The Asian Struggle in the Law That We Never Talk About – 5 Reflections on Battling Our Upbringing

This post is inspired by a series of older conversations with my sister (in LAW) and former colleague, Krisha Dhaliwal who is starting her LLM at the University of Toronto in September.

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I’ve been involved with Asian representation in the law for awhile now. I’m been grateful to be on the front lines with organizations seeking to break through the bamboo ceiling with ambitious goals such as to see that more diverse partners are appointed and that our judiciary starts to reflect our country’s diversity. As young Asian lawyers we often get together and discuss ways in which the system holds us back by sorting and filtering us through monikers such as “firm culture” and “fit” to mentorship being so difficult for us to access.

One of the things that rarely gets talked about, that I want to raise here, is the very struggle Asian lawyers have with themselves. I figure, with all the attention being placed on Asian Representation in Hollywood, Film, etc., that now is a good time for this (rather personal) post.

With this topic, I won’t touch upon mental health issues. It is quite well understood that is is an area with a huge stigma in our community and among lawyers no-doubt magnified by a legal profession that puts even higher expectations on outwardly appearances of confidence and success. We will keep this topic for another day but that day will come.

I want to focus on our upbringings. I want to focus on the very foundations of how we were brought up as first and second-generation Asian-Canadians by our parents and how some of the values we grow up with can often clash or challenge or absorption into “mainstream” law. Yet, for many of us it is this very journey into understanding and reclaiming our own voices and identities that for inspired our careers in the law.

In writing this post I acknowledge that there are very diverse experiences of Asian parenthood, so I’ll necessarily need to generalize how I and many of my colleagues responded. Some of you may relate to some or none of what is contained in this piece. Others may have had entirely polar opposite reactions influenced by the same life lessons but in different ways.

While it may seem I’m drawing primarily negative influences in relating to these lessons from our upbringing [indeed, I call the title of this articling “Battling”], I acknowledge they are entirely double-edged. Some of our best traits  such as thoughtfulness, emotional intelligence, humility are all cut form the same thread that brings us those more challenging aspects that make being a lawyer difficult. For all of us who are Asians and lawyers (especially junior), I hope we can step back from the lens of lawyering and see how we are very blessed by our upbringing and how it made us better human beings first and foremost.

Without further ado, here we go:

Reflection from Upbringing 1: Don’t Say Something Until You Thought it Through a Million Times – Silence is Powerful

Growing up, it was engrained in me at an early age that I was not supposed to be vocal as an Asian-Canadian.  Perhaps this was the product of my own parents not having space to be vocal and being of the head down, hardwork type. The idea that “if you do not have anything to say, don’t say it at all” was very much the mantra around the house, dinner table, and definitely public interactions with other families and friends. What ended up materializing is that I became quite nervous speaking out. You may not see it as obviously today, but a very deep fear of public speaking naturally followed. For many years (in fact I would say that it has only recently subsided a little through my teaching, guest-speaking, and speech giving), even introducing my name and what I did around a roundtable would lead to sweaty palms and constant overthinking. I was used to being behind the scenes, to let others do the talking.

I remember in law school feeling constantly overwhelmed by those speaking up around me. Those that were brilliant and provided brilliant answers – prevented me from feeling confident to provide my own thoughts. I chalked up their confidence to their socioeconomic status (she’s the daughter of a Judge, or his aunt is best friends with an SCC Judge) or their intelligence (relating to my lack thereof). Those that spoke because they liked the sound of their voice or made comments that were shot down by professors I internally criticized and/or felt a sympathetic camaraderie  towards. They had violated the cardinal Asian household rule.

As a result, in law school I may have put my hands up less than 5 times in three years. I faded away, never engaged enough with my classmates on an academic level, and it is something I deeply regret to this day. Indeed, I still feel overwhelmed around brilliance yet it is so crucial to the development and growth of juniors such as myself.

Similarly on a silence perspective, I still find it challenging putting out a controversial or strong-minded opinion as opposed to harbouring it for myself or sharing it among a smaller, trustworthy circle.  I am sure that these similar feelings I hold also contributes to why we are as a larger cultural group we are not as engaged in politics or leadership as we ought to be. As a community, I find we tend to be afraid to say things and especially afraid of the consequences of saying them when viewed by others (the majority).

In a litigation context (especially in-person) this also becomes difficult. We have to do extra work to battle that voice (be it your own voice of that voice of your parents from childhood) telling you that you are wrong and that you have not thought it through.  I still write everything down more than I’d like to and find it challenging to go off script.

Reflection 2: Don’t Show Off, There Are Always Those Better/Wiser Than You

Another major lesson from my childhood was one of humility. I wasn’t a brilliant kid, so admittedly there was little to show off about, but in public I was told never to gloat over accomplishments. My parents would never publicly acknowledge that I was doing well in school or sport. Ironically, to this date, my mom still asks whether I am having a successful practice or not and tells me she has trouble pitching my services for the lack of knowing this answer.

Behind closed doors, we were always told to look at others as pillars of success and desire. The occasional kid whose parents would gloat or whose accomplishments would become public knowledge would end up being the topic of dinner-time conversation. “You need to be more like him – look at his grades. He already is doing AP. What are you doing with your life?” When it came to performance it was always about how everyone else was doing when compared to you. I believe that a large part of this mentality was generated from the roots of the homeland, where opportunities for our parents truly were mostly merit/exam-based and where failure on things such as the gaokao exams inevitably led to different and less prosperous pathways (more on failure later).

There was also very clear authority in most of our families. As children, we were of low authority. Our parents were the higher authorities. Higher still were police and government.

This indoctrinates in many of us, now as lawyers, a need for constant validation from others, especially those higher in the hierarchy. This creates in us the constant want for someone to tell us that either we are “doing well.” We also come to expect criticism and in fact criticize ourselves more than we need to. I see a lot of self-deprecating Asian lawyers – no doubt still viewing their own (already brilliant accomplishments) in the lens of their equally successfully colleagues.

Reflection 3: Failure (and Wrong Turns) are to be Avoided

The third lesson was about failure. This is one I will be sure to teach my child differently when I become a parent. I entirely understand why our parents taught us to equate failure as a negative. For them, every one of their moves from choosing to abandon their lives in their home countries, to seeking employment, to buying their first house was so calculated.  They always saw (and still see) our generation as too impulsive. There was not margin for failure or/else they had experienced that failure and wanted to shield us from it.

In my childhood, failure was most often of the academic variety. Where grades were below class average/median, it was considered a clear negative. Again, as discussed above, failure was also intertwined with the success of those around you.

I would argue that particularly for Asian law students and young lawyers – learning to fail and fail hard is a very eye-opening experience but much required experience. Starting from the graded curve in law school to the adversarial nature of litigation, failure is ultimately part and parcel the experience of lawyering, especially when you represent clients who are vulnerable.

For myself personally, I cannot think of one important practice tip or thing I believe I do well that was not influenced by something that went sideways.

Still, the competition of law – the feeling of needing to constantly be successful – in court room wins and positive news, affects the reality that a large chunk of law is addressing situations that are negatives for all parties involved and seeking understanding as opposed to a positive outcome.

This is also why I find myself particularly sensitive to the question that clients have about success rates (that anything who tells you a number is entirely making up). I almost recommend that the best way to judge a practitioner is to ask them about their greatest failure and the lessons learned from it rather than the amount of their success.

Reflection 4: You are Responsible for Everything, Don’t Burden Others With Your Problems

This one may be more of a product of the rational atheism I grew up in (that I know a lot of others did as well). There was never a moment where we stood back and said – “that is just life” or “it is out of our control and is God’s hands.” Our parents thought they were responsible for everything , particularly where things (we) did not go right. Many of you may remember family dinners from your childhood. I certainly do. The dissecting and Gantt-charting of all your problems that need solving and that only YOU could solve.

In my practice today, making highly discretionary applications to decision-makers (which any two individuals could make entirely different decisions) confronts me head on with this issue. As Asian lawyers we need to tell ourselves and our clients that we can only be responsible for our part/efforts of the process and not the entire product and result. This way too we change the perception of law so that it no longer becomes about paying for a result or empty-handed guarantees.

It is a difficult lesson but it is important one to grasp. You are not responsible for everything. This world is not meritocratic. There are biases. There is racism. There is inequality. It is not a crutch. It is not an excuse. It is just part of a system we constantly fight and that we should embrace as giving us purpose. I find taking this approach has liberalized my ability to try hard but not always expect reward.

Reaching out for help is also something that more Asian lawyers need to start embracing. I don’t just mean professional help but the guidance of mentors and embracing the idea that sharing our personal challenges is not a sign of weakness. Growing up, reaching out to others was considered problematic and an act that would either draw unnecessary attention or require returned sympathy or act. We did not grow up with the idea that helping others just for the sake of helping others was a possibility.

This, I think, has ultimately hurt our ability to both seek and act as mentors. In this sense, Asian lawyers need to let their guard down and not be afraid to reach out and proactively reach out to help one another.

Reflection 5: Honesty is Good – the Law is to be Followed

Honestly was not only the best policy, it was the only policy growing up.  There was no greater mistake in my Asian household than to tell a lie. Any lie would often be fessed up sooner than later for fear of the consequences.

Honesty continues to be the very foundation of my practice. I honestly advise clients when they have an option and when they don’t. I am honest when mistakes are made. I am honest when bad news needs to be delivered.

However, there are definitely times in litigation or in practice where you cannot play with your cards open the entire time. There are moments (short of misrepresentation, which is of course a violation) when it is useful to strategically operate in a manner that is lawful, in your client’s best interests, but is more creative and edgy (such as interpreting grey area legislation in an aggressive manner).

Many of us were also very much brought up to be “scared” of the law. Our parents would scare us into compliance (on issues such as drugs) by telling us of the consequences of jail. There was never a sense of a boundary or an envelope to be pushed. The law was viewed as greater than the people and a thorn to keep you from going astray.

On the issue of law and authority, I still remember that I attended the counter protests and City Hall and as the police went through in a line I grabbed my spouse to a side and held her. The police officer joked to me “don’t look so scared.” I will be honest here. I’ve had (and still had) the world’s biggest fear of cops. I admired them on television. My mother reminds me that back then I wanted to be one. Still, nothing puts me more on edge than police sirens and the fear of accidental wrongdoing.

It has been entirely challenging of my lived experience to starting being able to see beyond the black and white of the law, into grey, into colour, into ways to challenge or uproot the system. Growing up, I could not have imagined that those who were responsible for making decisions could actually be (and were often) wrong.

Lessons to be Drawn

Much like I used to resent being Asian-Canadian to eventually embracing it, I’ve moved from resenting the ways my upbringing challenges my progress to appreciating the way it keeps me grounded. I’ve learned to come to terms with strengths and weaknesses and am grateful that one set balances out the other.

Thoughts on this piece? I want to hear from you  – willtao06@gmail.com (my personal email).

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