In Toronto public high schools, the dropout rate for Portuguese-Canadian students is a startling 42.5 per cent, according to the Toronto District School Board. Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP associate Eunice Machado is on a mission to change that troubling pattern.
Called to the bar in 2003, Machado specializes in franchise-related litigation and class actions. Machado, 31, is also a founding member and president of the Portuguese Canadian Lawyers Association. Established in 2007, the organization promotes education in the Portuguese-Canadian community. Members volunteer to speak with Portuguese-Canadian students in grades 7 and 8 about higher education and different career paths. “We’re not trying to encourage all students to become lawyers,” the University of Toronto law school graduate says. “It’s really about setting goals for themselves.”
Of the 100 girls in Machado’s high school class, only 10 went on to university. “I saw a lot of young women who were opting for very young marriages.” As well, some young men she knew quit school to work in construction with their fathers.
Though Machado became interested in law in Grade 7, at the time she didn’t know any lawyers. All the adults she knew worked in the trades. “I really had no concept of what a lawyer did, what their offices looked like, whether it was possible for me.”
By bringing Portuguese-Canadian lawyers and students together, Machado hopes students will realize that becoming lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, or any type of professional isn’t out of reach. “It’s about knowing that my parents didn’t speak English either and I’ve made it,” says Machado.
The goal is not to discourage young people from entering the trades. Any occupation is good “as long as it’s something that you’ve chosen for yourself and not because you think it’s your only option,” says Machado.
Some students worry they won’t be able to afford university tuition. That’s why the lawyers discuss scholarships and student loans and is the reason the association is establishing scholarships for Grade 7 and 8 students who hope to eventually attend university.
The association complements other community groups that emphasize the importance of higher education, says Mississauga South MPP Charles Sousa. Sousa, a former president of the Federation of Portuguese Canadian Business & Professionals, believes the lawyers’ school visits can make a difference. As students start to decide if they want to stay in school, “they may think back and reflect upon some of what these lawyers have said to them.”
Maria Amélia Paiva, the consul general of Portugal in Toronto, also praises the association. The lawyers “set a very good example for young kids that don’t know exactly what to do with their future . . . professional life.”
The association also offers support to Portuguese-Canadian law students, who can join for free, participate in mentorship programs, and get job tips. It also offers referrals and engages in advocacy. The group recognizes “how important it is to be a resource base,” says Sousa.
Cidalia Faria is an assistant Crown attorney. While studying at law school and articling, she didn’t know any lawyers of Portuguese descent. Today, 165 lawyers belong to the Portuguese Canadian Lawyers Association. Faria, a founder and vice-president of the association, says those numbers show “there are lots of families promoting education.”
Members of the association range from sole practitioners to lawyers in small firms, in-house legal departments, the public sector, and on Bay Street. The association holds networking events for members to meet, runs mock job interviews, and helps plan meetings, social events, and school visits.
Machado volunteers about six hours a week. She believes her volunteer work has made her a stronger lawyer. “When you feel like you’ve got a more balanced life, you do a better job.” She also enjoys learning photography and doing yoga.
Volunteering can also be a way to generate new business. On top of making new contacts, Machado is listed in the association’s online directory of Portuguese-Canadian lawyers.
Machado finds her day job intellectually fulfilling, but her volunteer work “is soul-fulfilling,” she says. “You feel like you are doing something bigger than yourself or bigger than any file or any one client.”
Machado’s passion and commitment are admired by others. “She goes out of her way to do things for the community,” Sousa says. Faria praises Machado’s energy and dedication. “As a young insightful, intelligent, astute professional in a field that is very demanding to add to the mix a commitment to community service really makes her a shining star,” Faria says. “She’s such an asset to our community, to the legal community and to her firm.”
To learn more about the Portuguese Canadian Lawyers Association visit www.pclaonline.com