Being the first in anything is something that we as a community value. We tend to support and cheer on the underdog. We love to hear stories of people who step out of their comfort zone and overcome numerous challenges to ultimately reach their objective. However, while we value the valiant effort of getting there, once a student who is a first-generation lawyer completes law school and steps into the “real world,” they tend to feel abandoned. Frankly, in a profession where who you know, what school you went to and the circle that surrounds you is so important in getting your foot in the door, first gens very often fall through the cracks. Fortunately, the First Generation Network is now here to fill in this gap (unfortunately only in Ontario, for now).
Brooke Longhurst is a third-year law student at the University of Toronto and the founder and co-president of the First Generation Network, a network of first-generation lawyers. According to Brooke, the purpose of FGN is to “reduce the barriers to success for law students who were the first in their families to attend post-secondary education. We focus on breaking down barriers and celebrating the positive attributes that first-generation students often bring to the table.”
Whether it is helping first gens develop networking skills, build a network of recent and seasoned lawyers who were also first gens or providing mentorship opportunities, FGN is looking at supporting these lawyers to ensure that they are able to enter the profession with the full support they need to be successful and hit the ground running.
Apart from joining FGN, I asked Longhurst what she felt were critical pieces of advice for first gens entering the legal profession and she provided me with three very sage and practical tips.
- “Focus your energy on what’s fixable.” By this, she means that first-gen lawyers should make an effort to attend events and to overcome their initial hesitation and nervousness in reaching out and trying to connect with lawyers in their area of interest. For example, she notes that “if the inside of a law firm is a mystery to you, try to go on firm tours to feel more comfortable.” I concur! Over the last few years, I have come to know many of the people within law firms who are responsible for student and associate recruitment and I must say that they would be more than glad to offer tours and answer any questions one may have.
- Longhurst notes that finding informal or formal mentors “who can share their experience, guide you through each part of your career and who you can speak openly and honestly to is invaluable.” This makes sense. Even if only one out of 10 lawyers answers your email or meets with you for a coffee, making the connection and having someone you can bounce ideas off of is critical. Step out of your comfort zone and make that initial contact. Remember that, should someone not respond, do not take it personally! Your email likely fell in someone’s email jail, other commitments might have caused them to forget to respond or, unfortunately, they just did not have time (I admit to having all of these happen to me at one time or another) — it is not personal. Like Wayne Gretzky is famous for saying: “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.” You only need one goal to make a big difference in your career.
- Finally, closely related to the point above, it is important to remember that there are a lot of people who want to help you succeed. Brooke concludes that, “in my experience, the legal industry has a lot of people who are keen to help students and young lawyers — especially those who are working hard in light of challenges. The commitment lawyers have shown toward seeing our network succeed has been amazing. In addition to the incredible support we’ve received from first-generation lawyers and legal leaders, some of the First Generation Network’s strongest advocates are lawyers from very privileged backgrounds who have been kind to share their platform, experience and time with us. This profession is filled with some of Canada’s brightest and most accomplished people. While that seems intimidating, many lawyers are very kind-hearted and approachable.” Again, do not be afraid or too humble to reach out — we expect that you will.
This may be a bit of a generalization, but I find that first-gen lawyers tend to be humble. We tend to feel that hard work on its own will eventually result in someone becoming aware of our incredible potential, resulting in offers of mentorship or, even better, an opportunity to apply the skills and abilities that we possess. As a first-gen lawyer, you need to, in my opinion, hide away that humble nature and actively seek out the contacts, attend the events, speak to attendees, exchange business cards (which means have some made, even if not currently working somewhere), send out emails and send out LinkedIn invitations. In essence, use the drive, passion and work ethic that got you this far to build a network. Make an effort to join groups such as FGN (which you can do by reaching out to Longhurst for more information), but, most importantly, never stop looking at yourself in the mirror to congratulate yourself for getting this far and for accomplishing something as important as becoming a first-generation lawyer!
I am privileged and honoured to be the keynote speaker for FGN at the Toronto offices of Goodmans LLP on Nov. 23. The discussion is titled “From Struggling Student to General Counsel” and I hope to speak about my experiences and expand on tips for first-gen lawyers. If you are already registered, I look forward to speaking with you further there. If you are not, I understand that the registration is currently full, but please be on the lookout or reach out to Longhurst to find out about future events. I look forward to seeing you!