Dear lawyers, legal professionals and law students: A letter to all of us on the front lines

Dear lawyers, legal professionals and law students: A letter to all of us on the front lines
Wela Quan

Our time has finally come.

For too long we have toiled thanklessly, mired in paperwork, keeping our heads down.

We have borne the brunt of lawyer jokes, suffered as professional punching bags and bravely pretended the jabs at our life’s work didn’t chip away at our sense of dignity.

And for too long we have done all of these things in the shadows, like the ugly stepsister to our prized sibling — the saintly doctor.

But no more.

Last week, as news broke of United States President Donald Trump’s executive order to ban Muslims, America’s airports became disaster zones. Residents with valid status were barred from returning home and children were separated from their parents. Innocent people were detained and protests by outraged citizens rose up across the nation.

As images of the airport protestors started to come in, I noticed something unusual. There, in the midst of all the confusion, was a group of people sitting on the ground with their laptops open. These were not ordinary protestors. These were lawyers. Lawyers there on the front lines, frantically searching for laws to protect those wronged. Lawyers came to defend fellow citizens’ rights, doing it all pro bono, with conviction and purpose.

Seeing this coverage was nothing short of extraordinary. In all these years of my life within the law, I have rarely been so proud to be a lawyer. The sentiment was felt all around the legal community as the mood seemed to finally tick upwards. Habeas corpus was breaking news, and we were not so bad after all.

I have struggled with identifying myself as a lawyer for the last 10 years. As a law student at McGill University in Montreal, I never had a clear picture of where my law degree would lead me. Coming from a background in political science, I thought I would go into government even as I was recruiting for law jobs. It did not take me long as a student to figure out that lawyers weren’t exactly the happiest kids on the playground and very quickly I became as jaded as the others. Soon afterwards, I just needed to get out.

When I left practice to write, I grappled with what to say when people asked me “What is it that you do?” Not confident enough to declare “Writer!”, I settled for calling myself an “ex-lawyer” because it didn’t need an explanation. No one ever hears of former doctors, but a former lawyer? Why, of course.

We lawyers are famous for our cynicism. Whenever we are asked about something, our gut always tells us to first say “no.” Whenever we think about if something can go wrong, our assumption is always that it will go wrong. This cannot be helped — it is just part of our job. We are paid to check our positivity at the door and in turn our professional doubter status seeps into our personal lives. No wonder we are so negative all the time.

In spite of all of this, we are needed now more than ever to step up and own our profession. We need to do this with both faith in our work and optimism.  

Years ago, when I asked my dad why we left China to come to Canada, he said something simple that really stuck with me. “Here,” he said, “there are laws to protect you from tyrants.” I never fully understood the meaning of his response until now. As the policies of the Trump administration roll out, and as Canadians are unable to fully disengage from their effects, our Constitution, our judges and most importantly our lawyers are the ones who must protect our laws.

Although most of us are not constitutional law experts and do not work on immigration issues, we can as individuals help to promote the rule of law. Even though we may not have direct impact, we can still zealously defend everyone’s rights to be heard regardless of party affiliation or political stance. Because we have had the luxury of living in peace for so long, it is easy to take ourselves for granted. But we must remember that the only reason we have peace is because of the law. As members charged with safeguarding Canada’s legal system, we can all make a positive contribution no matter big or small — even if it’s just to tell each other “good job.”

In the coming days, Canadian lawyers must be vigilant and remain grounded in upholding our own institutions so as not to be sucked in to the same divisiveness that exists in America. Standing by our duty as lawyers, we should endeavour to engage with all members of Canadian society and work extra hard at making sure that every Canadian feels protected by our profession and our laws. My hope is that if we all work together, Canadians can maintain a balanced approach to legal and political discourse.

In New Zealand, there is a native blackberry plant that is especially bothersome for hikers. It is a climbing plant that has hooked thorns that easily snag on clothes and skin. Once the plant gets caught on something, it holds on and does not easily let go. Kiwis call this plant the bush-lawyer.

At the time I was told about it, I chalked it up to being just another bad lawyer joke. Now when I think about bush-lawyers it makes me smile.

Yes, we lawyers hold on.

But we do it for good reason.

Wela Quan is a legal cartoonist and the author of The New York Bar Picture Book, a visual study outline for the New York state bar exam. A graduate of the University of Alberta and McGill University Faculty of Law, Quan worked as a corporate lawyer in New York City before leaving to travel and pursue a career in writing.

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