Category Archives: Law Student Advice and Mentorship

Corona’s Down Time Made Me Realize…..

On the surface level, you see accomplishments/accolades/doing things I wasn’t supposed to do at my age, and frankly undeserved privileges in many circumstances.

Below the surface, you have unresolved traumas from personal loss, memory issues/shattered glass, a reforming people pleaser, lifelong conflict avoidance, a rebel often forgetting his cause, the effects of past experiences of racism/feelings of inadequacy, lifelong anxiety, and seasonal depression.

Need to make time for a lot of inner work moving forward.

The volume of my work and the depth of my community engagement may have to take a tentative backseat. I was using both as a shield and armour from having to do my own work on myself.

It’s hard to contemplate billing/making when life’s demands on income have correspondingly increased but I need to think on the longevity of the life I want to live and the things I want to accomplish.

It’s hard to put pen to paper, make dreams out of reality when you haven’t truly figured out who you are yet and what you carried with you to this point. I’m doing a much needed inventory check.

Asking kindly for patience while I navigate through learning myself better and preparing for my future roles in life – the most important of which is yet to come. <3

 

Why Canadian Law Schools Need to Pay Attention to the Racialized Dynamics of Mooting

By Cimmerian praetor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14772458

I want to write this piece partially because when a law student who passed on her experiences to me, it triggered my own experiences which led me to really thinking about the importance of sharing this in a more public form.

“We felt judged differently”

I met with a WOC law student a few days ago and began by asking her with how things have been recently. She mentioned they were okay, and I had asked about her moot as I had seen them robed up for it not too long ago.

She mentioned right away, without even talking about the content of the case question or positive experiences, that her own experiences and ones shared with other WOC participants in different sessions were that the judges appeared to be extremely tough on them. How in content they were presenting the same material as their white colleagues/classmates but in the feedback they got grilled harder and praised less. While it was just a small snapshot, it cannot be by more than chance that two separate mooters in two different sessions connected on the same point as an immediate feedback following the moot.

This experience is parallel to  the experience of WOC in many other professional fields. I harken back to a quote by U.S. Democratic Rep Rashida Tlaib last

Source: https://thehill.com/homenews/house/429550-tlaib-people-hear-you-differently-when-youre-a-woman-of-color-and-a-first-in

We’re seeing it in Canada too. As I have been tweeting, the differential treatment (and personalized attacks) against Dr. Theresa Tam (Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, a racialized Women of Colour) as compared to Dr. Bonnie Henry (BC’s Chief Medical Officer). I’ve written in the past as well on how many of my WOC colleagues had experiences of clients ‘going over them’ to contact male Firm Partners to complain, something racialized men deal with much less frequently.

Connecting with those experiences

Today I would consider myself a solicitigator but increasing involved in litigation. I openly admit that my writing is much better than my oral advocacy, and in terms of presenting in front of a courtroom there’s much for me to learn and improve on.  I am still grateful for how far I have come. During PLTC, I was so nervous with public speaking and sharing my voice publicly that I literally stumbled sharing my own name. I remember I almost failed a mock assignment because I became so anxious and had my mind go blank, creating disconnect between my written notes and oral arguments.

I’ve always been a decent speechwriter. When I write prepared statements they are often thoughtful/well-crafted. Oral advocacy via litigation, where you are having a ‘conversation with a judge is more difficult. I grew up in very hierarchical settings where you never looked an elder directly in the face – where your father’s word was to be followed, your teacher’s were held up as perfect, and you, as your nobody self, was to follow not question these relationships. You grew up very conflict adverse – often resorting to silence or swallowing discontent and disagreement. Expressing disagreement publically usually led to a raised-voice argument and emotions that got in the way of logical discourse. I know many others probably share this experience.

Going into law school, and specifically still having hopes of being someone who litigates, then becomes a crucial space for learning and challenging oneself. Unfortunately, both the socratic method (less commonly employed) or through larger lectures where the same voices would dominate (usually white, privileged voices) created a lack of an environment to test out that litigative voice or engage in those types of important (outloud conversations). I only remember being able to share more freely through small groups and our incredible Tort Professor Dr. Jena McGill who would canvass each of us in ways that were non-intrusive and allowed for continued conversation.

What happens through these processes of silence (I can literally count on one hand the number of times I spoke up in lecture within three-years) is this internalized fear of speaking out. While stats do not exist (and in my opinion should be gathered), I believe for many racialized folk we get streamlined into solicitors work because we are not given the opportunity to work through our litigative fears/challenges/and culturally-specific barriers. To this date I hear from many upper year students who are preparing to graduate that they would love to pursue litigation but never made it to upper-year competitive moot teams, never properly received mentorship on becoming a litigator, and importantly never had space to practice and fail.

My Own Moot Experience

I only ever participated in one moot – a labour law moot. The topic was something to do with drug use within a unionized workplace, a sawmill if I remember correctly.

I remember that our first-round competitors (two-white men) presented their case. They were good – there wasn’t much depth of analysis but they were confident and clear. I don’t remember much in way of feedback presented to them.

I remember that after myself and my partner (a white woman colleague) presented, the entire feedback session was directed at me. A white woman judge criticized my decision to include my assessment of the societal impacts of the decision as a standalone argument as opposed to integrated into the points I was trying to make. I really did not have a defense – to this date in my cases I have done it both ways and found it effective.

While my teammate tried to console us (after our defeat) and I apologized for not ‘doing my best’ (even though I had spent hours preparing for both of us),  I really felt afterwards abandoned by the process. I thought I had gone much more in-depth than the other mooters – really engaged with the facts. Ultimately, however, I was picked apart for one strategic decision and that was that. There was no positive reinforcement, no identification that there was some potential there.

Needless to say we did not advance and that was the end of my mooting experience. I never applied for competitive moots, and avoided moots like the plague.

Systemically, moots will indelibly continue to reflect the whiteness of litigation, the way it stands. This is important because moots are usually the starting point for those who want to pursue litigation, which is the gateway to those who eventually become tribunal members and judges. Having strong moot experiences also tends to increase one’s chances of obtaining clerkships and increasing one’s interaction with Professors and moot coaches (often lawyers) who can open career/litigation doors.

Recommendations

A great starting point of change is for the aforementioned first-year moots, which I think all law schools should make mandatory.

For first-year moot especially, there needs to be a greater emphasis on selecting a diversity of guest judges (especially early round judges).

Having different perspectives in the room (even if they are non-subject matter experts – i.e. even if they are quieter solicitors) can change the dynamic in the room. I think judges should be encouraged as well to disagree with one another and themselves engage in positive conflict as opposed to be a consensual sounding board. That dialogue, showing disagreement, can liberate those who are themselves finding themselves in an uncomfortable process. For example, had I see women of colour receive unbalanced criticism from a white judge, I might engage that judge directly as another judge. I might bring in some of those different viewpoints and perspectives. I might even show additional patience or chime in to validate rather than rush to criticize.

For more competitive moots, it starts from the selection committee. Those who arrange competitive moots at schools tend to be usually social-facing white professors. If charged with choosing teams, there is certainly inherent bias towards similarly situated persons who reflect past teams of success and likely not those who were like me who struggled [the whole trauma behind being picked for teams – I’ll save for later posts]. 

Perhaps, schools can also consider putting in B-teams (second teams) as well that don’t represent the next four best mooters but four individuals who indicated their interest in litigation and who may not have had access to past experiences. Rather than going in with an intention to win, these teams can enter with a non-competitive lens of improving oral advocacy skills as a primary goal.

Furthermore, I would encourage affinity groups such as Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers and South Asian Bar Association to follow the steps of the Black Law Students Association and the Julius Alexander Isaac Diversity Moot and arrange more experiences. Aim these moots not only at diversity issues but also of Charter cases, public law cases, and other areas. Host workshops, feedback sessions, and other opportunities for students to learn, fail, and challenge themselves. Turn Moot not just to a competitive law school sport, but also a recreational activity for all levels. While one may not turn to litigation right away, it could spark students to consider it or at least add it to their arsenal of tools moving forward into articling and practice.

 

Conclusion – Creating Safer Spaces for Students to Litigate

The fact that students are returning from these first-year moots, which are meant to help inspire litigation pathways and expose students to oral advocacy, with feelings that they may not want to do this again are very troubling. When there is a lack of diversity on the judiciary, we should begin to look at the root causes – including how students are being exposed to litigation.

Ultimately, my recommendation is that we start with first-year moots by having more diverse (including non-subjective matter expert) judges balance out the room and give voice and support to those students who may not come from oral advocacy/vocal backgrounds. Second, we consider competitive moot teams beyond just A-teams and actively into putting together non-competitive B-teams for those who want to improve their skills. Third, affinity groups (through their advocacy committees, etc.) can put together more moots directed at this target audience.

I hope that with some of these challenges we can start empowering BIPOC lawyers to pursue litigation careers beyond their time at law school.

 

 

Learning to Take the L – Loss, Grief, and the Law

This piece has been simmering and marinating in the back of my mind for awhile now. Meeting a mentor last week who had at a crucial juncture shared with me his story of loss and this time shared his current work to reframe challenges as opportunities inspired me to finally put this down in writing.

So too did this piece where Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and his two brothers at the age of 10 shared some lessons on loss and grief with Anderson Cooper, who similarly lost his father at the age of 10, a brother to suicide, and at the timing of this filming, just recently his mother.

Cooper talks about a letter that Colbert wrote to him following the death of Cooper’s mother wishing him ‘peace and grief’ and Cooper talking about how how he is coping with the help of others and how death has changed the trajectory of his life.

Both Cooper and Colbert also shared their experiences of life pre-loss and post-loss. Colbert talks about this ‘big break at the cable of my memory.’

Before I get into my experiences I want to define ‘loss.’ I know loss – to it’s extreme meaning is death but there is certainly more than that. For others, loss can be as simple as failing a course or dropping the ball on a big assignment. I don’t think comparing losses does any good nor does such a process take into account the fact we all have different relationships with loss. Some of us are used to it through our life experiences; stories of lives started in refugee camps, foreign lands, or with an early chapter of loss of family member. Some of us suffer from PTSD from traumatic experiences and violence. Others have had loss through breakdown of relationships with close partners or other family that continue to linger in day-to-day life today.

However, and to certainly generalize but with some basis, I don’t think lawyers handle ‘loss’ as well as the general public. We are a group who tend to represent a pathway of some past privilege, in worlds where loss (losing) can seem so foreign. We come places where ‘things just don’t go wrong’ – a pathway we drew up and executed to a T. Our perfectionism as a profession and ways we address problems (usually through ‘covering our own ass’, or ‘risk mitigation’) doesn’t allow us to comprehend and understand loss in a way we need to grow and move forward.

Personally, I haven’t talked too much about the time I dealt with loss and almost purposely so.  I tried to give a talk at the Federation of  after it happened (probably too prematurely) fumbling around without having prepared any proper notes. I lost my train of thought and likely rambled something incoherent – the wounds being still so fresh. I can tell you that the Law was incredible during my most difficult times. Not the actual content itself but the people and the experiences from it. I was able to chat with countless colleagues, like the mentor I met this week, who were able to open up to me on their own experiences of losing a parent. From the unspoken and the feared, it became counselling. In fact, it was my introduction to the power of counselling before even seeking professional help to tackle it. I also was grateful to have the love of my partner, my best friend, my mother and sister. There were certainly a lot of moments that tested those relationships but we’ve become stronger through it. Again, some gratitude (of the type Colbert discusses) through grief. I remember reading ‘When Breath Becomes Air‘ and several blogs/podcasts to prepare myself mentally for that moment. I still was terrible unprepared but I think somewhere it added some foundation. It was the first time (in awhile) I remember being able to read non-work materials because it turned into words that were that important.

I went back to work two days after my pops passed. My pops was always someone who never celebrated successes, nor wanted a big deal made of things. I thought about his ‘business as usual’ and ‘never take a day off’ approach to things and followed his lead. Did I go back to work too early? Probably. Did I go through a proper grieving process? Probably not.  In hindsight, I would have taken more time. Yet, for me work gave me an escape. Today, I need an escape from work on some occasions to handle the effects of loss.

The biggest and most negative effect of loss and how it may affected me – and it was shared by Colbert and Cooper – has been the breakdown of memory, the compartmentalization of the past. My memories pre-2016 are nowhere as vivid as my memories since. I cannot piece together some of those moments. Much of my three years of law school have been blurred into probably a 60-second clip of 5-second memories. Truly the shards of glass and flashes that Colbert speaks to. I can barely remember my pops as an unsick bastion of strength and confidence and that grasping of fleeting memories is scary. It (has) worsened year by year.

On the flipside, it has given me a short-term loss cycle. I think it has allowed me to work through daily losses or mistakes quicker. I recognize, forgive, blame myself, but move forward in a very short period. I still have trouble grasping loss or mistake (a trait since I was a kid) but I am trying to breakdown my walls and let others in to help. One thing I recognize (and something I am working on) is not burdening the femmes in my life (including my mom, spouse, sister, and various colleagues) with these but to seek more comradery within men’s circles to chat about this as well and put aside our usual ego-dominate conversation.

It is ironic, as in my legal work, I push and press my clients to discuss their trauma, to open up, to try and detail moments and feelings in ways I cannot do myself. I still straddle that line of experience of being able to say ‘I know what you are going through’ but realizing that grief and loss is so different for each of us that I truly cannot, nor should, carbon copy my experiences on others. The gratitude I do have from grief is that it has opened me to be able to listen to the grief of others and spot it or the roots of it. I have not a psychologist but I have been able to understand the psyche behind unspoken words, reading between the lines, and some of the ways anxiety, stress, despair, depression, and fear can affect us. I don’t know if I would have seen it without my own personal experiences.

At the same time, because of how sensitive I can be to grief and suffering I partner with more senior practitioners and others who may be better at driving the legal analysis and are less on the client-facing side. I take short-term financial L’s (co-work with a senior colleague or work with an assistant) so we can have space to discuss how to separate law and emotion, prepare strategy and help address the burden (and responsibilities) of representation.

A lot of my work moving forward, through this early-mid stage of my career, is about ‘going on,’ not avoiding suffering but embracing it (paraphrasing Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air). Recognizing and appreciating the double-edged sword that is being more sensitive to the negative emotions and feelings of suffering (never being able to become ‘indifferent to it’ as some have tried) but that this is motivating for one’s work. That through tough days we should as Genia Ginzburg writes in Journey Into the Whirlwind (which I read in high school and re-read after my pop’s passing) still live and find someone each day to be grateful for.

I can truly say that I have found gratitude, through grief. Gratitude that the power of our profession that it is one that allows us to address the grief of others, of our clients. Moving forward that my work will always encompass an honest approach towards that grief and a vulnerability that I will share with my clients to create an environment where we can grow through our challenges together.

To close, I also want to offer myself and my time to anybody who is grieving or going through loss. I know I will be but a mere stranger. I don’t hold a psychology degree nor will I inundate you will self-help material. I can just assure you that I will be a listening ear to your hardship and struggle. Law is built off of confidentiality, privacy, but the search for resolution and understanding – platforms that too much of our world today cannot co-exist.

Meanwhile, personally, I will still move forward to learn to take more Ls. Holding the hands through someone you care about into the fire is hard – but ultimately it is our job and a resiliency, we need to build up and learn. Mistakes, losses, and grieving from those mistakes and loses (those we can control and those we can’t) is part of our job description.

I thank you all for reading through this and jumping into my world. I’ve show you a lot (some would say too much) but I do so with the hopes of de-stigmatizing the conversation around loss, grief, and the law.

With love through gratitude,

Will

 

Why Lawyering With Honesty and Emotion Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

Last Friday, I had the privilege of mentoring two brilliant students.

Both students were racialized law students. Both reminded me of myself. They were very humble, aware, fearful – altogether, so very human. I have seen my share of young law students or lawyers with fresh-pressed suits carrying an air of premature confidence. To see two law students who reminded me of myself back in the day was refreshing. I felt connected to them and I felt we communicated well.

During the hearing, I saw the lead counsel constantly looking to me for validation.  Something I find myself still doing. I saw him carry this air of a honest good kid, trying his best to help his client. He didn’t hide his emotion, did not sugarcoat moments where he felt like a fish out of water. It was his first hearing and frankly – he outperformed many experienced counsel I have seen. He showed a level of humility and grace wise beyond his years.

During lunch, I gave him a bit of a pep-talk – one that inspires this following post. I told him I was in his shoes before. He was handling things wonderfully.

I, like many other racialized lawyers, have likely heard the following criticism from others:

“You are too emotional!”….. “You need to disconnect from your work, more Will.” ….. “You need to play your cards better.”….. “stop wearing your emotion on your sleeve.”

This isn’t just a North American phenomenon. I remember when I was in China and the lawyers there told me it was probably wise for me to not pursue law there because in their words I was too “honest” and wouldn’t be able to “work” the system. I wasn’t good at playing ‘my cards’ so to speak.

I find that students struggle with this idea of having to disengage with who they are (i.e. fake it until you make it) in order to obtain their career goals. They feel as though they need to acquire some sort of larger than life, impenetrable personality in order to succeed.

This is particularly the case in litigation, where through either pop culture or frankly real life SCC telecasts, we get this idea of the litigator needing to be that way. Bold, brainiac, and brilliant. Not, Asian, not shy, not neurotic, and not soft.

I want to break that stereotype.

In my own immigration work, and through some trial and error I have come to view it differently. Regardless of whether you are a solicitor or a litigator, I do believe there is room in this profession for those who do not (and or cannot) fake it until they make it, be a bolder version of their softer self, and who can still advance strong litigative efforts on behalf of their clients.

This doesn’t also always involve taking a back seat. I do not want to understate the benefit of collaborating with bolder personalities and playing off each other in that sense. I for one, have been a huge beneficiary of partnering with more aggressive litigators and felt that process just as rewarding.

However, I do feel there is room for the honest litigator who wears their emotion on their sleeves. They may not get the accolades or the same press coverage that other star litigators do but many times they are just beloved by their clients and their community. They are able to make an impact without overshadowing. They are able to empower and utilize their empathy to bring out relevant facts and bridge to opposing parties. They are able to mediate differences through finding shared interests rather than taking necessarily polarizing positions. Clients will be super grateful because you are able through your honesty, thorough preparation, and ability to connect – as you can avoid high cost litigation, negative PR, and secure good results.

I do think the legal profession will benefit from more Type B – introverted individuals. I think also that great litigation teams can be made combining various personalities. The types of new personalities going into law, the diversity of lawyers and their experiences with authority and advocacy, the increase in women approaching law from positions of historical oppression, and often-forgotten Indigenous legal perspectives all suggest we need to re-examine what makes a traditional ‘litigator.’

I’m proud and excited to be part of this new generation – it won’t be easy but we’ll keep fighting (and learning)!

Eight Interview Prep Tips I Use to (Try to) Avoid Becoming a Colour-Sound Bite (“CSB”) for Mainstream Media

In the first three months of this month, I have had the privilege (and I would also call it also a personal and familial/community responsibility) to speak on quite a few very controversial issues for media (print and radio). In many of these pieces, I was selected to speak as a representative of my cultural community, a job I took wearily and with precaution.

Looking back on the many pieces, I have to admit they weren’t all great interviews, and subsequently not all of what I wanted to say was published. Indeed, for most of them, where I would spend 20-30 minutes on the phone with the interviewer and often times 2-3 hours in preparation for what to best say, at most one or two lines would be used. Many times those lines would be what lawyers call, obiter dicta (side points in passing), rather than main points. In some of these pieces, my thoughts did not become the primary narrative.

Radio is even more difficult. Going into these interviews, you have an agenda of where you want the conversation to go, but the interviewer, station, and other interviewees can take the topic entirely different directions. I felt that way especially with the CBC Early Edition piece, where the Professor I was speaking alongside wanted to focus on the technical/diplomatic relationship between Canada and China, where my gameplan moving in was to try and destroy the relevance of that macro-level, trade relationship to most of our day to day lives as Chinese-Canadians just looking to get more politically engaged. I was worried that this story would define us/serve to divide us rather than allow us to pour attention to the progress/challenges we face at home in an election year.

Unfortunately, to-date, this conversation as continued to go that way, and again the blindness of the Chinese-Canadian struggle/need to organize continues.

In my work and in my mentorship, and thanks to advice from incredible mentors, I’ve started to pass on my interview opportunities to others (I’ve turned down my last four).

Many times, it’s just a matter of sending an interview request off to a mentor or someone I feel more qualified to speak to an issue. It is my hope that more women, especially women of colour and Indigenous women, replace the white male-dominated pundit/talking heads we see too much of on our TV and hear and read too much of on our radios and in our newspapers.

In that process of encouraging others to speak up and to present their views, I also do worry that they are prepared. It is not usual for people of colour and minorities to be more nervous and anxious about these interviews. For us sharing our perspectives exposes us to mix of external and internal pressures – not only from ourselves individually (for many, our greatest critic), but from our families (many of which told us to not speak up unless we have to) and our communities (often splintered/divided along several lines of migration, wealth, and regional difference).

We cannot expect to be talking pieces for entire complex diasporic communities, but that is the expectation that those less in the know or those wanting to sell sound bites want us to be. We’re easy, quick, accessible, educated and can put in comments that raise questions and tensions. These are tensions for the most part (although with more journalists of colour, this is changing) journalists will not have to lose sleep over. Either their piece gets hits or it doesn’t – either it helps them get their next big story or attention, or it doesn’t. The consequences lie primarily on us, who have to go back to our communities, attend networking events, and be judged by the few words that were printed in our names.

This is not to degrade the profession of journalism (one I admire so much) but rather to acknowledge that the written space does provide opportunity to hide behind corporate, editorial, or even what page and where it is published, ways. People will forget a bad piece from an author as soon as a good piece is written. People (especially those within our communities) will not forget when we shared our views, especially when they may have contributed to detrimental outcomes and we have to see each other once a week at Church, or at the same neighbourhood coffeeshops and community meetings.

Furthermore, there are also some journalists (conversations about which I have had with other journalists) who will be writing with a very clear agenda about what they want to say. They have mapped out their piece as an essay with a conclusion, and their looking for their evidence in the form of your quote. Frankly, I hate this kind of journalism. I love the kind that presents the nuanced views and leaves me thinking there is another chapter or a bigger story to be told. I love when a journalist tells me they went out trying to write one piece, but another one emerged on paper that challenged their own perceptions. Finality often doesn’t exist in most contentious issues that draw attention, but pundits get paid to take stances and draw conclusions (as premature as they may be).

Friends: be very, very careful of being utilized for your appearance and position (lawyer, person of colour, LGBTQ2+, professional) as a way for the journalist/opinion writer to meander and promulgate their own opinion through your words. You can say a whole 30 minutes worth but your one off-colour, or you ‘wish was off the record’ comment of honesty or internal debate or side chatter, will represent you and by extension the community.

To paraphrase and quote the words of a mentor:

“Canada is a construct in most people’s minds that is just white and for many of us of colour (and those who are more aware) we know that it is a lot more complicated than that. To get our proper voice and opinion in, we have to do the extra work of proving to them that we are of a different world as much as we have been able to survive in theirs for so long. In that act of showing them that we are ‘different’, we chip away at ourselves because it has never been accepted to be normal – might speak to the inner trauma that many of us have.”

With that being said, here are a few (seven) tips that I have employed myself to share with those being interviewed for the first time.

Will’s Eight Tips

1.Research, Research, Research: Research the topic inside out before you speak to the journalist. Memories fade, facts and figures that the journalists look to tie your comments to can be wrong/outdated/or not properly cited. My own personal rule is at least 1-2 hours prep per ten minute phone call.

2.Understand the Ethical Guidelines: Review the CAJ Ethics Guidelines and clarify beforehand whether the media you are interviewing for follows specific rules http://caj.ca/images/downloads/Ethics/ethics_guidelines.pdf – Depending on the source journalist standards may be different. Some are okay with publishing written email comments (my favourite, because I can cite and research). Others are okay allowing you to review quotes first before they publish. Others put a process for correction, after the fact. It’s good to know what the industry norms and standards are rather than to be caught off-guard.

3. Deep dive into the journalist/interviewer’s work: On that point, on norms and standards – research the journalist or show you will be on. For the radio ones I did, even though I admit I’ve only recently gotten into podcasting, I watched a couple episodes to understand style. Similar for print – many times experts are called in on follow-up pieces to news reports. It is good to see what the writer has been doing in that area and whether there are some underlying message being shared and whether they resonate with you. If they don’t, you may choose to pass the interview on, or else address your concerns directly with the journalist. Even if you are not published, it spares your thoughts or work being reduced into a ‘colour-sound bite.’

4. Find Dry Run Partners/Debaters: Run through a few mock interviews with people you trust (and who you respect for their difference of opinion). I would do it not only with my spouse, but also with close friends at parties (who I would tell about upcoming interviews), and over the phone with trusted mentors. Sometimes, you may come from different views on a topic – that opposition is helpful. In a few cases, texts back and forth clarified that I shouldn’t do an interview. In another, I got valuable advice on the direction I should steer my interview. Speaking to someone with experience can really lessen the nerves and clarify the bigger picture often missed when questions are being asked that you are unprepared to answer.

5. Record Your Interview Yourself! I am not the best at this – but try and record (and ask for permission to record) the call at the same time you are being interviewed. At the very least take some typed notes as you speak so you have a record of what you said. Clarify exactly when things are ‘on’ and/or  ‘off’ the record. A full record for yourself can be very important, especially if you want clarify something in your own social media post later or expand on points that weren’t published or gotten to.

6. Speak Your Truth, Presented Specific to You (With Caveats, As Necessary): I realize in interviews, many questions (particularly where the interviewer hasn’t yet done their homework in the same way you have) can be asked very broadly. It’s important to highlight your perspective and what you believe in, but it’s important to also put those important classifiers – this is what “I” believe, “I see the situation as,” “in my personal opinion only.’ It’s important to clarify when you speak as an individual (especially those with many professional responsibilities) and when you speak as a mouthpiece of an organization. I find that big sweeping statements such as ‘we’ or ‘our community’ or ‘most of us’ get picked up often and often times are only a partial picture of the point you are trying to get across.

7. Get Ready for Damage Control – If the quote in the preview or posted product isn’t exactly what you meant –  it’s time to do damage control. I like to get ahead of stories and share it myself with a full summary of what my point was. On a couple occasions I’ve had to ask journalists to make some corrections, which they can if it meets their journalistic guidelines.

8. Prepare for Social Media Backlash – Be aware of social media blow ups. Twitter accounts or Headline/Catchphrase choosers are often run by a completely separate person than the one interviewing you

To Conclude

I end off with a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates which I think any of us stepping into the controversial arena of being interviewed by a journalist throws you into.

“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

I am very hopefully with the new, fresh, voices on both sides of journalism – both writing and interviewing. In this way, we’re able to have more intimate dialogues that go to the heart and depth of issues rather than superficial comments that leave surfaces barely scratched. Yet, in this age of populism and financial difficulties, there will still be a huge market of journalism aimed at and for those who want the sound bites, especially the colour sound-bites, to rationalize and justify their superiority and validate their biases, prejudices, and racism.

I wish you luck in your interviews and look forward to the conversation this piece generates!

Letter to My Sister (in Law): A Reflection on Male Toxicity and Male Privilege in the Profession

The below piece was inspired by a recent experience in an Inland Spousal Sponsorship interview. In a moment of empowerment, I decided to step in for the Officer and question my clients, in a manner that went beyond my ‘courtesy’ role as counsel. I reflected on the power/historical dynamics that led me to believe that I could do this, and believe that part of it was because the officer was a Filipina-Canadian woman and in the back of my mind, as a lawyer, I could speak for her or over her. I connected it to other experience in front of white decision-makers of power and recognized my parallel silence. It is a position I could not reconcile with myself and therefore I have written the below letter.

The first version I wrote (but was accidentally deleted in a WordPress saving issue) was arguably better. I think I went more in detail and hit harder. Perhaps, it was to personal and would have drawn criticism from those individuals who may have recognized themselves in the parables. I hope that in this version, I still capture that essence. I will continue trying to find back the words I wrote but in the meantime please take these words.

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Dear Sister (in Law):

While we are not bound by blood, we are bound as siblings by our mutual decision to enter this profession. You, like me, entered to be able to pursue a profession where you would be valued for your contribution, where you could fight to promote justice, and where you could secure a better future for you and your clients.

I am writing today to apologize to you and to share a few accounts both of my privilege and the ways in which we (as a Male Bar, writ large) have not given you the space or opportunity you deserve, as our gender equals.

To those of you of colour, we have even further made difficult a journey that is already made difficult by the trauma of practicing areas that hit often too close to home or too distinct from experience.

We have created environments that have further make you feel without a place and/or we have used our own space to take away yours, our voice to silence yours. For that, we need to acknowledge that we’ve fallen far short. We need to take immediate remedial action to empower you and humble ourselves in the process.

I take personal responsibility for my own role. Looking back on the past years, I have made so many mistakes. I have participated in speaking over women colleagues in male-dominated meetings, all-consumed in the toxic male ego. I have engaged in the backroom small talk of discussing visceral appearances, and generally not being a-tuned enough to how much I was contributing to the denigration of my own sister. I cast gazes that were inappropriate, had conversations that re-enforced my own alluster. I was selfish and wrong.

Inexplicably, I have at the same time showed deference to white men in a manner where I would not have showed deference to you – and it is something I cannot explain but damn-right want to fight in myself and in others. It makes me sick to my stomach that I would allow the historical colonial role of white men in Canada, to not only silence me but then turn around, as a silenced person of colour and not take away your voice.

Meanwhile I have listened but not acted when you told me about that partner who made you do 90% of the work and would take 100% of the credit. When you have told me of clients who would email them to complain about you and who treated you as a disposable assistant rather than the capable lawyer you are. I should have knocked on the doors of patriarchy or helped you fight back. My ‘it will be okay’ simple wasn’t an okay response and was reflective of my silence and misuse of privilege.

When you told me that you received a position on a Board and that the Partner thought you were filling a ‘diversity quota’ I should have made clearer that I was on your side. Instead, I tried to justify his response.

I regret not telling the lawyers who told me that I was at an advantage because I was male and would not have babies and go on mat leave that this was not fair to my sisters who often do not choose to abandon profession but often have the decision imposed on them by the external forces of child-rearing, with little more than a “that’s your natural responsibility.” I want a child but know full well that this decision will change my partner’s life and career choices in a way it does not affect me. I can show up the next day to accolades without having to feel an announce of the pain or the prejudiced judgment of bottom-line driven employers.

I regret the times I participated with the white man in casting that wicked gaze over you – commenting on your appearance and not your last appearance in Court.  The times I saw your high heels as symbols of sex but not the band aids behind the heels as symbols of pain of needing to please in a profession with it’s priorities all wrong.

I regret not telling the powers that be that maybe they need to speak to you first before speaking to me and that my rubber stamping of their authority added to simple majority but paid lip service to you, who was truly affected by the choices they were making.  We allowed our cultures to develop into mini fraternities and boys clubs, where we feigned listening to your monologues one second, and immediately after closed the doors and laughed at you the next.

I regret not trying harder to convince media that they do not need another male talking head or that they should assume that ‘he knows’ when ‘she knows better’ and has the credentials to back it up. I should have deferred or set ultimatums where simply I was happy taking the limelight, myself. It has made you question why you have to work twice harder to get half the accolades, at a portion of the pay – something your client may never know.

How do I fix this? How do I be a true ally to you?

For one, I should no longer contribute to ‘mansplaining’ your situation or always wanting to be the head of the table, especially in your conversations.

For second, I should ask you as my sister what you want – and not assume it is protection, a father figure, a direction seeker, and that maybe I am actually the one needs all three.

For third, maybe it’s time I stop enabling the powerholders and brokers by kow-towing and pumping their tires.

I should challenge their authority, that they are no King and maybe it is time for a Queen to be given her chance to reign. In my personal life, when I see situations of inequality affecting women and women of colour, I need to raise my voice rather than sit there content in silently being served by a woman, like the experience is normal. It isn’t.

I have a lot of historical wrongs to right. My response to feeling dispossessed as an ethnic male during my high school years was to try and join the popular forces of ‘whiteness’ and ‘maleness.’ I had encounters and moments where I crossed lines I had set for myself. In law school and my early practice, I felt male dominance was just part of a normalized environment. Little did I know that it was a environment built specifically to keep women out of power  – while simultaneously undervaluing/underappreciating their work. Next year they would always say – you would get what we have, but the goalposts would always shift.

What a difference time makes. I am now in a place where I work for badass women. They are now (currently) my office manager, two out three of my Firm owner’s, my mentor, my spouse, and my mother. I have cut from my life those elements of male toxicity. I am stepping (although it is a process) outside of my perpetrator role. The events of recent show I still have a long way to go.

Sister – I hope this next generation of lawyers is your generation. I hope you take seats on our highest bench where you hold decision-making power over us, molding law with your genius and maturity.

If I ever, talk for you, walk over you, gaze at you, in a manner in which you are uncomfortable I want you to tell me. I want you to tell me when another one of my brothers does it to you as well. I want you to share with us (when you are ready) how we have failed you. Any Firm that takes such a piece as an offense or tries and dissuade you from doing so, is no home for you.

It is with sincerest apologies and hope that we can do better, as men and allies.

Sincerely,

signed

Your Brother (in Law)

 

 

 

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.