From left to right: U of T law students and alumni Rebecca Barclay Nguinambaye, Novalee Davy, Solomon McKenzie, and Marie Kiluu-Ngila. COURTESY OF FACULTY OF LAW

“Black Future Lawyers should be a springboard for Black success and increase the confidence of Black undergraduates to pursue a career in Law,” Rebecca Barclay Nguinambaye told The Varsity.

Nguinambaye is a law student and the president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) U of T, which has been instrumental in the launch of the new Black Future Lawyers (BFL) program.

The program aims to support and increase the number of Black undergraduate students who are able to enter U of T’s law school and ultimately join the legal profession. In doing so, it hopes to tackle Black underrepresentation in the field.

BFL offers a wide range of opportunities for aspiring Black law students, including mentoring and job shadowing with Black legal professionals; lunches and exclusive workshops; lectures at the faculty; information sessions about accessing law school; and an annual BFL conference.

In the 2021 U of T Law application cycle, BFL will also inaugurate its Black Student Application Process (BSAP). Black-identifying applicants, both domestic and international, may choose to apply to U of T Law through this stream.

BFL is funded by an outreach grant from the Provost’s Office, the Access Program University Fund, with in-kind support from the faculty. The faculty describes the program as a “collaboration between UofT Law, our Black Law Students Association, members of our Black alumni community, and the broader legal profession.”

Tackling underrepresentation

Dean and James M. Tory Professor of Law at the Faculty of Law, Edward Iacobucci announced the launch of BFL in a press release on November 25.

However, Nguinambaye explained to The Varsity that BFL has been in the making for two years. “In late 2017, BLSA communicated with Black Alumni to prompt an alumni letter to the Faculty requesting action on the under representation of Black students at the law school,” she wrote. “The faculty was very responsive.”

According to the faculty’s own data on its first-year class profile, only one per cent of students, at most, identified as Black in the cohorts of each of the last five years. This sharply contrasts with the wider city’s demographics — according to Canada’s 2016 census, nine per cent of Torontonians identify as Black.

Nguinambaye noted that by late 2017, the Faculty of Medicine had already launched its own BSAP, which aims to make the application process more inclusive and increase Black representation at the faculty. This informed discussions between the faculty, the BLSA, and alumni, and  informed their decision to establish a similar program for U of T Law.

Assistant Dean, JD Program Alexis Archbold detailed the goals of the program in an email to The Varsity.

“The Faculty of Law believes that legal education should be accessible to talented students from all parts of Canadian society,” she noted. “True access to justice in Canada cannot be achieved unless the legal profession represents the diversity of Canadian society.”

Accordingly, BFL strives to reduce barriers that underrepresented parts of the population, such as Black people, may experience in accessing legal education and employment.

“We know that the stories, challenges, and wisdom that [come] from different communities can only come out through individuals who embody those experiences,” Nguinambaye added. “To maintain the legitimacy of the law, it is important to prove that law is accessible to all and there are no [identity-based] barriers.”

A collaborative process

The BLSA at U of T Law is part of the national BLSA network, which was created in 1991 to tackle barriers that Black people in law school and the legal profession face. The organization’s purpose, noted Nguinambaye, is to “celebrate Blackness and nurture community at the law school,” especially through outreach.

According to Nguinambaye, the plans for the program had been laid out by early 2019, and it hosted its first BFL conference in March. The annual conference is open to Black undergraduate students from all universities, and serves to inform them about pathways to accessing law school and becoming lawyers.

Archbold stressed the collaborative process of BFL. She described the program as “deeply informed by the experiences and input” of Black law students, alumni, and undergraduates at U of T, especially through the work of the BFL Working Group. “It has been a democratic process where everyone’s views [are] heard and respected,” affirmed Nguinambaye.

The next major BFL event will be held on February 29, when the law school will host its second BFL conference with the help of the BLSA and Black alumni. Black undergraduate students are able to register online for free until February 24.

“We want to see community created by the many Black undergraduate students joining as BFL members and Black legal professionals joining as volunteers and mentors,” Nguinambaye noted on expectations for the program.

She added that she hopes that the BFL will serve as an outreach model for other law schools.

The Black Student Application Process

The Faculty of Medicine’s Communities of Support initiative, which provides support and mentorship to underrepresented students, and the BSAP together served as a model for BFL.

There is evidence of the model’s success. In the fall of 2018, the Faculty of Medicine’s first BSAP cohort included 14 Black students. Just two years prior, there was only one Black student in the first-year class, reflecting how Black medical students and professionals tend to be underrepresented relative to the Black population in the GTA and Ontario.

With its own BSAP, the Faculty of Law hopes to “break down some of the barriers and perceptions that might prevent Black students from applying to, and accepting offers from, UofT Law.”

Similar to that of the Faculty of Medicine, the Faculty of Law’s BSAP applicants will be reviewed by members of the Black legal community. According to Iacobucci’s news release, students who apply through the BSAP will receive assistance throughout their application process, and their applications will be reviewed “by at least three staff, students, and alumni who identify with the Black community.” 

BSAP seeks to tackle the challenges that Black students face in accessing U of T Law. Notably, there is no admission quota designated to BSAP applicants, and the BSAP will not disadvantage non-Black applicants. All applicants, regardless of whether they apply through the general stream or the BSAP, will be assessed by the same standards. Rather, BSAP will take into consideration the applicant’s holistic experiences, which is  exemplified by the requirement of a personal essay from students to explain why they are applying to BSAP.

Building community: past efforts, future prospects

BFL follows existing outreach efforts at U of T Law to engage with students from Black and other underrepresented communities on accessing law school and the legal profession.

For undergraduate students, aside from the upcoming BSAP, the faculty also provides special mentorship, networking, and programming opportunities, such as the annual BFL conference.

For Black students who attend U of T Law, the BLSA works to provide programming, mentorship, and social and networking opportunities.

At a high school level of outreach, there is the See Yourself Here initiative, which was launched by the BLSA in 2008; the Law in Action Within Schools program, which was launched by the faculty in 2005; and the faculty’s partnership with Leadership by Design, which is specifically for Black high school students, and continues to support them during their undergraduate career.

“We are proud of these initiatives, but we know that there is a lot of work to be done, and that work is continuous and ongoing,” noted Archbold.

On this question of what can be further achieved at U of T Law for Black students, Nguinambaye listed opportunities for touring law firms, internships, academic advising,  and financial assistance, which disproportionately concerns underrepresented communities, including Black folks.

Nguinambaye also called on non-Black members of the U of T legal community to support the BFL. “We have and will increase opportunities for non-Black-identifying students, faculty, lawyers and other professionals to be involved with BFL and welcome the support of the larger community,” she added.

“BFL is for Black students, but requires the commitment and encouragement of many to be successful!”

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