Cornell Wright, Partner and Co-Head of the M&A corporate practice at the Canadian law firm Torys, wanted to be a lawyer as far back as he can remember. It was the law’s critical role in advancing society that inspired him as a teen. And he knew his path after he saw Nelson Mandela speak in Toronto, shortly after Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa.
As the son of Jamaican immigrants, Wright’s parents set early the expectation that he should be fully engaged in whatever community he joined. He cites this mindset as a key ingredient to his success. Whether it was being a leader in student government during his high school and undergraduate years, working in public education as a young adult, or pursuing opportunities during his career at Torys, Wright says he has always been fully engaged and active. “I have always felt completely included — by my colleagues, by clients and within the Toronto Bay Street business community generally,” he says.
After choosing to pursue a joint JD/MBA degree at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, Wright began practicing corporate law as a natural next step. It was through the JD/MBA program that he discovered his fascination with business transactions and complex corporate issues. Now, Wright puts his corporate expertise to work supporting his public-spirited interests. He is the Chair of the National Ballet of Canada and serves on the board of the largest academic research hospital in Canada.
Despite his success, this isn’t exactly the way Wright imagined his career playing out. Growing up, he envisioned himself as a public figure or advocating for social change like his idols, Nelson Mandela or Thurgood Marshall.
Before choosing corporate law, Wright worked in the public education system on issues of student achievement and equity. “I realized at some point in my life that I wasn’t going to find a single job that fulfilled every need and objective I had,” he says, adding that he tries to pass this realization on to law students of color, many of whom are attracted to the law because of their social ideals.
Indeed, as a senior lawyer of color, Wright mentors many law students who come to him seeking guidance. He strongly encourages them to consider a career as a corporate attorney, noting the under-representation of lawyers of color in corporate practices and the ability of corporate lawyers to have an impact on their communities in different ways.
Four Pieces of Advice for Future Lawyers
Wright also had some advice for young students considering a career in law, including:
Invest Fully in the Law School Experience and Be Careful of Working Off-Campus — If Wright could impart one piece of guidance that he himself didn’t follow, it would be avoid working too much off-campus in law school in order to defray costs. “There’s a cost to working outside of school,” Wright explains. “You simply have fewer hours available to engage, and you put yourself at a disadvantage by not being 100% committed to your legal education and law school experience.” In his view, the rewards, both academic and otherwise, go to people who are the most engaged and who are most able to make meaningful connections in the full participation of life on campus. “It is a full-on commitment, and people sometimes underestimate what’s involved.”
Don’t Limit Yourself — Wright also encourages lawyers of color to fully leverage the opportunities they have. His parents instilled this mindset in him because they moved from Jamaica to Canada for a better life for their family, he says. “You have to be open to pursuing new opportunities and consciously stretch beyond your comfort zone,” he advises. Wright says he understands that many students are reluctant to network in organizations and circles that are less diverse. “But to me, if it is an organization or network that matters, that’s precisely why you ought to go.”
Go for the Joint JD/MBA Degree — This is the most important piece of advice he gives to future attorneys of color, Wright says. “The joint degree in law and business is a way to super-charge your career,” he stresses. “It is particularly beneficial to those from historically under-represented groups, because it distinguishes you and gives you a real advantage in terms of your skillset, credentials, and network.”
Invest in Relationships — When advising students, Wright says he underscores the importance of cultivating relationships — all relationships. In fact, he says he would have prioritized building relationships earlier in his career, if he had the chance to give advice to his younger self. “In my earliest years, I put my head down and worked and didn’t fully appreciate the benefits of cultivating relationships. I learned that later,” he adds. “Looking back, I would have turned the dial more in that direction earlier rather than assuming that doing good work would naturally lead to relationships.”