The impact of the racial-justice movement on the legal profession // On the Record
On Tuesday March 2nd, 2021Print
On Tuesday March 2nd, 2021Print
Ten months ago, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black citizens fuelled mass protests against police brutality and racial injustice in the United States. That movement soon spread to Canada. Amid the nationwide reckoning with systemic racism, there was a push to boost spending at Black-owned businesses. The corporate world pledged to diversify its roster of suppliers and vendors. Individual consumers, meanwhile, made an effort to support Black-owned restaurants and retailers. There was a concrete financial impact.
The legal profession, of course, has its own history of racism. So did Black-led law firms see an increase to their bottom lines? We asked three Black lawyers in Toronto to tell us if the anti-racism movement had an impact on their business.
In the summer of 2020, at the height of the racial reckoning, Tanya Walker, who owns a litigation boutique, noticed an uptick in business. Whenever she lands new clients, Walker likes to ask the same question: why did they seek her out? That summer, a large number of clients said they wanted to be more thoughtful about their legal spending. If they were choosing between several equally qualified lawyers, they were making a conscious decision to hire the lawyer who was Black. In her 15 years as a practising lawyer, Walker had never heard that answer. “They’re not making decisions solely based on the colour of my skin,” she says. “I’d take issue if they were just filling their quota. That’s not my understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement. We want opportunities because we’re confident and capable of doing the job.”
Over time, this particular driver of new business has fizzled out. “When I ask people why they retain us,” says Walker, “I don’t hear that reason anymore.”
Saron Gebresellassi runs her own interdisciplinary legal practice, with a focus on criminal work, wrongful-death cases and human rights. In the wake of the anti-racism movement, she landed several cases involving alleged police misconduct. Quite often, these clients can’t afford to pursue such a case, but the society-wide spotlight on police brutality had helped them secure financing. (This includes, for instance, private donations and GoFundMe campaigns.) They retained Gebresellassi because she’d handled similar cases in the past and had spoken out against police brutality in the media. “It was especially busy over the summer when the uprisings around the world took over,” she says. One might have expected to see a broad cross-section of society retain Gebresellassi, but, she says, “the uptick came more from African-Canadians.”
Well before the George Floyd protests, Lorraine Fleck noticed that an increasing share of clients were seeking her out in an effort to support a capable Black lawyer. Fleck, who runs an IP boutique, speculates that she might have enjoyed this boost because she often represents American companies that are filing IP applications in Canada. The political climate in the U.S., she points out, has provoked a strong reaction by some individuals in the corporate world. “People were so ticked off with Trump and his ilk,” says Fleck. “I think a lot of this might have been a backlash to the outgoing president and values he represented.”
This story is from our Spring 2021 Issue.
Illustration by Vivian Rosas.