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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 […]

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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!

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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 – Steven 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 […]

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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.

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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.

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