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standing in the legal world. “Statistically, Black lawyers are often either sole practitioners or employed in government,” she says, meaning most attendees weren’t hired by private practices (and so wouldn’t be working on Remembrance Day).
“What began as a gathering at my home turned into a safe place to have discussions and celebrate our victories,” says Dwyer. Together, the women addressed the unique challenges they face in white-dominated spaces—everything from people touching their hair to walking into court and being mistaken for the stenographer.
That day’s meeting left Dwyer and her peers craving more. “Soon, women were contacting me and asking when we could do it again,” she says. In response, she founded the Black Female Lawyers Network that same year and turned the informal meet-up into an annual retreat and fundraiser for Black and Indigenous law students.
Currently in its 11th year, the gathering, now called Sistahs-in-Law, hosts more than 100 attendees who are committed to the advancement of Black women. “We want to amplify the voices of Black female lawyers,” says Dwyer. “We want to advocate for an inclusive profession.” To that end, at each edition, 10 Ontario highschool students (“Little Sistahs”) from underprivileged backgrounds are paired with “Big Sistahs” to receive mentorship.
According to Shaneka Shaw
Taylor, a 34-year-old civil litigator and the vice-president and treasurer of the Black Female Lawyers Network, Dwyer’s efforts have helped change lives. “When I started out in the profession, before I even got a job, I reached out to her,” says Taylor. “Ever since, Denise has been the first person I call when I have an issue.”
Taylor maintains that Dwyer’s impact stretches beyond the legal field: “She empowers young girls and women to excel in all their endeavours, providing connections and opportunities for her mentees to become involved in community initiatives,” she says.
Reflecting not only on the future of Sistahs-in-Law but of Canada at large, Dwyer believes further change is imperative. “We have census data that tells us we are a highly diverse society,” she says, pointing to cities such as Markham, Ont., where more than 70 per cent of residents are people of colour. But she notes that professional fields, such as law and medicine, aren’t mirroring those statistics. The Black Female Lawyers Network is about fostering progress within an industry that has remained static, despite a changing demographic. Each year the organization grows, it moves a few steps closer to that goal.