How do you pave a path as a first generation lawyer?
Are you a first generation lawyer? Are you the first person to go to law school in your family?
Me too. First generation lawyers carry a lot of weight on their shoulders. Who hasn't felt the pride and expectations of family members as you start down that long road to becoming a lawyer secretly wondering if you will be able to carry it through and make everyone proud (including yourself!).
Well here's a secret that you might not have thought about...
.. first generation lawyers also have freedom.
Freedom to blaze our own path. No one else in the family has paved the path but no one else has laid down expectations about how you will practice, with whom, what type of law, or where.
And that's freedom. Freedom to live by your values, your definition of success and the type of law you want to practice.
Being a first generation lawyer is hard.
But freedom to explore and grow is beautiful. Maybe nobody else in your family is along for the legal journey but the road is wide open.
Below, seven women share what has helped them the most as they pursue their goal of joining the legal profession.
Q: As a first generation lawyer, what has helped you the most in pursuing your goal to join the legal profession?
7 Women in law share their First Generation Lawyer tips to succeeding
As a First Generation Lawyer it is Important to be Yourself!
As a first generation lawyer, the best advice I received was to be myself and choose what I loved to do. When you’re entering a generally traditional and conservative profession, the pressure to conform and be like everyone else can be immense. When you don’t look like or act like the norm, it can make you feel that you don’t belong.
I very nearly didn’t continue with law after law school because of feeling I didn’t fit in. Only when I started to see models of lawyers who had practices that looked appealing did I start to feel excited about the law again. Inspired by them, I made my own path and redefined for myself what a lawyer could be. Clients often remark that they don’t like speaking with lawyers but I actually make getting their legal ducks in a row fun! That’s a badge of honour for me and a sign that I’m on my way.
Determination and Drive to Obtain Your Goals
As a first generation lawyer, my determination and drive has helped me the most in pursuing my goal to join the legal profession. Self-doubt and undermining your own potentially can be the number one killer of goals and dreams. I had to put all self-doubt behind me. It did not matter that my mother did not finish high school or that my father did not have much of a college education. All that mattered was my determination to reach for my goals; to press forward in the face of obstacles and become the lawyer that I wanted to be. I say this not to diminish the amazing support of my husband and children in pursuing my dreams but to emphasis the importance of believing in yourself despite your upbringing, obstacles, and challenges. The most important quality is determination and believing in your own potential.
Be Purposeful throughout Your Legal Journey
No one in my family has ever been a lawyer, nor do we have lawyers in our extended family-friend circle. We are teachers, welders, stay-at-home moms. I was the closest to the law, having been a legal assistant for several years prior to deciding to go to law school. Working for lawyers was helpful, as I watched everyone from baby lawyers to senior partners navigate their practices.
When I decided to pursue law, and started by applying for an undergraduate degree, the most helpful decision I made was to be purposeful in who and what I allowed to influence me. This involved choosing mentors, setting boundaries with colleagues, and being intentional with my free time.
I chose four mentors who were capable of supporting me in my chosen path and who each shared some of my values; a male senior partner in my firm, a female retired accountant, and the male and female owners of a wellness centre.
I set boundaries with colleagues who would come to my office and, albeit with the positive intention to connect, focus our conversations on how impossible my life was during that time.
When I had free time, I did my best to ensure that the majority of it was spent with people and in environments that supported my mental and physical health, and inspired me – even the music I listened to was chosen with intention.
Vivian Ntiri is Counsel at Foresters Financial where she is a member of the organization's legal team, practicing in various areas of the law with a background in commercial litigation and medical malpractice. Vivian was called to the Ontario bar and the New York bar in 2018 and is licensed to practice in both jurisdictions.
Connecting, Curiousity and Discipline
My ability to network, my curiosity and my self-driven nature have been essential to my pursuit and success in joining the legal profession. I really enjoy meeting new people and cultivating meaningful relationships, and I’m still learning new skills and ways to effectively connect with both legal and non-legal professionals.
I’m never afraid to ask questions or to ask for help, and this has allowed me to make great connections and learn so much more about the practice of law in a practical way. In turn, my curiosity has led to unexpected and amazing opportunities for me outside of traditional practice. Because I am disciplined and self-motivated, I am able to take on and accomplish tasks and goals that others may consider impossible or incredibly difficult, and I continue to set and achieve new goals for myself personally and professionally.
In addition to my character, having the prayers and support of close family and friends is another factor that has really helped me in my pursuit to join the legal profession, and their continued support in my career has been crucial to my success. While they are not legal practitioners, they know me best, keep me grounded, and remind me of my values and priorities. They also provide me with a different and often refreshing perspective on my work and career path and I’m grateful for them.
It's hard to pinpoint any one thing that helped me join the legal profession. Initially, I think my A-type personality that so many of us have, combined with a genuine passion to help people kept me going when times were tough on this long road to become a legal professional, as well as navigate the road once there.
Building connections with fellow law students was essential to get through that first year in law school and the last year as an articling student. Lastly, I think the willingness of other women in the profession to help me in those early years was a key stepping stone to launching the beginning of my career.
Mentorship is Essential Right from the Start!
Being a first-generation lawyer has its challenges. But what has helped me pursue my goal of joining the legal profession is mentorship. Throughout my Law Degree and now as an articling student, I have carved out mentors in different areas of the legal profession. Whether reaching out through LinkedIn, professional organizations and attending events in my local community, I've come to meet many mentors. Through mentorship, I have expanded my understanding of the legal profession and how to navigate my way through it.
Step Outside Your Comfort Zone!
In the novels I read as a teenager, everyone, collectively, would cheer the victorious underdog. We love to listen to stories of the little girl who stepped out of her comfort zone and overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges while having an adventure along the way. Society values the first at anything. However, while we value these stories of getting there, once a student who is a first generation lawyer graduates from law school and steps into the "real world", that's where the fairy tale transcends to the reality - that it is who you know and your social circle/capital that gets your foot in the door.
What has helped me the most in breaking down these barriers is using those same skills that got me into and through law school. As a first generation lawyer, continue to step out of your comfort zone and attend events, write articles, speak at events. Also, initiate LinkedIn connections, build real connections and become friends with colleagues. In essence, show up for yourself!
Use the same fearlessness, drive, passion and work ethic that got you this far to create your network. And, if the type of legal community and social support network you need or desire isn't yet in existence, perhaps you'll be the one to create it! You are a "First", after all! Most importantly, look at yourself in the mirror and congratulate yourself for accomplishing something as important as being a first generation lawyer!
Faye Gelb, founder of Her Legal Global is passionate about empowering lawyers to have a career that makes them smile when they wake up in the morning. Lawyer, Entrepreneur, startup cofounder, front end web developer, photographer and business consultant. Her goal is to help you use your law degree and have a career you love, on your own terms, throughout your career.