Category Archives: Law Student Advice and Mentorship

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).

Building a Long-Term Sustainable, Values-Driven Legal Practice

It has been a while since I shared a “mentorship-related” piece, but I feel right now is an appropriate time. Given that I have spent much more time being a mentee and in fact even with my mentees having them listen to me rather than vice versa (remind to work on this), I would call this more an experience sharing piece than anything else.

More than a few individuals have emailed and called me  recently – asking me about my move; why I switched Firms, and how I balance work with extra-curricular commitments, married life, and the whole nine-yards of trying to keep those around me from telling me I’m a failure (which they do constantly, by the way). Truthfully, I don’t balance it all very well yet – leading to why I was up and contemplating at 3am in the middle of the night (or early in the morning as is more factually correct). I think I’ve finally had my “got it” moment, so let me try and lay it out a little here.

For the last few years, I admit that the part of me wanting to grow my practice/recognition/accomplishments list became more dominant than that part of me that was eager to learn more about the law, the community, and ultimately I was losing track of my life focus on helping others. This is ultimately what led me to move. The people I worked with were great – but I needed a wake up call to get myself back in the proper mindset.  My legal practice was along the pathway of becoming more about “my wins, my loses, my billings” than the situation of my clients. I needed to start fresh, and I am very grateful I have.

Moving involves embracing a new work environment, culture and accepting (very humbly) that one needs to continue to work on one’s craft to improve. For the many things I thought I knew this Firm has exposed me to a million more I don’t.  Coming here has exposed me to a level of legal expertise on complex legal issues that has (I will admit) challenged my own self-confidence in what I thought I knew.  It made me question whether I have played it too safe. Through these challenging emotions, however, it has also inspired me to pick up academic articles, legal journals, and start studying new concepts of law, and re-think what I was previously doing (albeit we were quite successful) to accept my shortcomings and knowledge gaps.

This humility has also been balanced with a gratitude towards my existing skill set. What I thought was simply “common-knowledge” and “tricks of the trade” has also proved incredibly helpful and indeed in high demand. I now see balancing high level legal analysis with a client-level understanding of practical know-how as truly a legal harmony.

Delving into social justice issues in new ways has also exposed me to a debate that I am sure many young lawyers in Vancouver are having. This debate is not only between work-life balance but also between self and others. This question is: how  dowe balance, especially in a city like Vancouver, our underlying human desire to do good and help others (regardless of what we get in return) with the demands of a growing economic unstable city – where everything becomes a value-trade off/opportunity cost proposition.

I am going to share three practice tip from one of my new mentors here. It is how he views it (in a summarized nutshell, although I am sure my paraphrasing is imperfect);

1. Accept only files that meet three criteria: (1) converge with an area of your passion or interest; (2) tackle a legal issue you are interested in; and (3) can provide financial re-reimbursement commensurate with an amount you feel necessary to obtain your life goals.

2. Create a six month plan, a one year plan, and a five year plan for how you want to get to where you are and how the pieces and files you take on.

3. Learn to say no. Saying yes to something that you are not passionate about is like saying no to someone else or an existing basket item you are passionate about. 

This move hasn’t been all easy – but the practice of law and the process of self-improvement isn’t. Just like going to the gym again after years of lying around on the couch is – one has to make measurable goals, be patient, yet persistent in executing the million steps.

I have also had to make sacrifices. I’ve decided against entering into the housing market at this time, my spouse and I have downsized where we live, and we treat every dollar we spend (just like every dollar we collect) with a greater reverence. I don’t allow myself to study fancy cars, nice real estate (this one can still be a tough one), bitcoins, or investments. I am probably not allowing my money to grow the way it can but I’d rather not put my mind of something that brings me little value. Many of my closest friends are involved in real estate and investments. When they discuss how much they make on a yearly basis, I try and tune myself out of those conversations and think beyond my year to year income-earned.

I’ve also stopped thinking about life as getting to a “peak.” There is no peak, the are just experiences. I have created ambitions driven not on myself but on those around me, my loved ones, my clients, and those I care about.

This is just a bit of a reflection of where I am at. Now that my lunch break is over it is time to get back to my client work!

Looking Back at Law School…. Five Things to Think About

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

  • Solid academics

  • Demonstrated achievements

  • Work experience

  • Diverse activities and interests

  • Leadership qualities

  • Team player

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.

Good luck!!!!

Inspiration from the Kid’s Room on an Executive Retreat

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Greetings from Big White Ski Resort.  Specifically, greetings from the bottom bunk of the kids room on the bottom floor. Before you jump to conclusions, I did not get forced into selecting this room. There were more than enough rooms to go around and I could have chosen the Queen B. However, something about me (at the tender age of 28) being the youngest member of the FACL BC executive made it seem right that I take dibs on the kids’ room.

It has been a very reflective trip. For the first time in awhile, I’ve had time to listen and observe to other’s share their stories without needing to contemplate my own role as a lawyer (to my clients), or husband (to my wife), or son/brother. Although, l will have to admit to many here I do indeed feel like a younger sibling.

I have also been able to have intimate conversations with own mentors and colleagues who have experienced the hardships and challenges of being a young lawyer with mature responsibilities. One of the lawyers at this retreat has started two non-profits and is widely considered one of the most promising Asian lawyers in the country, a future L’Expert Rising Star, no doubt. Another, is in the midst of swimming against the current of traditional progression to pursue her own, independent God-directed journey. A third, is the face of success at what he does and still can share with me the seeds of discontent and the yearning for a more purpose-driven career.

To the young lawyers and students, the bottom of the bunk bed sleepers (such as myself), this is an important lesson. Even those who on the outside may emanate and define “success”, may inside be very much soul searching like you are. The reality is that life in law is not like the Super Mario games of your childhood where levels must be beaten to progress to newer worlds. Indeed, some levels, if played too many times without success can lead to the slowly diminishing of mushrooms, necessary for longevity.

How do we keep the proverbial flame alive particularly in a time when the economic pressures and forces are putting profits over people, product over process.

How do we commit to taking places meaningful to our visions for our legal careers (and further more, entire careers)? How do we make our mark in ways that we are proud of looking back and can positively influence others to build their own trails? How do we live a life that truly focuses on what is important to each of us individually rather than what others want us to believe is important?

Some questions I’m considering from my bottom bunk.

#MorethanaLabel: Immigrant Stories

MoreThanALabel Logo

I am participating in #MoreThanALabel: Immigrant Stories, Simmons College’s online MSW Program’s campaign to promote transcending labels. By participating in this campaign, I will be sharing my story and how I believe we can shatter the stigmas often attributed to immigrant communities.

I am a Second-Generation Chinese-Canadian, an Immigration Lawyer and Mentor. I believe that to combat labels and stigmas and to create more immigrant pride, we need more spaces and forums to share our stories. Here is mine.

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[Now I am going to break the requirements a little and write more about this topic. I hope the Simmons College organizers will forgive me a little given ‘breaking the norm’ appears to be theme of this campaign.]

Why I Am Participating In This Campaign

I was invited by Simmons College, through a very kind message by Community Manager at Simmons College, Megan Dottermusch, to contribute their #MoreThanALabel campaign. Asides from my belief that social work is such a valuable, yet largely underappreciated profession, I also found the question they are asking about immigration quite engaging and useful.

“How are immigrants currently combating labels and stigmas, and what can we do more to promote immigrant pride?”

While I am not an immigrant to Canada, by virtue of being born here, my life is very much intertwined with immigrants. I am the product of first-generation Canadian immigrants from China. I will be very likely be married to an immigrant. I work with immigrants every day. Immigrants from China, India, Iran, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago are, quite literally, my best friends.

In my opinion, the only way to combat labels and stigmas surrounding immigrants is to overpower the labels and stigmas by telling our stories, teaching our cultural lessons, and embracing our similarities and differences.

Experiences from My Work

In my role as both a Canadian immigration lawyer and career mentor to several new Canadian immigrants, I have had to assist my clients and mentees in navigating the broad spectrum of labels and stigmas unfairly assigned to them. I have walked immigrants through the process of presenting their cultural marriages and untraditional love stories into sponsorship applications and appeals. I have worked with foreign-trained lawyers looking for ways to transition their credentials and tackle the issue of ‘over qualification’ for entry-level Canadian jobs. In the process, I have seen and heard immigrants labeled as uneducated, liars, burdens on society, criminals, and animals (among others).

I have come to realize that the reason I defend immigrants so vigorously against these labels and stigmas are that I too faced similar labels and stigmas growing up in Vancouver, as a second-generation Canadian.

My Experience Growing Up

My awareness of labels and stereotypes began in my youth. Early on in my elementary school days, I found myself being not so randomly selected, during the first day of many of my school years, for participation in English Language Assistance Classes (LAC, as it was fondly called). I was never assessed for proficiency, rather assumed to be struggling simply for being Chinese. I never lasted more than two weeks in the group but every year I’d be selected like a roster player sent to the minor leagues. Ironically, from then on, English became my strongest subject, although at the unwarranted cost of losing and abandoning much of my Mandarin.

In secondary school, my excitement to eat home-cooked Chinese lunches thoughtfully prepared by my parents was ruined by the stigma from classmates that I was again eating their pet animal. I laughed aloud at their biological organ-related jokes, but truthfully their insults hurt. I was always worried that classmates would label me a FOB (Fresh off the Boat) and not one of them.

I remember also feeling stigmatized at that time for not having a stay-at-home parent who could volunteer and sell flowers to raise money for the school. Having two working class immigrant parents was not the norm in my more affluent program. Teachers probably thought I was “lazy” for not trying but truthfully there was not one well-off family friend or businessman I could call to try and fundraise. I felt embarrassed every year.

I also struggled internally handling the labels thrown at me by friends, teachers, and parents. For one, I was always more interested in hip-hop music and poetry rather than math, physics, and cars. More than a few people told me I was on a “criminal” path pursuing “black people culture” that was not suited for a person of my Chinese background.

In my second year of University, I finally decided to accept and embrace my Chinese cultural heritage, pursuing language studies in Mandarin and focusing my academic focus on Chinese-Canadian migration history. In these early advocacy days, I saw and dealt with several (mostly non-ethnic) community individuals who dismissed my efforts. They saw me as being too vocal for a Chinese boy and too young to be sharing such poignant opinions. I could tell that to many, by virtue of being second-generation Canadian, I was not Canadian enough to deserve a voice or forum.

Today, in the practice of law, I continue to see colleagues of ethnic-descent struggle to find opportunity or to advance their careers. I live in a country that has elected few immigrants to positions of major influence in the executive or judiciary level. Even fewer are women of non-European ethnic descent.

Personally, I cannot count how many times I have been asked if I am interpreter or consultant rather than a lawyer. In one memorable incident leaving work in my business suit, a woman ran to her car across the block and thought my briefcase was a ticketing machine. In another incident two years back, a female Asian colleague and I were met in Downtown Vancouver with the “F-word” and “Chank” in the same drive-by insult. I am not going to chalk all these incidents up to labels and stigmas, but I am sure at the very least preconceived notions based on visual perception played a huge role.

 Reflections on My Responsibility

I am consciously aware that by virtue of now being a lawyer, I have a privilege that not many immigrants have, of being able to defend myself of unfairly assigned labels and stigmas. I believe that translates to a corresponding responsibility to guide, educate, and defend those without the ability to respond.

Unfortunately, newer immigrants without language skills and without financial resources are the most victimized by society – by strict laws enforcing the will of the majority, by abusive employers seeking to profit of suffering, and generally by the haves of society. Yet rather than being presented as victims, they are presented as the “illegals” and “wrongdoers.”

Our collective responsibility is to speak out when this type of injustice occurs, not fearing the personal consequences to us of speaking out, and not failing to speak out even when the consequences aren’t always personal. For me, the #MorethanaLabel campaign is about challenging the statistics, the media, and the popular opinion when unwarranted positions are being tenured against our immigrant communities and, by extension, our families.

Truthfully told, many labels and stigmas, redefined, are actually some of the traits and characteristics immigrants should be most proud of. Yes, we can be silent because it is often because we are busy quietly analyzing things from more-holistic view. We can be overly private and anti-social but only because we are busy taking care of our families and loved ones. Yes we are overly hardworking because several generations of individuals, often oceans apart, rely on our end product.

Finally, to conclude, I will dedicate this paragraph to my American friends. I understand that you are currently in the process of contemplating some major reforms that will make enforcement measures stronger against undocumented immigrants and may lead to increased deportations. I ask you to be conscious and aware of the labels and stigmas that may underlie these pending changes. I ask you to constantly question whether immigration legislation that is aimed at protecting the integrity of the system and punish international criminals and terrorists may have the unintended consequence of tearing up innocent families and punishing innocent mistakes by innocent applicants. I ask you to not blindly buy into the assumption that the immigrant family of five living on welfare next door is a burden on your family’s access to health care and education. Rather have faith in their potential to be as the next group of doctors, engineers, social workers, and artists that can make your children’s lives collectively more cultured, happy, and healthy.

We are more than the stigmas assigned to us. We are more than labels placed on us. We are part of your family as you are part of ours. We are all immigrants.

Excerpt from My Law School Personal Statement Back in 2010/11

personal statement

A lot of individuals and friends of mine have now completed their LSATs and are in that second part of the battle, putting together a law school application.

 

I thought it would be useful to put to and excerpt of what I wrote back in the day. I’m lucky and fortunate to be able to live out the words I wrote below:

On a sweltering summer day in 2007, I was assigned to be the clinic assistant for a low income African immigrant named Naomi. She had spent the past six months suffering from severe back pain and was unable to work as a result of the Plaintiff’s reckless driving. At the time of the accident, the plaintiff had been apologetic, leading Naomi to feel compassionate and not pursue further action. A recent immigrant from Africa, she was also unaware of her legal recourse.

Hearing her story, both on the phone and in person I was reminded of my own father, who arrived in Canada at 26, a doctor from Shanghai, similarly compassionate, but unaware of the struggle for recognition he would face. Walking an exhausted Naomi to the lawyer’s downtown firm, I was reminded me of my own mother, struggling to bring the weekly vegetables up the hill. Without the vegetables, there would be no dinner for the wealthy diplomats who offered my family free rent in exchange for three cooked meals a day.

Perceiving me to be a paralegal, Naomi praised me for my earlier efforts and asked me countless questions in hopes of gaining my advice. As much as I wanted to provide my own advice, I knew that my volunteer position required me to be merely a listener and a recorder of relevant detail. Inside, however, I knew that I had to continue my commitment to studying immigration. I also decided that day that I would become a lawyer, to help those like Naomi and my parents.

As a side note, it is imprudent to send the same personal statement to every single law school in the country. Consider it the same as if you were to send the same cover letter to every single employer in the country just because they offer the same position.

Questions from a Pre-Law Student (Part 1)

A week and a half ago I was approached by a Pre-Law Student with some questions about whether to go to law school or grad school and related issues.

I thought I’d post my answers that I gave her.

  1. Why did you pursue law school?

I wanted to pursue law school since I was a kid, but I was probably jaded by the “arguments” and “big bucks” as per my grade 7 yearbook.

Truthfully, it was during undergraduate when I started volunteering with Access Justice (now Access Pro Bono), and realized how much the law impacted individuals day-to-day lives. I also started getting heavily involved in community advocacy efforts in my history and international relation studies. I realized that one of my major challenges was that it was difficult to speak up as just an “undergraduate student.”

I guess I wanted people to take me a little more seriously.

 

  1. Should I work for a few years before pursuing law school or go straight into it?

It depends. Do you have something specific you want to go into? I think if you have a legitimate position that you can go into (either a high-level government job/internship or one with a great company) you should jump in. You could possibly make some money and help pay for law school. You may also put yourself in a good position to come out of law school and combine your experience. For you in particular, if you found a very good gig in marketing and became a marketing professional for a couple years, arguably you could go to law school and be very good at areas around legal marketing. I’ve seen a few people very successful at this particular in the entertainment industry where they became entertainment lawyers.

  1. Should I take an LSAT prep course or self study?

It depends on how fast you are getting it. I would start by getting some books or materials off a colleague and reading them. If you feel like its intuitive you can start doing practice exams on your own.

I took two courses, both very expensive, and only the second one was very helpful. For me, the battle was more mental and the second course (and the instructor) was really helpful. He doesn’t teach anymore. Needless to say I didn’t do so well on the LSAT, writing three times (cancelling twice) and only obtaining 66th percentile.

  1. What do you think about an international law degree obtained abroad?

I would obtain one in Canada if you foresee your future here (that is unless you go to a top Ivey league U.S. J.D program). I think that due to the lack of legal jobs in Canada, more pressure is being placed on the system to provide less opportunity to foreign-trained lawyers and more to domestic students. However, if you foresee yourself living and working in another city abroad, go do law school there (near there) for sure.

Finally, I think all law schools in Canada are good. Don’t feel pressured to think only the top schools are the best. Also, for someone more holistic and well-rounded like yourself you may do better at a school that focuses more on well-rounded areas and recruits those type of students.

The Best Law Advice I Ever Received: YDYIDM

Today’s Canadian legal market for up and coming lawyers ain’t a pretty one. There’s no need to put blush or makeup on the situation. As much as getting into law school was a task, finding a paying Canadian articling position in a major Canadian city is difficult. Getting hired back is more difficult, and being able to make a name for yourself as a junior lawyer another beast in its own right.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of articles written by well-intentioned young lawyers and students purportedly offering go provide roadmaps on how to attain those positions/navigate the ropes . In fact, I was one of those well-intentioned students back in the day that provided advice left, right, and centre to anybody who would listen.

It is only now that looking back on things, I really didn’t know what I was talking about. I still don’t and I should probably stop trying to influence others with too many advice blog posts. The fact is, the journey into law, through law, and for many, eventually out of law is a personalized one. Just like it is impossible to fit a square peg into a round hole, you cannot box all law students and law firms into one. We all come at law with a different angle, with different hopes and dreams, and we will all eventually define our success differently.

My own journey is one where I wrote in my grade 7 year book that I wanted to be a lawyer. I didn’t even know what a lawyer was, but just heard (likely from my parents) that it is was an honourable profession. In my undergraduate days, thanks to some pro bono experiences and heavy community engagement projects, I thought I was going to be a human rights lawyer or an international arbitrator. In law school, having been caught up in the typhoid fever of 2nd year and the sexification of law through Suits, I thought I wanted to be a corporate M&A guy working on Bay Street.

Today, I stand to you as a humbled Articling student in Canadian immigration law, a soon to be associate, who struggles with the law on a daily basis. I grew up knowing no lawyers, won no awards in law school, was an average student at best, and today can say no more than I give it my best effort to help my clients with hardwork and creativity. However, I will strive to know the law better and represent them competently with the highest degree of ethics and compassion.

Funny enough, for all the countless stressing I did in law school and during my various legal interships, today I can finally say that the law does not stress me out. I enjoy it. I enjoy when it defeats me because I know that the beating I took today will save someone from a beating tomorrow. I am happy because I work in an area of law where it is all about the clients I work and I become an integral part of their most important days and decisions that’ll affect the rest of their lives.

Furthermore, I can use the law as a stepping stone to engage with the community and educate others. Law should not be a language spoken by the few to the many but should be utilized by the many with the few (us lawyers) ensuring that justice and the rule of law are not abused by institutions, governments, and vexatious litigants.

So my one advice to young students these days is always the same. You Do You, I Do Me = pursue your passion and commitment to something greater than yourself. Listen to everybody who has advice for you, but follow only the advice in your heart.