On a sunny afternoon in downtown Toronto, I sat with Vice-President of the Canadian Bar Association, Vivene Salmon, at Cafe Plenty to discuss her career and her aspirations for the CBA.
Vivene grew up in Kitchener-Waterloo where her mother worked as a personal support worker and her father in construction. She studied political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. After graduation, she worked for the Ontario Government. She postponed going to law school for a year to decide whether she wanted to become a lawyer or continue working in public relations. She currently works for Merrill Lynch. Despite her success, she admits that even now she does not know where her career path will lead her in the long term.
“I only ever wanted to do journalism or law,” Vivene explains. “I always liked writing and public policy issues so I knew it was one or the other.” The question became whether or not she would follow the traditional path in law or journalism. “I think for a lot of visible minorities, we’re equally capable of following whatever path we choose but I see people of colour and women being transitioned out of rewarding careers. There are still challenges in the legal profession.”
Vivene has had the unique experience of having worked in the public sector, for a private firm and as in-house counsel. After graduating from the University of Ottawa, she articled at Gowlings in Toronto. In a predicament this profession often presents, she felt that she was either going to work in litigation or corporate law and that there was no moving out of one or the other. She says that today many young lawyers feel that they do not have the flexibility to explore different practice areas early on in their career. This is detrimental to the legal profession because younger people are being forced to specialize early on without understanding where their natural abilities and strengths lie.
Vivene moved to Toronto after articling and soon became involved with the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) of the OBA.
How did you become involved in the OBA?
I attended a law event and met a lawyer, Omar Ha-Redeye, who was involved with the OBA Young Lawyers Division (YLD) at the time. He persuaded me to become involved and attend the YLD meetings. At the time, I was not sure I had the capacity to take anything more on, but he was very convincing.
On the YLD, I took a number of different positions. I enjoyed the public affairs liaison and newsletter editor positions because of my writing and public policy interests. Eventually, I became the chair of the YLD. After that, I sat as the public affairs liaison on the Corporate Counsel, Business Law, and International Law sections – areas that I was interested in. I also applied for OBA and CBA mentorship programs to obtain a mentor. My CBA mentor encouraged me to apply to join the CBA board. By that point, I had already started learning more and more about how the CBA functions. As YLD chair at the provincial level, you have the opportunity to participate on board meetings. I was asked to participate on the OBA Governance Committee and learned about by-laws and policies, the functions of the board, committees, sections and sub-committees. By becoming more involved, I gained more exposure to how the CBA and the OBA functioned.
What is the process like to become a board member?
There is an extensive application package that asks you to answer a number of questions in addition to submitting your CV. The CBA Governance Committee then assesses all candidates based on a matrix. For example, whether the person has governance and/or finance experience, has sat on a board and their past employment and volunteer roles. They try to create a diverse board with diverse working qualities, including experience in policy, finance and advocacy. The Governance Committee then takes a recommended slate to the board that the board can accept or veto.
How did you come to be vice-president of the CBA?
The vice-president is a one-year term. After a year on the board, the vice-president spot became available and I was encouraged to apply. I was acclaimed in the position in January 2018. Over Christmas, I had all my campaign materials and flyers printed that never ended up being used, so that was unusual.
What does the vice-president of the CBA do?
In the vice-president year, my role is to understand the organization – how it functions, the key issues driving the organization internally and externally, and its interaction with key players and other stakeholders. I also stand in for the president at judicial appointments and chair the Governance and Equality Committee. So, as the chair of the committee, I can help steer direction of the organization.
Have you faced any challenges so far as VP?
I am one of the younger board members to have the opportunity to be in this role. There have only been nine women who have headed the CBA and no visible minorities. I was also told that I am the first female corporate counsel as VP. While this is not necessarily a challenge, I do bring a different perspective. Similarly, I live in Toronto and may have a different perspective than a lawyer practising in Nunavut. Because of this, I seek to learn about the perspectives of others in other jurisdictions.
Do you foresee any challenges for the CBA?
The CBA is a national organization trying to represent lawyers across the country who work in different practice areas and different jurisdictions and who range from solo practitioners to lawyers practising in large firms. There are challenges in advocating for and meeting the needs of all lawyers. The CBA actually does a great deal of advocacy; I am not sure it is completely understood just how much advocacy work the CBA actually does on behalf of the legal profession.
Do you have any advice for young lawyers hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Take risks as much as you can. The typical smooth and safe path at a law firm may not always be the most interesting or rewarding in the long-term. It’s important to keep an open mind as to where your legal career will take you. Like anything, life is a combination of hard work and opportunity. Looking back, if I had not participated in so many volunteer activities within the OBA, I would not have understood the organization as well as I did. Join activities that you are interested in and explore the opportunities that are there.
What is your vision for CBA when you become president in 2020?
I have a specific vision in my mind, but the current president, Ray Addlington, will take his path. It will then be my turn. I guess you’ll just have to wait.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stacey Hsu is an Executive on the OBA's Criminal Justice Section and a member of the OBA Council and Equality Committee. She has practised litigation for the past five years and is currently a legal intern with the CBA's Young Lawyers International Program.