Josh Lokko has wanted to be a lawyer for as long as he can remember.
“It’s probably because I liked to read and debate as a kid, so people around me had the classic ‘you should be a lawyer!’ reaction,” says the fourth-year JD/MBA student at the University of Toronto. “Both my parents are university educated and saw law as something I could do. That’s not true for everyone.”
It’s this discrepancy when it comes to opportunity that has resulted in fewer Black students deciding to go to law school. And it is what inspired the Black Future Lawyers (BFL) program at U of T.
The university’s Faculty of Law launched the initiative in November of last year. The university says its vision is a “legal profession that reflects the diversity of Canadian Society” and that BFL’s goal is to make that a reality by supporting Black students as they apply to law school and join the profession.
“Our law school is stronger when we embrace the participation of the broadest range of people and help them to achieve their full potential,” says Alexis Archbold, assistant dean of U of T’s JD program. “Furthermore, true access to justice in Canada cannot be achieved unless the legal profession represents the diversity of Canadian society. All of this means that we need to be proactive and deliberate in our efforts to reduce obstacles to accessing legal education.”
This isn’t the first time something like this has been tried in Canada. The Indigenous Black & Mi’kmaq (IB&M) Initiative at the Schulich School of Law in Halifax recently celebrated 30 years of opening doors for future lawyers.
A beneficiary of the program herself, Ontario Bar Association Vice-President Charlene Theodore knows first-hand how transformative that program can be.
“In order to achieve substantial change in any sector, you must first identify the barriers that are unique to those who have been historically excluded and then develop solutions that truly level the playing field,” says Theodore, who attended the launch of the BFL and has become an enthusiastic supporter. “Under the leadership of Professor Michelle Williams, the IB&M Initiative exceeds this standard.
“The OBA supports the Black Future Lawyers Program, and I hope that more firms and organizations follow suit in supporting the programs at Schulich and U of T.”
An initiative like this isn’t new to U of T, either. In 2017, the university’s medical school launched the Black Student Application Program. Since its creation, the school has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Black students in the Doctor of Medicine (MD) program.
Lisa Robinson, associate dean for the Faculty of Medicine’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity, says that in 2018-2019, there were 14 Black students who began the program, compared with one Black student in the 2016-2017 application cycle. In 2019-2020, there were 15 Black students who began the MD program. She says the increase was directly due to the Black Student Application Program and the Community of Support program, which offers mentorship to university students.
This result is what BFL is hoping to duplicate. Its programming includes three main elements aimed at Black undergraduates: engagement activities designed to increase students’ knowledge about legal education and the legal profession; mentoring and other supports to help students applying to law school; and a unique admissions pathway.
“BFL’s goals and activities are deeply informed by the experiences and input from our Black law students, Black alumni, Black undergraduates, and members of the legal profession,” Archbold says. “The BFL working group includes law students from our Black Law Students Association and the members of the law school’s staff. We have consulted with members of our Black alumni, as well as Black U of T undergraduate students.”
As member of the BFL working group, Lokko can envision the change this program could bring about.
“Long term, I think this program has the potential to change the demographics of the Canadian legal profession,” he says. “Representation starts with the pipeline, and BFL aims to create a pipeline of Black students who are fully equipped for law school and prepared to succeed at the highest level. In a few decades, BFL graduates will be partners, judges, professors, GCs, Crowns, and more.
“Aspiring Black students won’t need to wonder if they’ll be able to make it.”
Key to this is the idea of mentoring. For this, BFL is looking for Black lawyer mentors, and are welcoming volunteers who are graduates from law schools right across Canada. The OBA has been actively involved with mentoring for years, and sees it as a great way to build an inclusive community, as well as support all lawyers as they advance in their studies and careers.
“Mentors provide guidance on how to succeed in law school, find jobs at the best firms, and sponsor mentees once they begin at work. However, for students from a minority background, mentors also provide advice on how to navigate spaces where students may feel they do not belong, and assure mentees that they can succeed,” says Lokko, who is also president of the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada. “When a Black student sees you – as a busy lawyer from any background – take time from your day to help them, you are showing them that they belong and that their success is important to you and to the legal profession. Volunteers are incredibly important to the success of the program.”
Lokko says the response from the legal community has been very good, so far. But, he knows that they will need to continue to build more partnerships and relationships as the program matures.
“Law is a profession of privilege, and it will take time to reverse the informal and formal exclusion that Black people have historically faced,” he says. “Programs like BFL and groups like the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada are helping to accelerate that change, and I am looking forward to seeing what the legal profession looks like 20 years from now.”
To learn how you can get involved and volunteer as a mentor with the Black Future Lawyers program, visit https://bfl.law.utoronto.ca/volunteer-mentoring-program.