Pushing beyond

Julia Shin Doi had been in-house counsel for 10 years at York University when the general counsel position at Ryerson University became open. She read the job description and knew she was qualified — heck, she had known for quite a while she was ready for a general counsel job but hadn’t made the move.

She waited until the last hour of the last possible day to apply for the Ryerson GC position, certain the school wouldn’t want her for the job. Despite her accomplishments, broad experience in corporate-commercial law, and years teaching as an adjunct professor at Osgoode, she didn’t think they would hire a non-white general counsel for the position. She was encouraged to go for it and Shin Doi not only succeeded in landing the position at Ryerson, she has successfully convinced the school to let her expand the legal department.

This surprising admission and others came at the Women of Colour Corporate Counsel event I was invited to in January hosted by Norton Rose Fulbright in Toronto. The seminar and networking event was held with the goal of promoting diversity in the legal profession. The stellar panel consisted of Terrie-Lynne Devonish, chief counsel of Aon Canada, Jolie Lin, deputy general counsel and chief knowledge officer of BMO Financial Group, and Shin Doi, general counsel and secretary of the board of governors from Ryerson. The panel was moderated by Yusra Siddiquee, a partner in Norton Rose’s immigration practice.

The panellists talked about their own experiences as women of colour in the legal profession, such as the awkward position Muslim women lawyers find themselves in when invited to cocktail events with clients. Siddiquee told a story of interviewing at a firm in her second year of law school and how the interviewing partner asking her if, because she was Muslim, would she have a problem getting along with the Jewish lawyers at the firm.

Consultant Ritu Bhasin, who coaches young women lawyers in the competitive law firm environment, said it can be difficult for women lawyers from cultures that do not traditionally encourage them to assert themselves. She works with associates in large law firms who are excellent lawyers but are challenged in raising their billable-hour count because they don’t always get files other colleagues might get because they are not top of mind when partners hand out work.

The panellists encouraged audience members to seek out or offer to serve as mentors to younger women in the profession and look for opportunities where a mentor or sponsor can help gain exposure to new career opportunities.

“Recognize when opportunity knocks,” said Lin. “I took advantage of diversity programs and of being seconded to Asia. I spoke the language and it opened the next door for me.

“It often feels as women we have to work harder and as women of colour we have to work even harder,” she said. “Just do your best and eventually it won’t matter. You may ask, ‘Why should I work twice as hard?’ I think that will change over time.”

From her experience, Devonish said her best advice is to “work on yourself” — focus on developing your skills. “Be an awesome lawyer and people will forget you’re a woman of colour.” Today Shin Doi likes to consider the following question: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It’s a line borrowed from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In.

It’s a good thought for most, no matter what gender, but it seems for women and women of colour it may be one they need to consider more often.

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