Kelsey Sibanda sat down with Paul Davis, partner at McMillan LLP, to discuss Mr. Davis’ journey through law school and advice for students that are interested in pursuing a successful career in corporate law.
Q. Please introduce yourself by telling us a little about your law school and career journey and any fun facts.
I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. Notwithstanding, there were no lawyers in my extended family. I attended two years of university, and then applied to law school and decided to attend U of T which is a great law school and it opened numerous opportunities for me. I then summered and articled at Davies Ward, and then became an associate equity partner there. I truly enjoyed my time there, and I loved the work.
As my wife and I began to have children (we had three children before the oldest was four years old), I started to look for a better work life balance. I dabbled in investment banking and merchant banking, and then became a senior officer of a TSX listed public company. I immensely enjoyed the experience of being on the “other side of the fence”. However, the company had financial difficulties, and that led us to sell all of our divisions across North America. Consequently, I returned to private practice almost 12 ago when I joined McMillan LLP. At McMillan, I focused on public company M&A transactions and proxy fights. At McMillan, I also have management responsibility. I’m the Chair of the board of partners, and the leader of our national capital markets.
In terms of fun facts, my current favorite hobby is making premium ice creams from scratch! I’ve mastered ru and raisin, chocolate oreo, chocolate brownie, and cherry vanilla! I’m still dabbling! I also live on 22 acres in a truly rural setting outside the city of Toronto.
Q. Is there anything that you would have done differently in your journey throughout law school that you feel would have better prepared you for the practice of law?
A. The one thing I’ve learned the older I get is that relationships are important, and should be fostered. When I was younger, I was very focused on getting out of law school, and getting a job to escape poverty. I really wasn’t thinking much about relationship building. Building relationships are important if you wish to be a successful lawyer. It still surprises me how late in life I learned this! Thank goodness it wasn’t too late.
Q. Previously as a law student, and then in your career as a lawyer, did you encounter racism? If so, what would you advise to current students and lawyers if they encounter racism at school or in the work environment?
A. It’s funny I always get asked this question. Any black lawyer with practice as long as I have has encountered racism, directly or through unconscious bias. I certainly saw it more frequently as a young lawyer than I do now. When I first started practicing, there were lots of in-person meetings. As a business lawyer, I had to close up transactions, and that always took place in person so that parties to a transaction would manually sign documents and exchange them at the closing around a boardroom table. In my first two years of practice, whenever I went to another office without a colleague of mine, before I could open my mouth and let the receptionist know why I was there, I’d be directed to the courier desk. Ignoring my attire, the receptionist obviously assumed I was there to deliver a package.
The advice that my parents have passed on to me is the same advice I pass on to my children: “do not let other people define you”. Whatever assumptions people make about you is their problem. We are all individuals, and if we are to be judged, it should at least be for what we do and say. I think it is critically important to believe in yourself. Looking for meaning or worth from others is futile and often can be a self defeating exercise. It’s no excuse. I’m not trying to excuse the poor behavior, especially in this day and age where it's a far better environment to deal with it and address it,but you shouldn’t let it impact what you think of yourself, and how you progress through your career and your life.
Q. You were called to the bar in 1988, and have practiced for over three decades. What are some career milestones that you are most proud of? What advice do you have for black students seeking to have a long lasting career in private practice?
A. If I were to focus on two, it would be becoming an equity partner on a Bay street firm at 30 years old, now leading Mcmillan’s capital markets and M&A practice which is personally important to me, and sort of how I can assist other lawyers to be successful and mentor others with respect to advice for those who want a long career in private practice.
For those who want a long career in private practice, it is critically important to find passion in the work you do. Otherwise, I’m not certain as to how you can sustain a long career in private practice which as you know has long hours, and working just for money has to be difficult in the long term.
You clearly have to work very hard to be successful. It’s important to remember that some things are just more important than work as you go through certain stages of your life. In some stages you just might not be able to work as many hours as at other stages. So, it is important that you find a firm like Mcmillan that can make accommodations for the different stages and the different issues that you encounter. Particularly, if you think about a legal career as being 20-30 years.
Finally, I don’t think I have met a successful lawyer who does not have a strong mentor. I think it is incumbent on young lawyers and articling students, and even students in law school now, with all that is available to you to seek mentors, and not wait for them to fall in your lap. Some firms like ours will help you, but it doesn’t matter. It is ultimately up to you in defining moving forward in your own path to find mentors who can help you along the way.
Q. What would you suggest as to how students can go about finding mentors?
A. There are formal programs that I know of at U of T since I am an alumni including: the alumni mentor program and the black future lawyers for undergraduate students. But honestly, it may simply be looking for lawyers at events that lawyers go to, or simply just phone lawyers. I think black lawyers in particular are often more than willing to help black students, so just cold call them. Sometimes you get people on the wrong day and they are just really busy, but you can always follow up with an email and try others until you connect. If you get a mentor and start a mentor relationship and it doesn’t work, then move on. Mentorship is not just about finding anybody. It is about where you believe there is some sort of connection.
Q. What do you consider the most rewarding part about practicing private law?
A. Although you work long hours, you have freedom and flexibility around how you work, particularly as you become more senior.
Also, in a law firm, there are many things that you can do outside of the academic practice of law. You can mentor, you can assist in recruiting, you can write academic articles, you can do research, help with business development with clients and prospective clients.
Private practice can provide you with a fairly good standard of living. It can also provide you with a platform that you can use to help others in various ways including mentoring the next group of legal professionals.
Q. I’d love to give you the final word to say anything to those listening, particular students. The floor is yours to speak directly to them, whether that means giving advice or highlighting a quote.
A. I’ll admit that I am an optimist. I believe this a unique period in history for black Canadians in corporate Canada, and halls of power are more open to us now than ever before. You should seize the opportunities that are presented.
There can be no doubt that there remains real barriers to success for black professionals, but we need to be resilient and optimistic.
Hard work, integrity, intellect, and resilience will take you a long way. I also hope that black students aspire to go to Bay Street and assume a prominent role in the halls of power. That is one of the ways that we will end bias. As I said, you know that I am an optimist.