I’m switching this blog to a creative outlet for me to write short stories. My activism in law will continue on www.LAWtinaElsa.com
I’m switching this blog to a creative outlet for me to write short stories. My activism in law will continue on www.LAWtinaElsa.com
A tale of a young, twentysomething-years-old woman finding hope while living with depression
Dear child –
It’s me, your mom. Only I’m not actually your mom right now.
You see, I’m still 27 years old. I’m fresh out of law school. I haven’t even met your other parent yet! In fact, you may not even be my kid; but I will treat you like one!
I’ll be honest kid, I normally don’t think of you at this life stage. I’m single and my main loves right now are my two cats, Lady Penelope and Lady Lily. I hope you meet them. They have diva and silly personalities. I mainly think about passing the bar exam and also if Beyoncé will release her next album soon (I didn’t like her recent joint album with her husband, Jay-Z).
So my future kid, why am I thinking of you today?
I want you to know that your mom is struggling in this stage of life. However, I want you to know how hard your mom fought at this stage of her life to eventually see you in the future.
Your mom is sick right now. Mom is sick with depression. Kid, you may be too young to understand depression so I’m going to simplify it for you:
You know that feeling you get when you receive a gift for your birthday? It’s like a tingling excitement to rip open the gift? Depression is when you don’t care about what’s inside the box. You don’t care if you get a toy or socks (side point, socks are important so don’t be upset if I give you socks).
You may ask, “why mommy are you depressed? Why not be happy?”
Well it’s a hard question, kid. But you see, I’m trying to be happy; that’s why I am writing this letter.
You know when you fall down from your bike and you cry for a hug and band-aid? Mommy is hurt. So right now, she is seeing a doctor to help her.
My doctor asked me to write down and think of everything that gives me hope. It’s like an adult version of a band-aid.
Kid, I realize that even though I don’t know you right now – I may be your mother (birth or adopted), aunt, godmother or mentor – but I realize I will have cool stories and lessons to tell you. That gives me hope.
If I give up now, I won’t have fun stories to tell you. How boring is that?
I won’t tell you the time when I thought I would never love again, but eventually I did! Okay so this story is missing details right now because it hasn’t happened yet; but I know it will happen. You bet the story will rival the tale of Gone With The Wind! (It’s an old book, all you need to know is that adults like each other and kiss…eww I know, cooties).
If I give up, I won’t tell you the story of when I almost gave up my dream of being a lawyer but I didn’t! I will tell you the story of when I eventually passed the bar exam and became an amazing lawyer. Now, I know you will ask me, “Mom, what is a lawyer?”
Okay so you know how every game has rules? Well a lawyer is an expert on the rules of the game. And you know how some rules are silly and don’t make sense? Well some lawyers like your mommy fight to change those rules so everyone could play fairly. I realize, if I give up, I won’t tell you the riveting stories when your mom fought fire-breathing dragons to change those rules! Imagine how amusing it will be for me to re-tell the story! We can re-enact it! I will be the dragon and you will be the cool lawyer!
Kid, for every story has that hasn’t happened to me, I have so many stories to tell you that already happened to me – for example, the time I slept on a park bench in Paris! Or that time when mommy travelled with her sister (your aunt) to Camp Nou and saw Messi! (Don’t worry, if you’re a child of mine, you will know Messi)
I am writing this letter to you because part of my illness tricks my brain to think that there is no hope for the future. Your mom’s broken heart feels fragile like glass. But I want you to remember, your mom turned her broken heart to a sword. How? Well this is my first lesson to you kid: Depression may make you feel fragile like thin glass. But guess what? Even when you break glass, it becomes sharp as a sword.
Your mom cries a lot right now because she is sick. But it won’t be forever. Luckily she has a lot of friends and mentors who are helping her through this rough time.
I want you to remember kid, that by the time you arrive to my world, my glass heart will be a sword. We will fight so many dragons with my sword. But making this sharp sword will take time – and so be patient with me. In fact, I may not be lucky with my first attempt to make an awesome sword, but I eventually will succeed.
Can’t wait for our future adventures and stories.
See you later.
Back in September 2018, I wrote a post titled, “What If I’ll Never Be Like Marie Henein?”
The post was therapeutic for me to write because I struggled balancing my perception of “being a strong lawyer” and battling mental health issues. I used Marie Henein as an example to my insecurities. She is bold, fierce, and unapologetic. I aspired in law school to be all those things as a human rights and labour litigator, but then depression hit.
I wrote the post back in September 2018 – two months before my November 2018 bar exams for the Barristers and Solicitors exam. I remember feeling anxious and unsure of my exams. As someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (along with Major Depression Disorder & good ol’ OCD) I felt I already disappointed myself because I would never be the bold Latina lawyer that Canada needs.
It’s now January 2019, almost February. I passed Barristers! I found out that I need to re-do Solicitors but I only missed the target by eight points. So close! I’m scheduled to re-write my Solicitors exam in March.
So why am I writing this? To let you know an update on my life?
Well, yes and no. My mental health journey since writing the post “What If I’ll Never Be Like Marie Henein?” has been fairly good.
But this past week in January 2019, I wanted to give up law. I was at Scotia Plaza on King Street in downtown Toronto. For those not from Toronto, Scotia Plaza is in the heart of the financial district, filled with bankers and lawyers. I couldn’t stop crying. I tried, but the tears kept flowing. I called my mom and sister, “I failed. I want to quit.” The anxiety of failing my Solicitors exam was too intense. On Monday of that week, I only had 20 pages left to read for the Wills chapter. It took a solid week to read 10 pages. I couldn’t understand what was happening. By Thursday of that week, panic set in.
I can’t finish this.
Law school was a waste of time and money.
Those feelings were strong and I couldn’t hold it in. I now know distraction and loss of motivation is a symptom of depression. We’re told as litigators and lawyers to keep in it. You don’t want your opposing counsel to see your strategy and your emotions. You definitely don’t want to start crying in front of the judge or arbitrator. I told myself at Scotia Plaza,
Stop crying, Elsa.
But nevertheless, I cried.
Now enter Marie Henein in my story.
Back in September 2018, Marie actually responded to my post. Among some other stories she shared (I’ll keep those parts confidential), she shared something touching in her message,
“Having flaws, weaknesses and challenges is entirely normal. Who doesn’t? Being able to overcome them is what shows true grit and strength. You have. You should celebrate that.”
It took some days of self-care, sleep, and a good manicure to remember this email from her back in September. I pulled it up and re-read it again. I realized that this bad week in January 2019 was just a challenge – that’s all. Furthermore, crying as a reaction to this challenge is normal. Sometimes you just have to let it out.
Mariel Henein’s email taught me two lessons:
I share this anecdote for those law students and lawyers battling with anxiety or in general, when faced with moments of weaknesses and challenges. In law, we often romanticize lawyers for their “strong skill set” – their litigation techniques, their analysis to the law, etc.
But let’s go deeper.
Ask yourself: how did they respond to challenges in their life?
I go back to Justice Bora Laskin, the 14th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
We often remember Chief Justice Bora Laskin of the Supreme Court of Canada as a brilliant legal mind for his legendary dissents, which later became majority decisions in later courts and cases. He was a person ahead of the game. Personally, he remains my favourite Justice in the Canadian legal system.
But we often forget Chief Justice Bora Laskin struggled obtaining employment. Why?
Well, he was Jewish and the legal profession in the 1930s – 1940s was very anti-Semitic towards Jewish lawyers. He struggled to find articling, despite his academic achievement from the University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall Law School and Harvard Law.
So we have a challenge: to leave an anti-Semitic profession, or keep fighting, despite those barriers?
Chief Justice Bora Laskin eventually ended up in academia. The loss of Private practice became the judiciary’s massive gain.
I tell you this story because when I want to give up, like I did in January 2019, I remember Marie Henein’s email and the biography of Chief Justice Bora Laskin.
We will face challenges as lawyers, especially those like me with depression and anxiety. Honour your emotions, cry it out if you need to and retreat for a bit.
But you will rise, the same way Chief Justice Bora Laskin did.
Think and reflect on how you will respond to a challenge.
“Being able to overcome them is what shows true grit and strength.”
Originally published via Medium
As a soon-to-be lawyer, I noticed my profession likes to talk about two things: 1) law jokes, such as this Simpsons’ clip of Lionel Hutz and Bart Simpson discussing a world without lawyers, and 2) diversity in law.
The Law Society of Ontario, which serves as the professional regulator for lawyers and paralegals, has been active in promoting equality and representation within a historically male, Christain and white profession. Private practice has also taken a lead. Many firms are now dedicating resources and hiring consultants to improve diversity in the legal profession.
Efforts to increase representation is a good thing for the obvious reason that we need lawyers to adequately represent the various ethnic, racial, spiritual, and gender communities within the Canadian public. We have seen improvements among female lawyers. For example, more women are being admitted to law school than ever before, and more women are taking up roles of managerial positions. Although our work is not done — women still face unequal pay and an imbalance between conventional motherhood and lawyering. Many female-focused organizations have done a good job highlighting the problems faced by women inside and outside the legal profession
I’m pleased, but I’m lately frustrated because even though we have advanced in the area of female parity, racial diversity is lacking in most levels of law.
I’m frustrated because I have realized that discussions on diversity are meaningless if we lack an unapologetic, racialized voice in the Ontario legal bar. As a Latinx law student, I’ve been asked to speak about my experiences with mental health at conferences or through print interviews. While I have no doubt these lawyers have good intentions, I argue it is time for us to create a collective of racialized lawyers and law students, in a similar matter that female-focused organizations have mobilized their base.
I recognize there is a lot of intersectionality regarding diversity. However, I argue there are some issues that we, as racialized lawyers and students, need to address first among our community in order to take it mainstream with the Law Society of Ontario and the legal profession. An example to illustrate my point of racialized dialogue is the issue of intergenerational trauma. My family survived the brutal Salvadoran Civil War in the 80s, yet the anxiety and PTSD that my family went through still resonates today. As a (soon-to-be) lawyer, in order to understand my mental health journey in law, one needs to understand the nature of civil wars and political exodus to get a greater context. The moment I started law school, I felt alone with the issue of intergenerational trauma. However, I have learned through my Somali friends that some members of their community experience these similar effects of anxiety and PTSD due to the Somali Civil War.
Another problem in law is appearance, such as following Western norms. After talking with my Black and Afro-Latinx brothers and sisters, I have learned hair is political. For years, to be deemed “professional” in law, many Black and Afro-Latinx lawyers felt the pressure to relax their hair in order to reflect European norms of beauty.
The same way other grassroots collectives have reclaimed their narrative in law, it’s time for us — racialized lawyers of Ontario and Canada — to be unapologetic on issues that have affected our members.
If the legal profession is going to talk about diversity, it needs to be run and organized by racialized lawyers who have lived these issues. Discussions of diversity are meaningless if the same institutions, that have historically excluded us, decide to take the lead.
If diversity is supposed to benefit us and our racialized communities, let us take charge and let us be unapologetic with our culture.
Originally published via Medium https://medium.com/@elsaascencio/the-meaningless-discussions-of-diversity-in-law-f33744467023
A personal reflection on mental health and being a female lawyer.
Law school is an important time in every lawyer’s development. It is a time when you learn the mechanics of the common and civil law; it is a time when you build connections with classmates and professors. But it is also a time when we start asking ourselves, “What kind of lawyer will I become?” It is a time when we begin to build our perception of what a lawyer should look like.
I entered law school in 2014, around the time of Jian Ghomeshi trial. Naturally as law students, we noticed Ghomeshi’s lawyer – Marie Henein. Many students, including myself, were in awe of Henein. She is seen as a criminal defense fighter. Media coverage surrounding Henein also came around the time when Amal Clooney grabbed public attention. Amal Clooney graduated from Oxford; and she was perceived as a fighter for human rights.
For law students, Marie Henein and Amal Clooney began shaping our expectation of what it means to be a modern, female lawyer in a historically male-dominated profession. The modern, female lawyer is brilliant; she is poised, but she is also a fierce advocate. However, I can’t help but wonder, where does mental health fit in the narrative of the modern, female lawyer?
During the first two years of law school, I felt like the Marie Henein of labour law. I fought for workers’ rights within the Latino community; and I didn’t shy away from conflict against employers. I did well in my classes and I thrived in exams. I even secured articling early at a top labour firm in Ottawa. I was on top of my game. However, by the time I started 3L, something in me changed. I couldn’t focus in my third-year classes. I started to avoid conflict. I cried a lot, in private and public; I struggled with the bar exam. At my lowest point, I wanted to end my life. I learned from doctors that these were the symptoms of serious depression.
I no longer felt brilliant. I no longer felt poised. I no longer felt like the Marie Henein of labour law. I no longer felt like the modern, female lawyer. I thought to myself, “What if I’ll never be like Marie Henein?” I truly wanted to embody the strong presence of modern, female lawyer. But for me to do this, I needed to learn how to be a lawyer living with depression.
It’s been two years since my journey with depression started in 3L. I have some bad days, but truth is, I mostly have good days now. I have started to look forward, not backwards. One evening, I was scrolling down my social media newsfeed and saw the name: “Marie Henein.” Something clicked in me.
The media portrayal of modern, female lawyers is adversarial in the court context. They use their intelligence to fight for their clients, or fight against human rights abuses. No doubt, the modern, female lawyer is a professional at her job. However I’ve learned that part of the fighting spirit is standing up for yourself. To put it simply, the modern, female lawyer recognizes that she is worth fighting for. She knows she deserves equal pay. She knows she deserves a safe and harassment-free work environment.
The modern, female lawyer also recognizes that if her soul is hurting from depression, she must honour herself first, even if that includes crying. I challenge law students to include mental health in their perception of what it means to be a lawyer. Aspire to be Marie Henein. Aspire to be Amal Clooney. Aspire to be yourself.
After my articling term finished, I wasn’t called to the bar like my friends. I needed some time off to honour myself and eventually write the bar exam. I’m glad I did because the modern, female lawyer not only fights in court, but she fights for herself.
I’m glad I fought for myself and I’m still here to tell the tale.
Before I begin, this post may be triggering for some. I want my blog to be a safe space so please feel to close this tab or go to my cat’s Instagram page
I want to talk about suicide in law.
It’s a sensitive subject so I will proceed with much care, sensitivity, and love. A study showed that lawyers ranked 5th in suicide among other occupations.
November 2016. Late February 2017. Those two dates are forever etched in my mind because alone in Ottawa, I almost took my own life. Twice. To this day, I tear up thinking about my attempts. Suicide is … an odd thing. It drains you. You are a shell of yourself. It’s not a short term recovery. It’s a long process. I think the best description of suicide is from the comedian Patton Oswalt:
I’ve brushed up against this darkness and I know it’s a tempting exit but REACH OUT to ANYONE. Stay on this side of it — in the light and warmth. Where you get to try again, every day.
The exit. You see, once you’ve seen suicide, you are tempted when life is overwhelming to use that “exit door.” Admittedly, I’m no exception. Part of my recovery is forgetting that the exit door is there. It’s 2018 and I’m still in therapy for it.
So how does play in law? Law is overwhelming. Law schools are failing in teaching us how to cope with failure because the blunt reality, law rewards success and punishes failure. So let’s say you failed criminal law 101. You have to retake the class. But law schools seldom offer summer school classes. So you are forced to take crim 101 again, along with your full 2L course load. This is exhausting. Another example: let’s say you failed the bar – there is immense dread because you can’t help but feel “I invested all this time and money to not become a lawyer.” This is a demoralizing idea.
We don’t talk about failure in law because odds are, if you got into law school, you succeeded a lot to get there. In other words, “what is this failure you talk about?”
Yet, we know failure happens because we are human. For the most part, folks learn from failure. That’s great.
But not all folks get that message – especially those folks who may be predisposed to depression and suicide. I’ll use myself as an example: when I failed my bar in June 2017, I wanted to use that exit door again.
By October 2017, I really wanted to “go” because I felt like a complete idiot for failing. Folks told me to live and learn. True. But when the system rewards success with pomp and pageantry, you can’t help but feel…like crap.
Law schools, law firms, legal minds, judges (hey Bev hey!): let’s talk failure. It happens as a community. Teach us how to cope, without losing ourselves.
Canada Suicide Prevention Hotline: in French or English: toll-free 1-833-456-4566 Available 24/7
Last week, a top law firm in Toronto, Lenczner Slaght, announced they were embracing a “Name-Blind” process to address the diversity and inclusion problems in the legal profession. Lenczner Slaght raised a good point; Bay Street in Toronto – which is home to the top law firms and companies in Canada – has struggled to embrace a more diverse population. A notable example of the struggle on Bay Street is demonstrated by Hadiya Roderique in her powerful essay, “Black on Bay Street.”
When the announcement came out by Lenczner Slaght, I was thrilled. I tweeted my excitement to the managing director of Lenczner Slaght because studies showed “whitening” your name in a resumé is likely to yield more callbacks for an interview.
However as days passed and critiques came forward from my friend and former Ottawa Law colleague Naomi Sayers, namely her article in Canadian Lawyer Magazine, I started to realize that there were some problems with Lenczner Slaght’s name-blind process. So at the core, I argue that the “name blind” process assumes we all began from the same place (the “original position” in philosophy). This is a rebuttable presumption because the truth is, we all haven’t started from the same place. In fact, some of us had to fight some societal barriers to even apply to law school. Allow me to explain.
So as a former Liberal Arts student, I studied literature, economics, and some philosophy before law school. I know, I’m a proud nerd. In philosophy, there is a concept called the “Veil of Ignorance.” In discussions related to the social contract and political order, John Rawls proposed a theory called the “Veil of Ignorance.” Without engaging in a full blown lecture of philosophy, Rawls argued that in order to yield more effective political decisions, we must go back to the “original position.” To achieve the original position, we must be blind to identifying traits and characteristics of the person and society. In the opinion of Rawls, he argues that this ensures everyone in society is guaranteed equal opportunity. It sounds like a pretty awesome theory, right?
But there’s a problem with this theory: it assumes that the original position is the same for everyone. This is simply not true because we know some segments of society have faced intergenerational violence, racism, colonialism, sexism, to name a few.
The name-blind process is similar to the Veil of Ignorance in the sense that it assumes by not knowing the background of the name, you are able to judge the person on equal merit. However, even with the name blocked, some candidates were not provided with equal opportunities for internships, jobs, and schooling because their original position isn’t the same as their peers.
So what can we do instead?
In my second year at the University of Ottawa, I took my favourite class with Professor Elizabeth Judge. The class was called “Law and Literature.” In my class thesis, I argued we should apply literary theory to judicial decisions to produce a more equitable society. If (former) Chief Judge Richard Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit could apply economic theory to judicial decisions, why not apply literary theory as well? (FYI I found out this is a source of debate in academia but that’s for another blog post).
Applying literary theory to judicial decisions has been done before. Let’s use the classic contract case: Lloyds Bank v Bundy,  QB 326. This case is a landmark case in contract law because it recognized the unequal bargaining power between Mr. Bundy and the bank. In this case, Mr. Bundy took out a loan to help his son’s struggling company. While in examination, he also suffered a heart attack. As a first year law student, you can’t help but feel sympathy for Mr. Bundy. Lord Denning brings out the story and characteristics of Mr. Bundy. Lord Denning recognized that the common law assumed equal bargaining power between the two parties. In other words, the two parties had the same original position (sounds familiar?) Lord Denning ruled that Mr. Bundy didn’t have equal bargaining power – he was a lonely man going against a big bank because he wanted to help his son.
So how does this apply to Lenczner Slaght’s hiring process? Equality in the common law was achieved by knowing the story of Mr. Bundy. Equality and diversity on Bay Street (and law in general) will be achieved by knowing the story of the candidates – not by blocking their name. Not every candidate started from the same or “original” position, as stated by Rawls. That’s okay – that is what makes the practice of law beautiful.
Assess a candidate by their grades but also ask, “What is your story?” Allow the candidate to talk about their story. Are they an Indigenous law student who left their community? Are they a single mom who studied at night? Are they a Latina with two cats who follows the gospel of Oprah? Okay maybe that last one is me.
Point is: I’m happy we are talking about the name-blind process. To give full credit, Lenczner Slaght is already a step ahead by at least talking about the subject matter. I hope my critique adds constructive value to the discussion.