sponsored content: How this Bay Street partner became a top constitutional lawyer

Ranjan Agarwal, Bennett Jones

Ranjan Agarwal
Partner at Bennett Jones LLP
Osgoode LLM: Constitutional law, 2011
Year of call: 2004

Ranjan Agarwal was frustrated. He was a fifth-year associate at Bennett Jones LLP and he wanted to work on a big constitutional case. That was the reason he went to law school in the first place.

But he had a problem: his firm didn’t have a constitutional practice group. Which meant that a case was never going to fall in his lap. “I had no way to master the subject matter,” says Agarwal. “Without experience, I wouldn’t be able to market myself.”

So he decided to be proactive. He signed up for the constitutional law specialization of the Osgoode Professional LLM. And, over the next two years, he completed the rigorous graduate program on a part-time basis.

When Agarwal graduated, in 2011, he had acquired the know-how and the credentials to reach out to both clients and fellow lawyers to let them know he was ready to take on constitutional files. “The LLM gave me the confidence to pick up the phone,” he says. “Over the course of the program, I had also published several papers. That made it easier to demonstrate that I had expertise in the area.” It worked. Now a partner, Agarwal is his firm’s leading lawyer in constitutional law. He’s been to the Supreme Court of Canada 17 times. “The program helped me build the career I have.”

Fast facts about the Osgoode Professional LLM

1. Flexible: The program is designed for professionals. Evening and weekend classes let you earn a degree while working.

2. Specialized: Dive deep into one of 14 areas of specialization, including tax, securities, constitutional, criminal, labour, and dispute resolution.

3. Rigorous: Throughout the program, you’ll complete detailed papers on a complex area of law, honing your legal writing and analytical skills.

Osgoode’s Professional LLM is designed with the working lawyer in mind. To learn more, visit the program’s website or call (416) 673-4670.

This story is from our Fall 2018 Issue.

Feature: White out

When Precedent’s first issue came out, a decade ago, less than 12 percent of lawyers in Ontario identified as racialized. But since then, that figure has climbed to 19 percent. For this special anniversary edition of the magazine, we sought out three racialized lawyers — whom we’ve profiled in these pages before — and asked them to reflect on how the profession has changed.

Their message: don’t get too excited by the numbers. For one thing, lawyers in Ontario remain less diverse than the province’s general population, which is 26 percent racialized. And, as research from the Law Society of Upper Canada shows, discrimination — ranging from unspoken bias to outright harassment — is a reality for many racialized lawyers. What follows are three status reports on the battle for racial equality in law.


Ranjan Agarwal

Ranjan Agarwal

Ranjan Agarwal
Partner, Bennett Jones LLP
First appearance in Precedent: Summer 2012

Eighteen months ago, Ranjan Agarwal, a partner at Bennett Jones LLP, was preparing an RFP. The potential client said it wanted to hire a diverse legal team, so Agarwal assembled a lineup with both experience and diversity that no firm could match. He told a colleague, “We’ve got this.”

Then the client picked a team of five white, male lawyers — a harsh reminder that some clients merely pay lip service to diversity. Until clients refuse to hire non-diverse teams, explains Agarwal, firms won’t feel genuine pressure to advance racialized and female lawyers. In his view, this won’t happen until clients grasp that diversity is good for the bottom line. And, indeed, it is: a 2015 McKinsey study found that racially diverse companies outperform industry norms by 35 percent. “At some point, people will realize they could be making more money,” says Agarwal. “And money is the one language that everyone in business speaks.”

Agarwal, a past president of the South Asian Bar Association, says he’s never personally experienced overt racism in his career. But he agrees that to succeed as a racialized lawyer requires (sadly) a balancing act. He often takes phone calls from Sikh students wondering if they should shave their beards before interviews or from Muslim students asking if they should whitewash their resumés and remove evidence of their religious affiliations. And his wife may roll her eyes when he talks to colleagues about going to the cottage or having kids in hockey — two Ontario-centric experiences that Agarwal, a son of Indian immigrants, knows little about — but he sees such banter as a necessary step toward the ultimate goal: moving up the ranks, so there’s one more diverse lawyer in an influential role. “Change will only come,” he says, “as we move into places of power.”


Katherine Hensel

Katherine Hensel

Katherine Hensel
Principal, Hensel Barristers
First appearance in Precedent: Winter 2012

Katherine Hensel is used to being an outlier. When she was called to the bar, in 2003, she was both one of the few Indigenous women and single mothers on Bay Street. She started her career at McCarthy Tétrault LLP and later moved to Stockwoods LLP. These days, the Secwepemc lawyer runs Hensel Barristers, a firm dedicated to Indigenous litigation.

In the courtroom, where Hensel handles all manner of civil and criminal trials, casual racism is common. “There are times,” she says, “when Indigenous lawyers show up and the court staff will ask, ‘Do you need to see duty counsel?’” This has happened to Hensel. When she hears such comments, she speaks up, but knows that not everyone does.

The justice system itself can also be deeply ignorant. Hensel often represents survivors of residential schools, who are making claims against the government. And in court, she still has to educate judges and opposing counsel of the consequences — intergenerational trauma, for instance — of one of Canada’s darkest moments. Thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she can simply hand its final report to the judge. But it still means that she has to deliver a history lesson to the court. “Every case that comes up is an opportunity for me to educate people,” says Hensel. “But I don’t want to have to educate people. I want access to justice for my clients.”

Hensel would love to hire Indigenous lawyers and students, but, at the moment, doesn’t have one. Part of the problem is that litigation runs counter to the consensus-based decision-making common in many Indigenous communities, which drives young Indigenous lawyers away from the area. “Indigenous litigators are thin on the ground,” says Hensel. “But I’m actively looking.”


Paul Jonathan Saguil

Paul Jonathan Saguil

Paul Jonathan Saguil
Associate VP, TD Bank
First appearance in Precedent: Summer 2015

Paul Jonathan Saguil never asked to be a poster child for diversity. But in 2008, as a first-year associate at Stockwoods LLP, he decided to be open about the fact that he’s gay. Because he was so outspoken, the requests — first, to speak on diversity panels and, later, to sit on boards — flooded in. “I just kept saying yes,” says the associate vice-president at TD Bank. Fast-forward 10 years and Saguil, who is Filipino, holds executive positions on — ready for this? — the Law Society’s Equity Advisory Group, Out on Bay Street, and the CBA’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Forum. And he previously held positions on the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers and Pride Toronto.

Over the past decade, the 35-year-old has seen tangible change. Both law firms and in-house departments now hire diversity officers, host panels and throw cocktail parties for Pride Week.

But Saguil fears that such initiatives have started to outlive their usefulness: he often sees the exact same people showing up at diversity events. “Sometimes it’s frustrating,” he says. “I look around the room and think, Are we just in an echo chamber?”

Saguil’s tireless dedication to equality has also taken a personal toll: a recent relationship ended, in part, because of how many hours he put into the cause. He wonders if his relationships would be stronger if he took a step back.

But until he stops getting middle-of-the-night messages on LinkedIn from strangers asking for help because a colleague has made a pejorative remark, his work isn’t over.

One thing, though, is certain: the increase in the number of racialized lawyers has forced the profession to take their concerns seriously: “We can’t be silenced anymore.”

Fall 2017 CoverThis story is from our 10th anniversary issue, published in Fall 2017.




Photography by Luis Mora; Hair and makeup by Michelle Calleja

The Circuit: Photos from the 2016 SABA Gala

What: The 2016 South Asian Bar Association of Toronto Gala
The Liberty Grand, Toronto
November 15, 2016

When Rais Bhuiyan began his keynote speech at the South Asian Bar Association’s Awards Gala, the sounds of clashing cutlery gave way to silence. The audience of more than 380 lawyers, judges and politicians listened intently as the Bangladeshi man recounted the harrowing details of a hate crime. In 2001, he was living in Dallas — and 10 days after 9/11, a white supremacist on a mission to kill Muslims in retaliation for the attacks shot him in the face at close range.

He survived, but in his address at the Liberty Grand last week, spoke of forgiving the man. “It’s natural to want to fight back,” he said. “There’s nothing shameful in having that instinct. But sometimes, instinct does not serve us well in the long run.”

That compassion is why SABA had invited Bhuiyan to speak.

“When we asked Rais to join us, Trump had just been nominated as the Republican candidate,” says Ranjan Agarwal, a partner at Bennett Jones LPP and SABA’s President. “Trump’s fear-mongering, especially against Muslims, prompted us to think about Rais’s message of peace and forgiveness as a response to hate crimes. Our objective is to be an organization that, amongst other things, advocates for social justice.”

To that end, adds Agarwal, the group also doles out awards each year “to showcase South Asian talent.” At this year’s gala, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi humbly collected SABA’s Toronto Legal Excellence Award. And the Canadian Association of Muslim Women in Law received SABA’s Toronto Diversity Award.

As Bhuiyan’s speech came to a close, he reflected on the importance of an organization like SABA. “I’m not only here to share my story with you,” he concluded, “but to thank you for protecting the rights and liberties of South Asian communities. I can’t even fathom what an organization like SABA could have provided me 15 years ago.”

The South Asian Bar Association of Toronto is dedicated to promoting the objectives of South Asian members of the legal profession. To find out more, please visit the SABA website.

The Circuit: The South Asian Bar Association celebrates its tenth anniversary

What: The 2015 South Asian Bar Association Gala
Where: The Liberty Grand, Toronto
When: December 1, 2015

Last week more than 450 lawyers and supporters attended the 10th annual South Asian Bar Association (SABA) Gala at the Liberty Grand — where Kenneth J. Fredeen, general counsel at Deloitte LLP, won SABA’s 2015 Diversity Award.

Each year, the gala recognizes the achievements by South Asians in the legal profession and champions of diversity. Fredeen, for instance, is perhaps best know for being a founding member of Legal Leaders for Diversity.

“In 10 short years, SABA Toronto has established itself as a leading voice for South Asian lawyers in the Toronto area and for diversity in the profession,” says Ranjan Agarwal, president of SABA and a partner at Bennett Jones LLP. “The gala and awards night is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of our bar with our members and supporters.”

The organization also presented three Legal Excellence Awards to members of the Ontario legal profession for their outstanding initiative, achievement, contribution to the community and pro bono activities. This year’s awards went to:

  • Bindu Dhaliwal, Bank of Montreal
  • Hussein A. Hamdani, SimpsonWigle LAW LLP
  • Isfahan Merali, Consent and Capacity Board

The evening’s guest speaker was Renu Madhane, the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

The South Asian Bar Association of Toronto is dedicated to promoting the objectives of South Asian members of the legal profession. To find out more, please visit the SABA website.

The South Asian Bar Association to throw its annual gala next week

When the South Asian Bar Association held its first year-end gala in 2006, about 65 lawyers showed up. Since then, the annual party has surged in popularity. Next Thursday, more than 400 lawyers are set to attend the 2014 SABA Awards Gala at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel — and Justin Trudeau will deliver the keynote speech. 

“We have grown exponentially,” says Ranjan Agarwal, a partner at Bennet Jones LLP and a director at SABA. “We’re going to the Fairmont because we have outgrown most of the hotels downtown.” 

According to Agarwal, the explanation for that rapid growth is twofold. First, there are simply more South Asians moving to Canada and graduating from law school. And secondly, he says, big law firms and in-house departments — such as Blakes, McCarthys and Bank of Montreal — have embraced the event and now buy up entire tables. 

Agarwal finds such success encouraging: it shows that the profession is at least beginning to treat diversity as a serious issue. “Law firms themselves have realized why diversity is important,” he says. “It creates better teams and ensures that they can recruit the best and the brightest.” 

And with racial and gender diversity emerging as a major issue for law firms, SABA has asked Justin Trudeau to weigh in on the subject when he speaks next week. 

“Here is someone who wants to become the next Prime Minister of Canada and the polls suggest he’s got a good shot at it,” says Agarwal. “So we’ve asked him to talk about the Liberal party’s view on diversity in the profession, judiciary and the government.” 

Tickets to the event are still available online.

Photo of the 2013 SABA Awards Gala by Yvonne Bambrick. Check out our Circuit section for more photos from last year’s event.