Mentoring program helps students get on track

When Monique Brand discovered a passion for law in high school, she had no idea how to become exposed to the legal field.

“My family is more oriented with the education profession, and I didn’t have any role models in law,” says Brand. “The legal field was like a foreign world to me.”

It was only after a teacher turned her towards the Law Society of Upper Canada’s equity and diversity mentorship program that Brand was able to fuel her passion and, over time, turn it into a successful career.

“It was important for me to get that link to law that I hadn’t previously had,” says Brand.

The LSUC has long promoted the importance of equity and diversity in the legal profession. Since the creation of its equity department, various programs and services implemented by the law society have been utilized by students and young lawyers who are starting their legal careers.

“In 1997, the law society adopted a series of recommendations in the area of promoting equality and diversity, which led to the equity department being formed,” says Josée Bouchard, the LSUC’s equity adviser.

“Those recommendations became the basis for the law society’s initiatives in equity and diversity, and they were adopted unanimously by our board.”

One of the services that grew out of them was the equity and diversity mentorship program. Launched in 1999, the program “aims to encourage students from various equity-seeking communities to consider law as a career.”

The program is open to students from high school, university, and law school, as well as young lawyers who have recently been called to the bar. Those who participate are given the chance to experience the legal profession first-hand through the observation of real courtroom work and working in a lawyer’s office.

“We found that there are barriers for individuals in certain communities — either students or recently called candidates that are new to the profession — and we wanted to provide support for them and provide them with the opportunity to work alongside experienced lawyers,” says Bouchard.

In any profession, mentorship and guidance can play a significant role in the development of a person’s career. Students are often unsure of the direction they want to take. They can feel intimidated and inadequate and a stable presence can help guide them through that. The law society’s program aims to offer this stability to communities that are under-represented in the legal profession, and in doing this, promotes studying law to students who otherwise might not decide to do so, says Bouchard.

“One of the more interesting aspects of our program is the fact that we allow our mentors and mentees to request the type of person that they want to work alongside,” she says.

“In other words, this gives a student or recently called candidate the opportunity to work with someone outside of their community. For example, a young black student may be paired up with a white mother of three — someone who, under regular circumstances, they might not get a chance to interact with.”

In the 10 years since the program was introduced, it has evolved, with the number of mentors between 50 and 200 at any given time.

“It started out as a fairly informal program, meaning that, at the beginning, people simply called us asking to be paired up with a mentor. Since then it’s evolved in that we promote the program through regular presentations at law schools. We also actively seek out mentors on a regular basis,” says Bouchard.

 To this day, Brand knows her mentor played an important role in helping her nurture her love of law.

“My mentor offered me inside knowledge, and she demystified the process of applying to law school. Basically, she made the unknown seem obtainable.”

Now Brand works as a lawyer for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Her transition into law is complete, and even now she maintains contact with her mentor and continues to give her credit for the path she has embarked on.

“My mentor definitely molded my career path, there’s no doubt about that,” says Brand.

“Before I met her, I didn’t even know what area of law I wanted to work in. She’s played a very significant role in my life.”

The main focus of the program is the students, but its benefits are also felt by the volunteers who serve as mentors. Marian Jacko, who serves as counsel with the Office of the Children’s Lawyer in Toronto and is of Ojibway descent, signed on as a mentor with the program almost 10 years ago. Although she no longer mentors, she still has fond memories of the program and the student whom she worked with.

“To this day, I think about her on a regular basis. I still reflect back on getting to know her as a person and learning about her life experiences,” says Jacko.

“Getting to know the person you’re mentoring and helping to guide them is definitely the most rewarding part of this program.”

Having grown up on a Manitoulin Island reserve, Jacko was unprepared for city life when she moved to Toronto as a single parent of a three-year-old child. Looking back, she says having a mentor to guide her through difficult, uncertain times would have been very helpful.

“In my case, coming to Toronto after having lived up north my whole life was hard — everything seemed foreign to me. Having somebody around to talk to, someone who would have been able to provide guidance, would have been very helpful. When I took part in the program, I was glad to give someone that opportunity,” she says.

Click here for more information on this program, and other equity and diversity initiatives offered by the LSUC.

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