question, and consider all sides of an issue. That’s something that has stayed with me, and that I try to do in my practice.”
Michael learned critical legal skills and more at Queen’s Law while finding his way. He began first-year intent on a career in criminal or administrative law; however, a tax course taught by Professor Art Cockfield, Law’93, fired his imagination and nudged him in a different direction. “That’s one of the great things about Queen’s Law,” says Coleman. “Students are exposed to and have opportunities to experience different areas of the law.”
At the same time his career goals were changing, he made some big changes personally, becoming “a lot more mindful” of what he was eating and beginning a running-based exercise regimen that helped him drop from 260lbs to a relatively svelte 170lbs. Being 5’10, that was life altering for him.
As if all that wasn’t challenging enough, Coleman somehow made time and found the energy to continue “giving back to the community.” This is something his role models have always done, and he has followed their example. In his graduating year at Queen’s Law, Coleman was named to the Agnes Benidickson Tricolour Society for his volunteer efforts with Queen’s Legal Aid, for serving as a math and English tutor for inmates at Collins Bay Institution, and for co-founding BLSA-Queen’s.
The latter is an organization that Coleman discovered in October of first year, that he’s still proudly involved with and that he’s delighted to see active at Queen’s Law. “The BLSA provides me with on-going opportunities to mentor black law students and to network with other black Queen’s Law alumni,” he says, noting two in particular: Justice Donald McLeod, Law’95, of the Ontario Court of Justice, the first black Queen’s Law grad to be called to the bench, and Frank Walwyn, Law’93, of WeirFoulds LLP, who’s one of the first black partners at a Bay Street law firm.
“I’ve benefited from the friendships that I made at Queen’s Law and from the rich alumni network that’s out there,” says Coleman. “I’ll always feel a strong connection to the school.”
By Ken Cuthbertson, Law’83