First generation lawyering: How to make up for an absence of connections

  • June 11, 2020
  • Vincent Li

Law is a profession where who you know matters. With the right connections, opportunities become more readily available. For first generation law students, though, the ‘who you know’ is generally thinner and more difficult to access. So, when first generation law students set out on the job hunt, they typically begin to realize they lack the benefit of certain familial connections. This is obviously not to say that a thriving legal career is only possible with existing familial connections. However, barriers arguably become more evident without such connections.

A first-generation law student can be characterized as one whose parents did not attend post-secondary education. My father is an immigrant and my mother is a refugee — neither of whom were able to pursue post-secondary studies. That left me, as it did many law students in similar shoes, to my own devices navigating the legal industry.

Without first-hand experience in law, many of us have no way to peer within. We have no mother in the judiciary to lean on, no father in litigation to teach us the tricks of the trade, no grandparents with experience as Managing Partner from which to glean insight. As a first-generation law student, I initially felt very much on my own.

Despite entering law school at Thompson Rivers University with zero connections in the legal field, I recently graduated with a strong national network. How did it happen? I credit the following strategies, which are also my recommendations to law students — first generation or not — for building a network.

The first is to join legal organizations. The CBA, for instance, has enabled me to connect with law students, articling students, lawyers, and judges from across the country. The CBA’s activities have taken me to Ottawa on several occasions where I have met industry leaders willing to share their wisdom. Mentorship opportunities also exist through other national organizations. With a strong interest in litigation, I joined The Advocates’ Society and connected with some of country finest advocates. I am also a member of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, a national organization promotion equity, justice, and opportunity for lawyers who share my ethnic background. Lawyers in these organizations are commonly open to becoming a part of law students’ networks.

My second recommendation is to participate in legal events that take you beyond the walls of school. For instance, I competed in the Sopinka Cup, a criminal trial moot. The competition was attended by law students and lawyers from coast to coast, all of whom were thrilled to engage with future litigators. Moots are fantastic networking opportunities because there are often social components built into the event. At the Sopinka Cup, I was even able to meet Justices Moldaver, Côté, and Rowe. Other events include conferences – which are usually centered around a specific practice area, justice system issue, or practitioner demographic. Conferences allow students to not only hear from the brightest in the field, but also meet lawyers with a passion for the subject matter.

Lastly, I recommend that law students employ what could be considered a ‘brute force’ method. In other words, actively engaging with practitioners. There are so many ways to connect with people nowadays. Emails and cold calls are bread and butter, but law students need not limit themselves to traditional methods. Lawyers are increasingly engaged on social media and are happy to receive professional messages from law students. I personally enjoyed observing court, and, if appropriate, speaking with counsel during breaks. Interest in a lawyer’s case is normally well-received.

Being a first-generation law student comes with its disadvantages. Nevertheless, the disadvantages challenged many of us to rise to the occasion. Law school provides many first-generation students with a springboard to innovatively build their professional networks. And, with these networks, the barriers of entry into the legal industry may not seem so insurmountable after all.

Vincent Li is Vice Chair of CBA National Law Students Section.