Young lawyer with strong litigation practice elected Bencher
June 4, 2019
The last Law Society of Ontario (LSO) governing board members slate didn’t include a Bencher called to the Bar in the last decade. In fact, 75 per cent of the members were called in the 1980s.
That changed in the April 30 election with the appointment of two young lawyers, one being 31-year-old Atrisha Lewis.
Elected for four-year terms, Benchers meet regularly to formulate policy on matters related to the provision of legal services and the governance of the legal professions. They also participate on Law Society committees and may be appointed to the Law Society Tribunal to hear conduct, capacity and competence proceedings.
Bringing the perspective of recent calls to Convocation was Lewis’ inspiration to run for the position.
“Good governance requires a diversity of perspectives which must include that from more recent calls,” said the McCarthy Tetrault LLP. senior associate who was called to the Bar in 2013. “Convocation reflects the demographics of the profession and that had to change.”
Rarely does a large law firm endorse an associate’s candidacy for Bencher.
McCarthy Tetrault bucked the trend.
“Traditionally, candidates put forward by large firms tend to be very senior, usually men from the profession,” Lewis pointed out. “It is actually pretty cool for my firm to get behind someone so junior who was really trying to challenge a bunch of paradigms about what it meant to be a Bencher for the Law Society. Leadership starts from the top and that is evident at McCarthy Tetrault where we have a Chief Executive Officer who is very progressive. Changing the culture and having the firm being reflective more broadly of Toronto which, I think, is different than many other Bay St. firms frankly, are things we take seriously.
“We have a national inclusion leader who reports directly to senior management which is unique. There’s definitely commitment from the top. For me, it’s clear that you only become good at your job because you have people who are investing in you, correcting you when you make mistakes, giving you a chance and teaching you. I am so lucky that I found people who have taken me under their wings and let me grow into the lawyer that I am.”
McCarthy Tetrault CEO Dave Leonard was thrilled to put forward Lewis’ name as a candidate.
“She has been a leader within our organization and she has built a strong litigation practice here in just six years, representing an impressive portfolio of clients before all levels of the court in Ontario, the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal,” he said. “She is generous with her time, mentoring internally and externally. She’s also a stalwart advocate for increased diversity and inclusion, not only within our firm, but within our profession. I believe Atrisha will bring a new generational voice to the Law Society and we at McCarthy Tetrault are proud to support her as she leads our profession into the future.”
LSO treasurer Malcolm Mercer said Lewis represents the future of the legal profession.
“Her perspective and voice will be valuable in Convocation,” he said. “I have personally benefitted from discussions with Atrisha on a variety of topics, including diversity and inclusion…Moving forward requires difficult and honest discussions. Her eloquent, courageous, vulnerable and constructive voice will contribute to those discussions.”
Early last year, Lewis penned an article talking about her experience as one of the few racialized lawyers on Bay St.
She said it was motivated mainly by an essay another young lawyer -- Hadiya Roderique –wrote in the Globe & Mail describing the barriers and isolation she faced as a Black woman interviewing for Bay St. firms and working for one of them.
“Hadiya’s piece made it okay to talk about race,” Lewis said. “I was also feeling very frustrated in particular as a woman and racialized lawyer because there’s lots of discourse about gender throughout the profession. I felt so left behind. It was like if there is this huge piece of my identity that no one is talking about. When Hadiya’s article was published, it was like I could finally breathe. That article, in my mind, was a game-changer. It gave me the comfort and space to do my own.”
There was another reason for Lewis writing the article.
In November 2017, Donald Kirkpatrick — a lawyer practicing in London — wrote a response to the Law Society of Ontario effort targeting systemic racism in the legal profession.
“It’s an extraordinary claim to allege that racism is ‘systemic’ in the legal professions in the province,” he wrote. “It is also an insult…It seems counterproductive for minority lawyers in Ontario to form special organizations based on their colour or ethnic origin. Racialized lawyers cannot complain they are not treated equally at the same time as they form groups composed exclusively of racialized lawyers from their own particular race, ethnic group or culture.”
Lewis was stunned by the remarks.
“I couldn’t believe what this guy was saying,” the commercial litigator noted. “The article I wrote was also a direct response to what he had to say. When the Law Society asks all lawyers to take a moment and reflect on diversity and inclusion, it is because we are not as diverse and inclusive as we need to be. How many times have you encountered a senior woman of colour opposite you on your cases? Obviously, there are not satisfactory levels of diversity in various enclaves of the legal profession.”
Lewis is a member of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers and the Black Female Lawyers Network.
“These groups are not counter-productive or exclusionary,” she said in her article. “I embrace these groups because I am trying to seek out people who look like me. If I did not actively participate in these groups, I may never encounter a female of colour in a professional capacity.”
The older of two sisters, Lewis and her family migrated from the Seychelles which is an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean. They lived in Montreal for about six years until 1994 before settling in Ottawa.
At a young age, the former Central Neighbourhood House director knew Law was going to be her profession.
“I was about seven at the time and I gravitated to public speaking competitions back then,” Lewis said. “For me, Law is a calling because I have been steadfast in my desire to be a lawyer and I have never wavered from that.”
Two years ago, a McCarthy Tetrault partner encouraged Lewis to apply to the free year-long DiverseCity Fellow program that exposes participants to important regional issues, provides opportunities for personal leadership development and helps them develop a strong network of civic-minded peers across sectors. It also provides access to the region’s top influencers and a unique platform for community-focused action.
As a 2018 cohort, she was among 25 emerging leaders poised to take action on issues critical to the health and prosperity of Toronto.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences I have had,” said Lewis who has lectured on motions advocacy for the last four years at the University of Toronto. “What I found that was very helpful for me was the ability to meet diverse people. It was also an opportunity to connect meaningfully with people and become good friends with some of them.”
As part of the program, Fellows are matched with a senior and experienced city-builder. The mentoring relationship helps the Fellows achieve their personal development goals, develop their aptitude for collective leadership and build new relationships among civic leaders in our region.
Whitby Member of Parliament Celina Caesar-Chavannes was Lewis’ mentor.
“After reading Atrisha’s biography, I thought she could be my mentor,” said the former Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “I asked her if she was sure she needed me. With all of her accomplishments, she was very humble and she wanted to learn from me what it was like to run a successful political campaign. She is a fantastic young lady and there was no doubt in my mind she would become a Bencher within the first 10 years of being called to the Bar.”
The 2018 CivicAction cohort included Beaches-East York Councillor Brad Bradford.
“Working together, it became clear that Atrisha is thoughtful, pragmatic and an inclusive leader,” he said. “She’s a force for good in Toronto and we need more people like her in leadership positions.”
While at McGill University where she graduated with great distinction in 2009 with a Bachelor of Commerce, Lewis represented the Montreal University at international case competitions in Copenhagen and Hong Kong.
She completed her Juris Doctor degree with honours in 2012 at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and was the recipient of the Dean’s Key in her graduating year, the Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award and the Borden Ladner Gervais LLP Professional Excellence Award.
Last year, Lewis -- whose caseload in her first five years has ranged from medical malpractice to patent litigation -- was honoured with a Precedent Setter Award that recognizes Toronto lawyers who have shown excellence and leadership in their early years of practice, and an Arbor Award for outstanding volunteerism.
She has a long commitment to pro bono legal work, having being the lead counsel for a criminal appeal at the Ontario Court of Appeal and counsel on six different summary conviction offence mandates where she successfully resolved charges on favourable terms for clients or successfully defended them at trial. She has also acted as counsel to individuals seeking refugee asylum.
In her spare time, Lewis enjoys CrossFit which is branded fitness regimen and hanging out with her partner and friends.