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Advocating for diversity in-house

New president of SABA Toronto uses position to push for diversity internally and with external providers.
|Written By Alexia Kapralos
Advocating for diversity in-house
Photo by Alexia Kapralos

As the director, legal counsel for Choice Properties REIT in Toronto, 33-year-old commercial real estate lawyer Jennifer Asnani juggles her in-house role with her duties as the president of the South Asian Bar Association of Toronto — all while striving to promote diversity and mentorship opportunities in the legal profession.

Recently, Asnani has been part of some major projects including the $6-billion acquisition of Canadian Real Estate Investment Trust, one of Canada’s oldest REITs, as well as the commercial-residential project under development at the corner of Bloor and Dundas Streets in Toronto.  

“You get to be this global thinker,” she says. “I have a legal issue that might hit my desk and I’m problem solving on this legal issue, but I’m really thinking down the road with what it is going to mean for the operations team or what it is going to mean for senior management.”

Her day-to-day work at Choice Properties REIT focuses on development acquisitions, but it’s not solely comprised of legal tasks. Asnani says a vast portion of her day is spent making business decisions and relaying these back to senior management — a joint role, marrying business and law, that she embraces. 

The legal department at Choice Properties REIT is small but mighty. Adam Walsh, general counsel for Choice, leads the department, to whom Asnani and another lawyer (currently on maternity leave) report. There are also two law clerks and a support staff member. Each brand owned by Loblaw Companies Limited has its own legal team, however, so there are some shared services from brand to brand that she says the department at Choice sometimes leans on. 

When Asnani attended Osgoode Hall Law School, she didn’t know what specific area of law she wanted to practise upon graduating, but she did know that she had a strong interest in the corporate world, having earned an undergraduate degree in business at Western University in London, Ont. 

After articling at Keel Cottrelle LLP in Toronto, Asnani decided that private practice wasn’t for her.  She felt she was destined for an “alternative career path” that better suited her career goals and interests in business. She says that by surrounding herself with “outstanding” mentors, she was able to figure this out with their guidance.

After her time at Keel Cottrelle, Asnani dove head first into an in-house role at Moxies Restaurants LP in Calgary. While studying in Hong Kong during her undergrad degree and in Switzerland during law school, she had gained the courage to leave Toronto and move across the country. 

“I was meeting with people and they were saying, ‘You’re too junior. You shouldn’t go in-house yet.’ But it just seemed like such an exciting opportunity that I couldn’t say no,” she says. “It’s one of those things where you jump into something like that and you have enough mentors and support along the way to help you through it, and I learned a ton.” 

As a young, female, first-generation lawyer in her family — Asnani’s parents immigrated from India with no formal education — making connections with mentors was key in supplementing the hard work she had to exert to succeed. She notes the real estate sphere is male dominated, which posed a challenge as well.

“Being the first in my family to go to law school, it is quite different from some of my peers that are well connected within the industry, so I never had that connection when I was in law school,” she says.

Today she is eight years into her career. She returned to Toronto after three years in Calgary at Moxie’s to practise in-house at Loblaw Companies Limited, eventually transitioning to where she is now, at Choice Properties REIT (which is affiliated with Loblaw Companies Limited). She uses these experiences to inform young lawyers and law students about the legal industry, often with students completing placements at Choice Properties REIT.

“I think I’ve taken a very keen interest in shaping these junior lawyers because I think it’s so important to have someone that you can actually bounce ideas off of,” Asnani says. “I come from a very different mentality having been a mentor and being in-house because I often tell the students we work with that being in-house is a very unique position.” 

Being a mentor requires leadership skills and patience, which are some skills she’s honed as the president of the South Asian Bar Association of Toronto — a role to which she was appointed in April. Previously, Asnani served as the group’s vice president. She says that these skills translate into how she moulds young legal minds and how she completes her legal duties at work.

“My take on leadership is that you’re not trained as a lawyer to be a great leader. That really isn’t a [type of] training that you have when you’re in law school and I think there’s a piece of leadership that’s innate and I think there’s another piece of it that you really have to practise and you grow into that,” she says.

Asnani initially joined SABA to expand her network of Toronto-based lawyers after she returned from Calgary. She believes it’s a great platform for celebrating South Asian lawyers, but she says it’s also instrumental in bringing the unique issues South Asian lawyers face to the Law Society of Ontario and working with additional equity-seeking groups to find solutions to these issues.

Diversity is something Asnani has always been passionate about and she works at championing it at Choice Properties REIT. Along with some colleagues who are also part of the Weston Legal Group — lawyers who work for Loblaw Companies’ brands such as Choice, Shoppers Drug Mart, Loblaws, etc. — she is part of the diversity and inclusion group.

In previous years, she played a role in planning events for the group, such as panel discussions to further the initiative of promoting diversity and inclusion. She’s recently stepped back from doing that and has focused more on the creation and advancement of the legal group’s statement of principles — a requirement set forth by the LSO.

The goal of their statement of principles is to take a pulse of the representation of women and people of colour in legal roles by examining hiring criteria, reducing unconscious bias when hiring and looking at employee retention in the long term.

Choice Properties REIT often outsources legal work to external counsel in private practice, and even then, Asnani says, they ask themselves: What are these partners doing to ensure diversity and mirror their values? This action is also part of their diversity and inclusion statement. 

She says it’s important to her that her employer is open to diversity and inclusion initiatives because it aligns with her core moral values. In fact, as a millennial generation lawyer, Asnani adds that this is a characteristic of her age group.

“We’re looking for a career that’s more in line with our DNA,” she says of her generation. “I think you really have to find a job, a career path that’s looking to move with the way your personal values are ever evolving.”

60 second snapshot

The Lawyer: Jennifer Asnani

The Company: Choice Properties REIT

  • Earned J.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School in 2009
  • Undergraduate degree from the Ivey School of Business at Western University in London, Ont.
  • Called to the Ontario Bar in 2010 and the Alberta Bar in 2011
  • Articled at Keel Cottrelle LLP in Toronto
  • Studied abroad for six months in Hong Kong during her undergrad and four months abroad in Switzerland during law school
  • Life motto is, “Trust the timing of your life.”