The world lost a potentially great mechanic when Frank Walwyn let it slip – after his high school valedictory speech – that he had not applied to go to university. The school principal blasted his parents. The teenager somehow hadn’t got around to telling them. He was a happy mechanic.
But after his parents pushed him to stay in school, Bay Street gained a corporate lawyer.
And not just any corporate lawyer. One of the few black law partners on Bay Street. And the first in the 155-year history of WeirFoulds LLP. In fact, the first black associate – staff lawyer – in said history.
From that privileged position, Mr. Walwyn has seen inside the engine of any number of mysterious and powerful vehicles: global business; the process for selecting judges in Canada; and, of course, Bay Street itself.
“I ended up in a firm – one of the oldest firms in the country – which had no experience with black lawyers before,” he tells me in our booth at Nami, a Japanese spot in downtown Toronto. “And all I got was acceptance and very, very good training. Great mentorship.”
His is not an everyday experience, he says. He has heard the stories of black lawyers in other firms who have lacked opportunities to interact with clients, to learn the client’s business – “which is fundamental to building your own book of business.” And he has corroborated some of these stories to his own satisfaction.
“You see it happening,” he says. “There’s an isolation, a loneliness that can happen in these Bay Street firms when you’re not like the rest of the people. That alone can drive you out of the firm. But I have always considered myself blessed.”
He orders a plate of grilled salmon and chicken skewers. At 6-foot-2 and 163 pounds, he looks lean and fit in his dark blue suit. But looks deceive. “The mistake we make is thinking because we’re slim we’re healthy. That is so not the case.” He won’t tell me his age. “We had this conversation before. There’s a pool at my firm to figure out how old I am. Thank God for HR laws.” (He’s in his early 50s; an online profile in Canadian Immigrant reported that he came to Canada in 1974 and entered Grade 6.)
It has been a year since I’ve seen him. I had cold-called him as I researched the appointment of federal judges; he’s on a federal screening committee. For that matter, he’s also on a provincial screening committee for judges, perhaps the only person in the country on both. (“Why you?” I’d asked him. “Cynically, I’m black,” he’d replied. Less cynically, “I see things through a lens which I think adds to the strength of the committee process.”)
He is perpetually on the road. The night before, he flew in from Tel Aviv. His clients are in Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Belize, Britain, China, Taiwan. And of course, Canada and the United States. His work is multijurisdictional – a single case may involve several countries.
“You’ll never understand what’s at play globally when you litigate just regionally,” he says.
He does much of his work in Caribbean tax havens – now called “international financial centres,” or IFCs. Not only to save tax but to protect assets or preserve confidentiality (say, between companies in China and Taiwan that are not supposed to do business together), or to find a common-law jurisdiction whose justice system they trust (for instance, when dealing with a company in Russia or China), corporations in developed countries flow money through IFCs.
“Say you have a group of people who live in London,” he says, describing a file with the country names changed to protect confidentiality. “Five of them decide they’re going to look for oil in Trinidad;” they hire Alberta companies to run the entity; they set up an operating company in the British Virgin Islands, or Nevis; and they raise money in London but hold on to the decision-making shares.
“Well look, when that fight starts [among shareholders], do you litigate in the jurisdiction in which your client’s company is incorporated or do you go to where the target shareholder company is incorporated? And then you’re suing an entity that’s in Trinidad. So do you sue in Trinidad? Then the minority shareholders in London decide they want to get involved. Do they start an action in London or do they come down to Trinidad or go to any of the smaller jurisdictions?”
“I’m getting a headache just thinking about it,” I reply. “How many days are you on the road?”
“I hope OHIP isn’t listening to this conversation.”
“OHIP doesn’t read The Globe and Mail.”
“To this date this year, I’ve spent more days out of Canada than in Canada.”
He loves what he does.
“What is absolutely interesting, what will wake you up early in the morning and send you to bed late at night, is getting to understand a client’s business and figuring out a way to either resolve [a dispute] before trial or win that trial. That’s fun. That’s good fun.”
But he has paid a high price for all that fun.
“I don’t have a life.” He blames not just work but “a unique situation where I’m a minority who can give back, offer assistance.” One of the ways he has given back is by being part of the committees that screen judges. The federal committee does not actually meet the would-be judges, does not interview them; the provincial one does. As a result, while he says he is “comfortable” with the quality of judges recommended by the federal committee, he is “very, very comfortable” with the provincial ones.
But why does the federal government appoint so few black judges? Justice Minister Peter MacKay says it receives few visible-minority applicants. Could he be right?
“There aren’t a lot of applicants,” he replies, “and the reality is there aren’t a lot of black lawyers to apply. The supply issue is very obvious in this whole process. You aren’t getting the applicants coming out of law school. You aren’t getting them in practices that are successful. When I say successful, I mean that people can afford to live, to excel at what they do as opposed to eking out an existence at legal aid rates somewhere. If you don’t get people trained properly in thriving practices who have a wider experience in law, you won’t have the applicants.”
I phoned Michael Statham, WeirFoulds’s managing director, and asked him why the firm had no black lawyers until Mr. Walwyn. “I’m not sure I can give you an answer,” he replied. (Funny, I can’t remember the last time a lawyer was at a loss for answers.)
Mr. Statham was unrestrained, however, in his admiration for Mr. Walwyn. “Frank is the foundation of the firm. He was an exemplary mentor to me. He has infectious enthusiasm for the practice of law, and the ability to make us all realize that we are fortunate to do what we do. His analytical mind for litigation is second to none. He is the guy in our litigation practice that people go to for strategic advice, for a shoulder to lean on, to bounce off substantive professional-ethical questions.”
Mr. Walwyn was one of seven siblings born to two university graduates from St. Kitts and Nevis. They came to Canada because it would have been too expensive to send all seven offshore to university. His parents were rejected for teaching jobs – no “Canadian experience.” Instead, they held multiple jobs at once, found factory jobs with benefits. At school, he was teased about his hair, his clothes, how he spoke.
“As a kid the nigger word was thrown around a lot.”
He got into fights. “I did. My family did. We all did.”
I ask him what his parents think of his success. His father died a few years back, and he doesn’t see his mother as often as he would like.
“My poor mom. She never sees me.”
He tells young people when he gives lectures that it is possible to make it on Bay Street, and very satisfying – but a sacrifice. “I always tell them, if they’re downtown on a Friday or Saturday night, have your parents or friends drive by the towers on Bay Street. Look at the taxis outside waiting for professionals in those towers. When you drive by and you see 20 or 30 cabs lined up at 1 or 2 in the morning, there’s a reason for that. You’ve got to be good to be on Bay Street.”
His competition is the “silks” in London – senior lawyers who have taken on the silk robes of Queen’s Counsel. “Staying on Bay Street and doing regional work, that day and age is gone. If there is a message I take back to the law schools, it’s ‘you’ve got to look beyond your borders. When you think about legal issues and principles, think about applying them globally. Because that’s the future.’ ”
He has brought the same assiduous work ethic to his meal as he does to his law practice; the chicken and salmon are gone. He still has the energy for a closing cri de coeur: “This insanity where you are restricting the access of your diverse populations to higher levels is doing Canada and business a disservice. Because those are the people who understand the different cultures. Who you can send out with this product, be it education, be it a widget that you make, and market it and build on it. If we don’t take advantage of that, it’s to our detriment. I can’t see how any person in a position of power cannot recognize that now.”
Frank Walwyn, partner, WeirFoulds LLP
Age: He won’t tell anyone
Place of birth: Greenlands, Basseterre, St Kitts.
Education: Queen’s University law degree, 1993; University of Toronto bachelor of arts, 1987; Ryerson University, certificate of business administration, 1989; Eugene Dupuch Law School, certificate of legal education, Nassau, 2000
Member of the bars of: Ontario (1995), Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Dominica, Grenada and St. Kitts and Nevis
Affiliations: Past president, Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (his sister, Donna Walwyn, is current president)
Awards: Named to Best Lawyers in Canada (2016, 2013, 2012) for corporate-commercial litigation; 2013 Lincoln Alexander Award (Law Society of Upper Canada); Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award (2012)
Practice areas: Litigation; anti-corruption, anti-money laundering, regulatory compliance.
Case example (from company website): “Retained to seek the discharge in Nevis of a worldwide freezing order made by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court affecting the assets of an Israeli law firm, a U.K. trust company and a Nevis trust company. The discharge application was successful and the retainer extended to defend the main action.”
Quote: “I had no idea when I finished law school what Bay Street lawyers did. It’s only when you get into the firms that you have a sense of it. Nor do you have a sense of the commitment that’s required to be successful on Bay Street. It requires a dedication – it sounds trite to call it ‘pursuit of excellence,’ but that’s precisely what is expected of you in the firms.”
Book you’re currently reading: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. (For the past six months, whenever the “stow laptops” warning comes on during takeoff and landing.)
Favourite vacation spot: St. Kitts
Preferred mode of transport: Train in Europe and Asia, car in the U.S., subway in Toronto. UBER everywhere.
Who would you like to have lunch with: Barack Obama. I have some questions …
How do you wake up in the morning: Grateful
Favourite TV show: NCSI
Favourite type of music: Eclectic. Rediscovering my appreciation for country and gospel.
Favourite sport/activity (to watch or play): None. I tolerate college and NBA basketball.
Hobbies: Reading novels. Sadly, less and less frequently.
Favourite cuisine: West Indian.
Guilty pleasure: Fast cars.