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)!

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