Law Student Advice and Mentorship

Award-Winning Canadian Immigration and Refugee Law and Commentary Blog

Blog Posts

#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.


[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.

Read More »

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.

Read More »

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.

Read More »

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.

Read More »
About Us
Will Tao is an Award-Winning Canadian Immigration and Refugee Lawyer, Writer, and Policy Advisor based in Vancouver. Vancouver Immigration Blog is a public legal resource and social commentary.

Let’s Get in Touch

Translate »