Common Law student wants to make it easier for future queer BIPOC lawyers to enter the workforce

portrait of michelle liu
She stepped away from a career in civil engineering to study law at uOttawa. Now Michelle Liu is honing her legal skills at the Common Law Section so she can better advocate for diversity and equity in the workplace. She also worked with her Faculty’s Career and Professional Development Centre to help prepare 2SLGBTQ+ law students for their future careers.
Screen shot of panelists on Microsoft Teams

Author’s note: Liu identifies as a cis-queer woman with she/her pronouns and says that she makes every effort to speak based on her own experience, including what she has witnessed or been told.

“Having to turn your various identities on and off to fit into different groups is a way of life for too many people,” says Michelle Liu, a first-year student at the Faculty of Law, Common Law Section. “As an Asian-Canadian, I am often unable to present my queer identity to other Asian-Canadians due to culture- and religion-induced homophobia, and I can rarely speak about my challenges as a racialized individual in the white-dominant queer community. This happens to almost everyone who identifies as both BIPOC and 2SLGBTQ+, and it’s one of the reasons I set aside my engineering career to pursue law.”

After eight years of studying civil engineering and working in construction, an environment which she says lacks awareness of the issues surrounding equity, diversity and inclusion, Liu decided to switch gears and get a law degree at uOttawa so that she could develop her legal knowledge and advocacy skills.

“I’m really excited to be in law and to be surrounded by people who are relatively more attentive to these issues and who want to make changes,” she says. “To kick off my career, I’m interested in construction law because it overlaps with my engineering background and is a rapidly growing area of law. Ultimately, I want to be an advocate for equity-seeking groups in the workplace, especially in STEM. I want to help attract more people with intersectional identities to engineering because the diversity just really isn’t there right now and that’s what drove me away. I hope to be able to help change that for the next generations.”

In the meantime, Liu is finding ways to advocate for BIPOC and the 2SLGBTQ+ community within the Faculty of Law.

To help carve out a safe space for queer law students, she built a website for OUTLaw, uOttawa’s official 2SLGTBQ+ law student association, that includes a list of professors at the Faculty who are allies of the queer community. She has also been working with OUTLaw and the Faculty’s Career and Professional Development Centre (CPDC) to develop resources and host events that cater to 2SLGBTQ+ law students.

“There are a lot of 2SLGBTQ+ people in law school, compared to in engineering and on construction sites,” she says. “We’re well represented, so it makes sense to have resources tailored to our needs. Right now, the advice on dress code and conduct in law firms, for example, is all very heteronormative — men should wear a suit and women should wear a skirt and blazer. A lot of people may feel left out by these resources and that could lead students to question whether they belong in such a field.”

Last February, Liu collaborated with the CPDC to organize a panel discussion called “Legal Career and Intersectional Identities”, which brought together major diversity and inclusion leaders in the legal profession to discuss the nuances of having intersecting marginalized identities and what that means when looking for work in big law firms.

“We talked about things like whether you should disclose your identities on your resume, how you should dress, what your interactions should feel like, that sort of thing, which is especially useful for first-year law students who have never interviewed or who don’t have any work experience in a corporate environment,” she says.

The event coincided with the nation-wide recruitment process that many law firms take part in every year in February and March. “The timing allowed for the largest number of people to feel a little more empowered going into this process,” says Liu.

Here are some of the takeaways from the event:

  • For many of us, the decision to attend law school was largely informed by our identities and lived experiences. Marginalized individuals are drawn to the law as an avenue for advancing social justice in the workplace and beyond. Where we land may not perfectly align with our visions of the future, indicating that a number of challenges come with being the first or few in a workplace, but so do a number of opportunities.
  • The societal shifts we tend to take for granted were unthinkable just a short time ago. While the industry is still imperfect, the panelists are living testaments to the fact that queer and/or racialized folk are successfully carving out unique roles from the law’s existing infrastructure.
  • As more employers realize the need for inclusive spaces, the businesses most worthy of your talent will regard diversity as an asset. Choose your employers carefully. Spend time gaining a sense of whether a potential employer can offer you a safe work environment by perusing their social media, making connections, and asking questions. Ideally, you will work alongside people whose treatment of you reflects the expertise and passion you are working hard to foster in law school.
  • Rather than worry about how best to mask your identities, regard cover letters and interviews as mediums for self-expression. Of course, openly presenting your most authentic self will be more difficult for some; gatekeeping, feeling like an oddity, tokenism and tokenism-like behaviours do occur. In these moments of discomfort, know that you are not alone. Take advantage of the support networks and resources available to you.

Liu plans to continue amplifying the voices of BIPOC, 2SLGBTQ+, and other equity-seeking groups in her upcoming roles as president of the Common Law Student Society and Senate representative for the Faculty of Law.

As well, in consultation with the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) equity commissioner (whose role includes consulting and working closely with members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community), Liu recently led the UOSU to adopt a pronouns policy for executive and board members, to make online spaces more inclusive.

The four panelists were: Samantha Peters, the first-ever Black Legal Mentor-in-Residence at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law; Nikki Gershbain, Chief Inclusion Officer at McCarthy Tétrault; Paul Saguil, Deputy Head of Global Sanctions Compliance and Anti-Bribery at TD Bank; and Lucas Kilravey, an associate at Borden Ladner Gervais.

Missed the event? You can watch it here.