I realize I am writing this piece on the coattails of two of my incredible mentors who have done so earlier this year. Yet, with so many individuals asking me and emailing me about their pending decisions/LSAT woes/life choices it only make sense to address it here.
Before you start, check out the pieces of my mentors, ironically Steve and Stephen who wrote the pieces below:
1) Steve Meurrens’s very insightful look at pieces of advice for law students http://meurrensonimmigration.com/10-pieces-of-advice-before-entering-first-year/
2) Stephen Ngo’s fantastic piece
Alumni perspective – Stephen Ngo
Both of them provide very sage advice in their piece, from – keeping open minds (Steve M) to truths on reality
Without further ado, here are five things that I would think about. You will note that I am not calling this “advice.” Advice necessarily presumes that I did something right or wrong and I have some lessons to impart because of this. I don’t believe most things in my life, anyway, to be so clearly defined. If they are, I am still searching through the dictionary on this one.
1. “What Got You Here Will Get You Out of Here” – then second-year colleague, LK
When I started law school, I had an older colleague at this time – I’ll call her “LK” who was different than all the other mentors. While most older students approached us with their war stories and exam tips, LK kind of showed that kind of quiet, confidence from afar. I remember eventually having an opportunity to chat with her. The only one real thing she said to me was – “Look, there are a lot of people who have gotten here through many different paths. Everybody learns a different way. Everybody will succeed a different way. Remember, what got you here will get you out of here.”
It was a lesson that I should have heeded earlier. My initial motivation was to pursue international law (I had applied to a Masters-IR joint program but abandoned the application at the last minute). I ended up abandoning much of the advice LK provided in pursuit of the big firm pathway. I wanted it because it was considered elite, coveted, and unknown when it fact it wasn’t aligned with who I was and what would have made more sense .
I am grateful that eventually the path led me to going back to pursue my passion for culture, people, and histories as an immigration lawyer. I am also able to advocate on behalf of those individuals who traditionally have been dis-empowered. I use this arsenal of lived experiences and past experiences every day in my work assisting new and potential immigrants.
Too many people I know abandoned elements that made them uniquely themselves. Those that did not – are pursuing (if not as a primary job) efforts in niche areas or side hustles that supplement and/or become their day jobs.
2. Law Doesn’t Kill Creativity, You Do
There’s a misnomer that law school turns everyone into robots first, a pre-evolution stage of the billable robot we later become. Looking back for me, law school was actually a time of immense creativity. I was involved and captained a volleyball called “Denning Digs Dis”, played floor hockey, spent hours observing life in a cute Korean coffee shop, and learning Indian card games.
While first-year black letter law is a required rite of passage, it is only to build the foundation of the house. Second and third year is a time for designing and sprucing the space into something more liveable. Those of my colleagues that did internships/externships, took creative opportunities starting law clubs, went on overseas internships are some of the most successful today.
For myself, taking an optional course in project management was one of those things that really made a difference I felt. I learned about an entirely new area and how it could combine itself into law. I studied what some of the Firms are doing in this regard. While I don’t use it enough (admittedly still), the idea of treating a file as a project and engaging the end-user in the process and the product were lessons that have stayed with me. I very much treat my immigration applications, especially appeals, not as a commodity to be delivered but a game plan requiring various moving pieces to align. There is so much room to be creative within a system that rewards this over just the pure time spent and billed.
Creativity is an understated part of my work. Often times the solutions I come up for clients and strategies I plan out are now presented on immigration websites or discussed openly. My creativity draws me to look at the law as not confined space but one where corners can be navigated.
3. If You Leave Law School More Humble(d), You’ve Succeeded
I was humbled by law school. Like many of you preparing to go, I got through undergrad – a few bird courses. I received some good grades. While I stumbled during the LSAT, I thought that I could write my way to some semi-decent grades.
It couldn’t be further from the truth. I realized that I struggled to synthesize large amounts of information into small principles. Looking back at my undergraduate studies that were in history, I was doing the entirely opposite thing – taking smaller concepts or unknown events and making bigger statements.
In addition to exams, I also ended up being humbled by the journey of being in a class with incredibly talented and smart individuals. There were more than a few occasions that I really had to throw cold water on my face to snap out of thinking I did not belong. This was especially true when some of my colleagues had twenty-years of professional work experiences, graduate degrees from world-class universities, and many of them had even held previous jobs as engineers and consultants with top global companies. I was a wide-eyed youngster who’s resume consisted of working front desk at sport and recreation facilities. I was a nobody but eventually I learned to embrace this as a challenge rather than a weakness.
Through the process, I learned that law was ultimately a beast that I did not tame in my three years but that it was the actual taming of the beast (process) that was the work we would be doing.
Through law I also learned to accept myself – embrace my stronger characteristics but also recognize those weaker ones. In my day to day practice today, I am still aware of these and they keep me grounded and focused. In fact, right now I would argue that the biggest plague for younger lawyers today is not having too narrow of a focus but trying to overextend themselves and grow too quick for their current capacities. The same could be said about start-up firms.
4. Understanding Power Structures, Politics, and Being a Professional Through All Of It
I was at Heenan Blaikie during the downfall. I recently had a chance to read the book written by former co-managing partner, Norm Bacal on the events.
Starting from law school, I started to realize that certain privilege was access. There were certain students who had “in’s.” Some made those “in’s” very obvious. A majority of them hid it in their day to day. I was immune to it all. I did not know any lawyers.
There is a power structure. There is a bamboo ceiling. There are politics. No matter how you want to dice it up, there will always be individuals on the outside looking in within the legal system. In law school, my reaction (admittedly a mistake) was to try and fit in. I was determined to get to a Bay Street (type) firm. I was determined to be able to chat about yachts, boat trips, and golf scores. I was determined to know which of the five forks and spoons to use, even though I grew up utilizing chopsticks.
When HB fell, the reality was the writing was on the wall for first (the students), second those lawyer’s that did not have the business case to be there, and ultimately there were a core set of individuals who made it through based on existing relationships, mentorships, and connections.
HB was a wake up call that (1) I didn’t have any connections; and (2) that I needed to start making those connections for myself.
I did not take being let go and having my articles cancelled professionally. I struggled. I cried (I can admit this now). I had frantic calls. Looking back I overreacted. I was a self-absorbed law student who felt that I could control everything.
There are structures, power structures, politics – ultimately beyond your control. You can either let these things consume you or you can keep your head up eye – take losses like future wins, and push through.
5. A “No” Is a Pathway to a Future “Yes” – if you are Grateful for the No
Even today, I learn more from failed applications and difficult cases than I do from cases that are successful. I wish in law school I had spent more time seeking follow-up from my exams and assignments rather than just caring about the grade.
I didn’t see it that way then but the low LSAT scores, rejected law school admissions, rejected transfer applications after first year, initial OCI rejections, and eventually the HB meltdown have all made me a more realistic lawyer.
What law firms and clients want these days is not someone who has never failed but someone who can pick up something in a very difficult situation and try your best to turn it around in a confident and resilient way. Law school will threaten to turn you from a process-based person to a solely-results based one, so you will need to do everything you can to balance the scales the other way.
Embrace the failures – embrace the lessons learned from making mistakes. These will be the toolkit for your tomorrow.
Finally, a bonus piece to consider….. I remember a fellow student sent me this back in the day. The firm (not HB) no longer exists so I feel comfortable sharing how they used to judge candidates who worked there. It is MUCH too early to think about future work until after your first year of studies but many of these can be skills that if you do not have you can hone on a day-to-day basis. Here was their criteria guide.
Categories subject to a 1-5 scale from poor to outstanding
Demonstrates realistic view of the law and life
How interested is a student in our firm and why
Is there a connection to our region
Is the candidate easy to talk to (at ease)
Interpersonal skills- ability to carry on a conversation
Maturity and sense of responsibility
Verbal and nonverbal communication skills and ability to analyze articulate issues
Does the candidate have something that sets them apart from other candidates
Intellectual skills, creativity and articulation
Motivational skills, ambition, drive to succeed, stamina, ability to overcome obstacles, enthusiasm, and initiative
Diverse activities and interests
I wish many of you all the best as you prepare to choose a school and work on your applications. Remember not to get discouraged with the process (heeding my advice from above) and learn from it. For some, taking a few years to work will strengthen, not hinder your growth. For others, a school in the middle of a city you have never been to will reveal just how much you needed a change of scenery and new friends with shared passions.