This Toronto Lawyer Is Transforming Her Industry by Mentoring Young Black Women

Attorney Denise Dwyer wants to see more diversity in the law industry. Her plan starts with mentoring the next generation.

Denise DwyerPhoto: Tanja Tiziana

How Mentoring Is Amplifying the Voices of Black Female Lawyers

The first woman in the British Empire to become a lawyer was a Canadian named Clara Brett Martin. She was called to the bar in 1897, after years of hostility from her male teachers and peers. Her achievement had little impact, however, on the access women of colour had to the profession: it took nearly six more decades before a Canadian Black woman—Violet King Henry—became a lawyer. For one of Henry’s successors, Denise Dwyer, the gap between Black women and their white counterparts remains a major concern.

Dwyer—who was called to the bar in 1991 and is now an assistant deputy minister at the Ontario Ministry of Education—thinks that bringing Black female lawyers together is an integral part of their pathway to success. That belief in mentoring stems from the early days of her career. While working for the Ministry of the Attorney General as a young lawyer, Dwyer noticed something: “The presence of Black people was far more predominant in the role of the accused than it was in the Crown,” she says. “It was kind of lonely.”

On November 11, 2006, Dwyer took action by inviting several Black female lawyers to meet at her Toronto-area home. The date was significant: it reflected her peers’ standing in the legal world. “Statis­tically, Black lawyers are often either sole practitioners or employed in government,” she says, meaning most attendees weren’t hired by private practices (and so wouldn’t be working on Remembrance Day).

“What began as a gathering at my home turned into a safe place to have discussions and celebrate our victories,” says Dwyer. Together, the women addressed the unique challenges they face in white-dominated spaces—everything from people touching their hair to walking into court and being mistaken for the stenographer. (Here are 13 strange Canadian laws you’ve never heard of.)

That day’s meeting left Dwyer and her peers craving more. “Soon, women were contacting me and asking when we could do it again,” she says. In response, she founded the Black Female Lawyers Network that same year and turned the informal meet-up into an annual retreat and fundraiser for Black and Indigen­ous law students.

Currently in its 11th year, the gathering, now called Sistahs-in-Law, hosts more than 100 attendees who are committed to the advancement of Black women. “We want to amplify the voices of Black female lawyers,” says Dwyer. “We want to advocate for an inclusive profession.” To that end, at each edition, 10 Ontario high-school students (“Little Sistahs”) from underprivileged backgrounds are paired with “Big Sistahs” to receive mentorship.

According to Shaneka Shaw Taylor, a 34-year-old civil litigator and the vice-president and treasurer of the Black Female Lawyers Network, Dwyer’s mentoring efforts have helped change lives. “When I started out in the profession, before I even got a job, I reached out to her,” says Taylor. “Ever since, Denise has been the first person I call when I have an issue.”

Taylor maintains that Dwyer’s mentoring impact stretches beyond the legal field: “She empowers young girls and women to excel in all their endeavours, providing connections and opportunities for her mentees to become involved in community initiatives,” she says.

Reflecting not only on the future of Sistahs-in-Law but of Canada at large, Dwyer believes further change is imperative. “We have census data that tells us we are a highly diverse society,” she says, pointing to cities such as Markham, Ont., where more than 70 per cent of residents are people of colour. But she notes that professional fields, such as law and medicine, aren’t mirroring those statistics. The Black Female Lawyers Network is about mentoring young women and fostering progress within an industry that has remained static, despite a changing demographic. Each year the organization grows, it moves a few steps closer to that goal. 

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Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada