photo of OBA Career Accelerator participants, dressed formally, at Supreme Evening event, with Justice Michelle O'Bonsawin

Igniting the Influence of Indigenous and Racialized Lawyers at the Forefront of Practice

  • August 30, 2023
  • Emily Sinkins

The legal profession has a long history of mentoring new lawyers looking to launch their careers, and, in recent years, has developed more effective support for new calls who are making the transition to practice without established networks, or similar advantages, while still facing systemic barriers to success. But, for lawyers who have already made that leap, and are now looking to step up their expertise, to forge new paths, and to ascend to leadership roles in influential legal arenas, the support to understand and access those next-level opportunities becomes increasingly rare. When the careers of talented Black, Indigenous and racialized lawyers slow or stall, a profession that relies on diversity to adequately represent and serve the public, is all the poorer for it – a threat that OBA Past-President Charlene Theodore set her sights on addressing with an innovative solution: the OBA Career Accelerator Program.

An innovative approach to diversity

A president who dedicated her time at the helm to focusing on the ‘how’ of advancing meaningful, measurable equality and inclusion in the profession – on making the ambitious achievable, Theodore envisioned a program that would  give early- and mid-career Indigenous and racialized lawyers the skills and training they need to advance their participation in three emerging areas of law: artificial intelligence (AI), environmental, social and governance (ESG), and fintech, with access to leaders in the respective areas as well as hiring teams and decision-makers.

“As past-president, I wanted to demonstrate that an innovative approach to diversity used successfully in other sectors could have an impact in law,” Theodore says. “Career Accelerators and incubators have had a significant impact in the tech and venture capital sectors; I knew we could have a similar result in the legal profession.”

As chair of the OBA Innovation Team, it fell to Theodore to appoint an ‘Innovator in Residence’ to bring the vision to life. When she announced that Mante Molepo, founder and CEO of Mante Molepo Consulting, a company that works with boards and senior leaders to advance diversity, equality and inclusion in governance, would lead the program, Theodore said, “Equality, diversity and inclusion is at the heart of the work we do every day at the OBA. This program is the perfect addition to that work, and Mante is the perfect person to lead it.”group of Career Accelerators participates in roundtable discussion with faculty member in OBA member lounge

Just ten months later, after eight intense weeks of substantive PD, skills development, mentorship and coaching, the inaugural class has completed the program, and Theodore’s words have been borne out. Molepo applied her unique expertise, deliberate approach and connection to the program’s mission to deliver a first-class, cutting-edge initiative that has made a real difference in the careers – and lives – of participants and will have an impact in the profession for years to come.

“Representation matters,” says Molepo, who was very intentional about finding faculty, speakers, mentors and other professionals with similar lived experiences to the participants. “When people can see other Indigenous, Black and other racialized legal professionals in these roles, it makes it more possible for them to envision themselves in these roles as well.”

That truth is evidenced by the ‘accelerators’ themselves – three of whom reflect on their experiences below.

Monique Brand: empowered to “play a role in shaping the future of AI in the legal field”

head-shot photo of Monique BrandAs a Black Canadian female lawyer, Monique Brand, one of 20 accelerators selected this year, was drawn to the OBA Career Accelerator Program because it aligned with her passion for continuous learning, would help her develop new skills to boost her career and, perhaps most importantly, enable her to apply all she would learn to helping people address the complex or difficult issues they face in their everyday lives and to effect great change in the communities she serves.

Of particular interest to Brand as the program unfolded were the insights on AI and the emphasis placed on the importance of understanding AI tools and their application within legal practice as part of the lawyer’s ethical duty to provide optimal services. “Several of the speakers addressed the fact that AI's role in the legal field is one of synergy, as it complements our work and empowers us to deliver more effective and efficient outcomes for our clients,” she notes. “Just as we diligently study legal precedents and developments, we must also invest in understanding AI advancements to harness their potential fully and ensure our role as effective and responsible legal professionals.”

Brand found herself “impressed by the OBA Career Accelerator Program’s ability to offer such a diverse professional network.” She adds, “During the program, I had the opportunity to engage with fellow participants and to connect with established professionals in Zoom meetings, seminars, and through in-person networking events. These multiple networking opportunities greatly contributed to my personal and career growth.”

Going forward, she plans to keep current with all three of the legal practice areas covered during the program. “I also aim to do further research to identify emerging tools that could revolutionize the way legal services are delivered, thus enabling me to play a role in shaping the future of AI in the legal field,” she says.

As an emerging leader in law, just as important as the knowledge she has gained is the network. “The mentorship I received during the OBA Career Accelerator Program has not only bolstered my technical knowledge but also ignited a passion for guiding the next generation of legal professionals,” Brand reveals. “I plan to pay it forward by becoming a mentor myself, sharing my experiences and insights with aspiring lawyers interested in exploring the intersection of law and technology.”

Fiona Chan: “more confident about my future in the Canadian Bar”

head-shot photo of Fiona ChanFiona Chan is a mid-career lawyer – internationally trained – who was experiencing a lot of pushback because of her overseas background when she learned about the OBA Career Accelerator Program. “I joined the program in the hopes that I could connect with like-minded lawyers who are also going through the process of transforming their career, and mainstream leaders,” she says.

The firsthand access participants enjoyed to leaders across sectors and settings helped Chan re-set her goals. 

A highlight for Chan was the Career Accelerator lunch with Charlene Theodore. “I was quite disappointed, time after time, hearing how the law firms' diversity policies only focused on student recruitments and completely disregarded the importance of facilitatingOBA Past-President Charlene Theodore speaks to Career Accelerator participants from a podium in a meeting room lateral moves of lawyers not trained in their system,” Chan says. “I was delighted to hear how Charlene has brought this Career Accelerator Program to life, and her commitment to creating more channels for lawyers with an unconventional start to get into the areas that traditionally only big-law trained lawyers could practice.”

Like Brand, Chan found the mentorship aspect of the program most beneficial, and connected with one mentor in particular who has been supportive of her expanding her career and connected her with other leaders in fintech. As those relationships take root, Chan continues to build on her skills by volunteering for an industry group and pursuing a FinTech AML certification.

“This [Career Accelerator] program has cleared a lot of myths around career transition, and really opened my eyes to the career options I have,” Chan explains. “Before the program, I wasn't sure how I could integrate my international experience. After attending the professional development sessions, I am more confident about my future in the Canadian Bar.”

Lisa-Marie Williams: a “T-shaped lawyer” in the making

Head-shot photo of Lisa-Marie WilliamsFor Lisa-Marie Williams the program was not just a unique opportunity to gain technical training in fascinating fields of legal practice and transform herself into “a T-shaped lawyer” with expertise in those three ascendant areas, but also an unparalleled opportunity to expand her professional network to include lawyers with similar backgrounds and interests. 

“I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun I had and how many meaningful connections I made,” Williams says. “I enjoyed meeting all the other program participants, hearing their views on pertinent issues related to AI, ESG and Fintech, and also getting to know them on a personal level.”

Through the program, Williams met her mentor, Nyranne Martin, chief legal and risk officer at The Ottawa Hospital, someone whose professional achievements she admires and whose support has proven invaluable. “[I] felt grateful to Mante Molepo, OBA innovator in residence and program lead for the Career Accelerator Program, for her thoughtful match-making,” Williams says. “Nyranne and I have spent our time in the program developing a solid relationship that will continue to grow and evolve well into the future.”

That future includes putting the learnings, skills and contacts she gained from the program to good use. When asked how, Williams replies, “to present myself as a strategic business partner in discussions with my employer about digital risk management; and to further my understanding of the relationship between privacy law, cybersecurity and AI through personal research as well as other professional development programs.”

Embracing the call to accelerate

Looking at the experiences of Monique Brand, Fiona Chan and Lisa-Marie Williams, it’s clear that the OBA Career Accelerator Program has not only reignited a passion for life-long learning for rising Black, Indigenous and racialized leaders in law, but provided them with a framework to fuel careers of impact and empower them to blaze new trails atop rapidly changing terrain.Career Accelerators standing in OBA member lounge in front of a TV screen with Career Accelerator Program logo

Their success in rising to the challenge is a testament to the calibre, curiosity and commitment of this first class of accelerators, according to Molepo. “I loved that they were open about their experiences and supportive of each other,” she says. “They were not afraid to ask questions, which really enabled them to learn from the various contributors in the program … There was such camaraderie amongst them and a true network of support, even though we were in a mostly virtual environment.”

She is grateful, too, for the generosity and enthusiasm of a legal community that stepped up to volunteer as speakers, faculty, mentors and coaches. “Even those lawyers who were unable to participate due to other commitments, helped me find other lawyers to participate,” she recalls.

Theodore agrees. “My term as president was a call to action,” she says. “I was proud to see the profession embrace the call to accelerate our efforts to diversify the profession.”

The OBA Career Accelerator Program resonated deeply with lawyers and will continue its ripple effect, as each cohort becomes part of the next cohort's community of support, along with the mentors. “I'm looking forward to seeing this diverse cohort grow,” says Theodore, “and I will be at the 10-year reunion to celebrate.”

About the author

Emily Sinkins is the editor of JUST. Magazine.