An introspective look into the professional lives of Ontario's most celebrated lawyers and legal scholars
These are stories of people who have spent a life in law. It is my hope that these stories remind us that, although we all experience life and work differently, we share many common experiences. May these stories galvanize us not only as lawyers, but also - and more importantly - as people.
Frank Walwyn is a sophisticated man who helps sophisticated business managers solve sophisticated issues. His multi-jurisdictional litigation practice is as complicated and layered as the man who built it. Licensed to practise law in Canada, Barbados, Anguilla and a few other Caribbean jurisdictions, Frank island-hops from courtroom to boardroom with an arsenal of business and legal savvy.
Frank’s meteoric rise to lawyer rockstardom began in the 1990s as an articling student at WeirFoulds LLP. In those days, once accepted into a firm, bright, young lawyers could expect to be “on rails” for partnership track, as Frank describes it, absent some inexcusable error or gross personal indulgence; we both agree that things are much different today. He reflects, with great reverence, on the culture and people at WeirFoulds. The firm’s ‘commitment to excellence’ was and is the ‘guiding light’ of his practice. Indeed, Frank once counted himself amongst these young lawyers-on-rails, but Bay St. partnership was not always his end-game: “There was no master plan. To be quite frank, I didn’t intend to stay in law for very long. I saw the career as being a corporate-commercial lawyer, and eventually getting into business. Litigation was not on the horizon at all. This just shows the fluidity of the process.”
Having been a young boy who immigrated with his family to Toronto in the 1970s, Frank is acutely aware of the challenges faced by recent immigrants. His new Canadian world could not have been any more different to his old one in St. Kitts and Nevis, and this posed for him and his family many challenges. But, true to character, Frank rose and overcame, and even turned his Caribbean heritage into a strategic advantage his competitors could not hope to match: as many of the world’s most profitable companies entrust their finances to the low-tax havens and strict confidentiality rules in Caribbean jurisdictions, with a razor-sharp mind and easy-going nature, Frank is the natural lawyer of choice. “My Caribbean roots have really helped in terms of my professional life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Diversity is so important in what we do as lawyers, what we do as business people. Anybody who reaches back to their heritage and leverages those relationships in different parts of the world to their benefit in Toronto, has an advantage.”
And it is not as if the hiring practices in place at most Bay St. firms at the time did not conspire to threaten his rise through the ranks. Diversity has been, and still is, missing from many larger firms, Frank says; he makes particular reference to Toronto firms, who have fallen behind their global competitors in terms of embracing the value of diversity. For Frank, ethnic, cultural and racial diversity is one of the modern firm’s most valuable core competencies; and yet, even in these multi-cultural, progressive times, many firms are scrambling, having only recently begun to revamp their hiring practices and reshuffle management committees. “As you get deeper into the profession, the issues are even more complicated. And it’s not just that Toronto is changing, Ontario is changing, and Canada is changing. Literally, the world is changing…”
Beyond just a desire to do the right thing, Frank espouses the view that there is an undeniable business case that inclusive hiring policies are a competitive advantage. “Business now is so global that not having an understanding of different cultures, not having diversity ‘in your house, in your business’ is a death sentence. If ignored, it is to the detriment of the organization.”
Frank believes that mentorship is a crucial component in helping ethnic minority lawyers enter and stay in the profession. Part of his extensive community involvement includes the mentoring of up-and-coming black lawyers through the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers.
This type of soft guidance has played a significant role in his own career. Frank alludes to the ‘culture of mentorship’ at WeirFoulds (by now, I am getting the sense that WeirFoulds is a wonderful place to work…) as having helped him navigate not only our profession’s political and ethical conundrums, but also some of its more substantive elements.
I ask Frank whether there is anything he would have done differently over the course of his career: he would have completed an undergraduate degree in commerce, or perhaps an MBA, although he would not trade his liberal arts education for anything. I get the sense that Frank has in mind a specific time where he was up quite late perfecting his understanding of complex financial instruments in order to craft that ingenious piece of advice for tomorrow’s client meeting; I am once again reminded that Frank is counsel to some of the world’s most sophisticated financial managers.
As his stare turns long, his eyes gazing across the downtown Toronto skyline, the conversation skews personal: “I would have also taken my own advice with respect to balance. It’s so easy in this profession to give, and give, and give, in terms of client demands, in terms of the legal community demands, and the community at large, and forget the family side of the equation, forget your own social needs. You do that to your detriment.”
I ask what might be next. “That’s a good question”, he replies, wearing a large grin. He takes the better part of a minute to mull it over, and his eventual answer is as simple and as complicated as the man giving it: “I just pray for health to continue to be able to keep working. I intend to keep giving back. The files get more complex, the social issues get more complex, and the profession gets more complex, but that just equates to more challenge. And you get a very good feeling from accepting those challenges, and from resolving them as best you can.”
On this note, our conversations ends - Frank has a sophisticated matter to which he must attend.
Avvy Go is candid about the role that money played in her decision to attend law school. However, as many of us can attest, motivations tend to deepen as we learn more about ourselves and the law. After becoming involved with Downtown Legal Services clinic through the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law, she quickly recognized the magnitude of the challenges facing the most vulnerable members of our community: recent immigrants and low-income Canadians.
Though a recent immigrant herself at the time, she admits that the cases she encountered in the clinic overwhelmed her. One of her first was that of a Chinese woman who was legally required to marry the fiancé who had sponsored her to come to Canada, but physically abused her (at the time, the law stipulated that in cases of spousal sponsorship, a couple had to marry within 90 days). “I didn’t know what to do!” Avvy recalls thinking; after all, it is not as if these heart-wrenching issues were taught in ivory towers at U of T.
A short time later, while summering with the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC), the Executive Director quit, and, to her surprise, Avvy was named acting ED. Thus, thrown into the fire, so began Avvy’s legal crusading on behalf of the racially marginalized and the low-income members of our society, particularly those of Chinese origin. One of her more prominent battles was the Head Tax Redress Campaign which began in the 1980s. The CCNC worked tirelessly to hold the Federal government to account for its racist “head tax” immigration laws in place in the early 20th century, an oft-forgotten black eye in our country’s history. Though the battle was lost in the courts, in 2006, on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologised in Parliament for the head tax, the Newfoundland head tax, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, and offered compensation for the few remaining survivors who endured these policies.
Avvy is openly disappointed that the victory was political and not achieved through the courts. For her, the problem is systemic: “I think we underestimate the impact of colonialism in Canada, and the impact it has in contemporary society. On the surface, we’re OK, but because it never gets pushed to the top, no resolution is achieved.”
I notice that Avvy balances a Pollyannaish view of what society aspires to be with the stinging reality she encounters every day at work - that the system seems biased towards the rich to the exclusion of the poor and marginalized; it is sort of a mental and emotional acrobatics. For while she has the utmost respect for the rule of law, and is committed working within it, Avvy is adamant that, for things to change, the law must reflect substantive equality principles:“I’ll do whatever I can to protect the legal system, but sometimes the laws have to be changed. The law can be a tool for social change and for justice. We can take it there.”
When I bring up her “Trailblazer” award from U of T, her alma-mater, for being one of 19 ‘remarkable women graduates who are trailblazers of the legal profession’ (alongside Rosalie Abella and Diane Goodman, among others), Avvy is quick to discuss an ironic truth: that she is one of the few women of ethnicity on the list (I count three). What ‘trail’ has she blazed? What does this say about diversity at U of T? I am not sure; Avvy is humble, and quick to downplay her own accomplishments, but her point is a cogent one. “You have to consciously work to overcome these barriers in order to achieve equality. If you just rely on people changing, then you’re going to wait a long time.” While there are many more Asian and ethnic minority lawyers entering the profession today, Avvy believes that there is still a long way to go.
I ask Avvy whether she would have done anything differently over the course of her career. The short answer is no. Perhaps this is because Avvy is a master doer, able to focus with laser-precision on the people, issues and tasks in front of her. “I’m very focused on the things that I’m doing today…and when it’s done, I forget about it. So, in a sense, I have no regrets because I don’t really remember what I’ve done!” However, like many “lawyerly” answers, the long answer “depends”. What it depends on are the practical considerations about which we all worry: a desire for job security, having a measurable impact, and doing the right thing. Working in the public interest means exposing your career and personal fortunes to the whimsies of government; in Avvy’s case, this means adapting to the changes in corporation direction at Legal Aid Ontario that have created an uncertain the future for community legal clinics in Ontario. “I cannot tell you whether I’m going to have a job in a year from now. If we could stay here forever, we probably would. Where will our clients go? It’s terrible, it’s absolutely terrible.”
More worrisome still is how these changes will affect access to legal services over the long term; specifically whether bright, young lawyers will be incentivized to work in the public interest.
Should the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic close its doors one day, you can be sure that Avvy will still be fighting the good fight. There are always more complex tax issues to tackle, always more Charter challenges to argue, and especially, always more emotionally draining immigration cases to work through.
Avvy has so much more to say on behalf of her clients, and so much more change is possible.
About the Author
Andreas Kalogiannides operates Kalogiannides Law in Toronto. Kalogiannideslaw.com