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#3. A Seat at the Big Table

[seulement en anglais]

This is the original, unmodified work of the author.

John J .Lennard is a Partner at Davies LLP and specializes in tax law. John was called to Bar in Québec in 2011 after obtaining his law degree at McGill University.

Photo by @nikohoshi

“After you,” I said, as I held the door open to the Main Boardroom for a few of my partners.

It was our first monthly partners’ meeting of 2020, and one of the last we would hold in-person before the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted our regular schedules and lives. We joked around, talked about our holidays, complained about the weather, and caught up on file work as we made our plates for lunch and took our seats at the long boardroom table. Everyone was in a good mood, typical of the “New Year’s High” we often see in January as the cheer of the holiday season lingers for a little while, before giving way to the slogs of winter and everyday life.

We were particularly celebratory that day, as January 2020 marked the beginning of the 125th anniversary of the Davies Montreal office. It was a proud collective moment for all of us, and one we were looking forward to sharing with our clients and colleagues throughout the year. But I was also in a celebratory mood for a different reason: This was my first partners’ meeting as an equity partner at Davies.

The first Black equity partner of the Montreal office, I might add. Let that sink in for a bit. In our 125 years as an office, I am the first and only Black person to have made it to that boardroom table as a partner. By contrast, it has been 64 years since a Black person first passed the bar to become a lawyer in Quebec (Fredrick Phillips in 1956), 52 years since Canada elected its first Black MP (Lincoln Alexander in 1968), 41 since a Black person was appointed to the federal cabinet (Lincoln Alexander again, in 1979), 21 years since a Black person was appointed a judge in Quebec (Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré in 1999), 15 years since a Black person was appointed Governor General of Canada (Michaëlle Jean in 2005) and 12 years since Americans elected their first Black president (I’ll let you all figure that one out!). I point this out not to boast or to suggest that I am like these individuals in any way, but to highlight how long the corporate legal world has taken to evolve. My firm’s record is by no means unique in this regard; there are probably a total of only a couple dozen Black partners at major corporate law firms throughout the entire country.

I frankly cannot explain why I am the first. I do not think I have any exceptional qualities that allowed me to make it, while scores of other Black folk could not even get their foot in the door, let alone work their way up the ranks. Part of it might be due to hard work and determination, but factors largely beyond my control probably played an even bigger role. Perhaps I joined the profession and came of age as a lawyer at a key time, when people’s sensitivities to issues of equity, diversity and inclusion were at their highest. Perhaps I was lucky enough to work on the right files with the right senior partners at the right moments in my career, giving me access to internal sponsors who were able to shepherd me through the promotion process. Frankly, I wonder sometimes whether the light colour of my skin had something to do with it. My mom is white and I grew up in a predominantly white environment, and I may have had an easier time navigating an overwhelmingly white corporate culture than a darker-skinned person might have.

Regardless of why I got here, I am here. I would love to say that making partner feels like a momentous and hard-fought accomplishment resulting from some long, arduous struggle, but I would be lying. By and large, I think I have been treated fairly by my colleagues and partners. I have never felt discriminated against for being Black, nor, for that matter, have I ever felt ostracized for being gay – another identity of which I am very proud. There have definitely been instances over the years in which I have felt uncomfortable, such as the odd ignorant comment or bad joke from a colleague, but nothing that has marked me in any serious way.

That is not to say it has been smooth sailing. I do feel I have had to work harder than some of my peers to make the internal social connections needed to develop professionally. I mentioned earlier the importance of having internal sponsors – it is a lot easier to make those connections with people of similar cultural backgrounds or experiences, and when you are the only Black person and one of a handful of LGBT lawyers, that can be quite challenging. I also feel I have had to consistently work harder day to day and never let things slide. Others could afford to take their foot off the peddle from time to time, but I never felt I could, for fear of being labeled lazy or worse. Finally, I sometimes have felt that I could not be my full self at work, and that I should tone down or moderate my gayness or my Blackness to avoid offending others or causing myself any internal problems. This may just be a personal anxiety, but I understand many racial, cultural, gender and sexuality minorities face this challenge in corporate law, which suggests that there are some negative systemic pressures that we need to think about.

Times are clearly changing, though. Over the past two years, I have had the chance to chair or participate in two internal panel discussions my firm put on. The first was a panel of Davies lawyers who are working on a Charter challenge to overturn numerous articles of Quebec’s Civil Code on the basis that they discriminate against trans and non-binary individuals (the matter is still under reserve by the trial court judge). The second was a virtual panel this past summer on the Black Lives Matter movement and the experiences various Black firm members have had as legal and business professionals. In both instances, the goal was to sensitize our colleagues to these issues with a view of creating a more inclusive workplace and society. I was touched by the genuine interest, compassion and encouragement my colleagues expressed to me for the issues we were discussing. I could not imagine even having these conversations with one colleague five years ago, and here we were talking openly and honestly about them with the entire firm. Progress.

Ultimately, progress towards a more equitable, diverse and inclusive profession is what we need to keep achieving, and I am committed to doing what I can to help. Much as I did out of courtesy for my partners back in January, I now look forward to holding the door open for the next generation of young Black people to take a seat at the big table. I might have been the first, but I must not be the last.

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