Precedent Magazine has named two outstanding members of the class of 2011 as 2021 Precedent Setter Award winners. The award recognizes Toronto-based lawyers called to the bar in the past decade who have shown excellence and leadership in their early years of practice and in their community. Meet Dina Awad, BCL/LLB’11, and Cindy Kou, BCL/LLB’11.

‘Let’s get everybody at the table’: Cindy Kou breaks down barriers to legal systems

For Cindy Kou, an associate at Gowling WLG, access to law is often a proxy for access to power. Questions of access and barriers, and discomfort around, to legal systems have been top of mind since her days in Professor Rod Macdonald’s classroom. This led her to embrace legal design – the application of human-centred design to law. Kou looks to empower those who might have negative impressions or expectations of lawyers and law, in her practice and beyond.

“Law is a system of rules which purport to govern us all fairly. Who gets to decide the rules? Whose needs and comfort are prioritized?” Kou said.

In her commercial practice, Kou represents many clients in the construction and technology sectors (the combination of which is known as PropTech). Kou works on contracts, contracting processes, and legal risk management tools with a goal to make them feel intuitive to access for all users in the lifecycle of a contract.

“Sometimes lawyers draft contracts for other lawyers to use,” Kou said. “But lawyers aren’t the only users of contracts. For example, in a construction contract, there is an owner, a contractor, a payment certifier, and an architect — all these people who have to work and live with the contract more than the lawyers do. What are their needs?”

More access, comfort for all

Creating space for those who have not always been comfortable around law and lawyers goes beyond client-facing work for Kou. Since 2014, she has participated in several equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives at Gowling and with minority bar associations. In 2019, Kou began to co-host the firm’s Diversonomics podcast, which highlights various equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives across the legal industry.

“It’s important that we open up spaces for people who have not always had visibility and agency in law, or the power that accompanies it. This includes in the study of law, how and which laws are created, and how they’re enforced,” Kou said.

Although Kou found the language of legal design after graduation, she ties the principles back to an idea shared by Professor Macdonald in her student days. “He taught us that the law will always be a reflection of the values that society more or less agrees on to govern itself; it’s like a delayed mirror,” Kou summarized. “It’s supposed to govern everybody, so let’s get everybody at the table and empowered; let’s center on the users to make law more accessible and comfortable for everyone.”

‘Use your privilege for good’: Dina Awad tackles problems head-on

A guiding principle for Dina Awad, both in her legal practice at Dentons Canada and in her life outside the office, has been to use her privilege and powers to help others.

Awad is a partner at Dentons, where she launched a program in association with Pro Bono Ontario that pairs child refugees with legal professionals at her firm who volunteer to help the children navigate the legal system. Having grown up in war-torn Lebanon, Awad was inspired to launch the program after volunteering with Pro Bono Ontario.

“I loved it. I saw the amazing, immediate impacts that we can make,” Awad said.

Awad anticipates that once the COVID-19 border restrictions ease, there will be an influx of child refugees to Canada. “We’ve got people ready and trained to step in to help with those cases.”

Awad also works on student recruitment at Dentons. “Our firm has really been focused on making sure that our recruitment practices don’t privilege any type of applicants. We really seek a diverse candidate pool so that we can practice what we preach,” she said.

Promoting equity initiatives

On top of her work at Dentons, Awad was chair of the Roundtable of Diversity Associations (RODA), which brings together 21 diversity-seeking legal organizations across Ontario and Canada. RODA’s goal is to foster dialogue and promote initiatives relating to the advancement of equity, with a broader mandate to provide input on policy developments within the profession and the legal system.

During her two years as chair, Awad strove to increase RODA’s membership. Among many other things, she worked to advance equity at the Law Society of Ontario and organized an annual conference on diversity.

“We harnessed the momentum of making sure that workplaces are more diverse,” Awad said.

Awad attributes her ability to adapt to new legal systems in part to her transsystemic education at McGill Law. “I don’t really see anything as a foreign problem, or as something that’s untackle-able.” Awad approaches her legal practice in the same way; in her litigation practice she helps global clients resolve a plethora of disputes and in her regulatory practice she helps them navigate issues primarily in the health and environmental spaces.

“Don’t shy away from complex problems or tough situations. Do your best to keep an open mind, and in the end, you’ll find that you are helping people,” Awad said. “Use your privilege for good. There are always ways of giving back to the community.”