Hey law societies: It’s time to talk about intergenerational trauma in law

originally posted June 27, 2018

Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

It’s no secret that law societies and legal associations have embraced modernity and they are accepting lawyers and law students from all walks of life and experiences.

This is a good thing because the legal profession has been largely homogenous for many decades. It’s also a good thing that the profession is now openly talking about mental health. In the case of Ontario, the Law Society of Ontario has been quite active with raising mental health awareness among its members.

Now as a first generation Latinx who suffers from depression/anxiety/other stuff, I’m glad the law society in Ontario has 1) embraced my Latin community and 2) is trying to raise awareness for mental health. I have become quite vocal about mental health in law, for example, I was recently profiled by Precedent Magazine and their mental health cover.

However, while following the discussions surrounding mental health in law, I realized one topic was missing: intergenerational trauma.

What is intergenerational trauma? How does it come into play at the law society/legal profession?

Intergenerational trauma is the ghost that continues to sneak up on you

Generally speaking, intergenerational trauma is the “transmission of historical oppression and its negative consequences across generations.” (definition from the following University of Calgary report: link here)

An example in Canadian history is the treatment of Indigenous communities, such as residential schools. The trauma inflicted on one generation, such as the grandparents or parents, continues to affect the children and grandchildren.

Children of refugees also experience intergenerational trauma – and this is where I come in. I was born in Toronto, Canada, near the beautiful High Park (go check it out if you haven’t). I grew up far away from war-zone conflict. My parents were happily married; I had a loving younger sister. I had food and shelter.  My parents were refugees. They fled the Salvadoran Civil War which caused havoc to El Salvador during the 70s and 80s. My mother’s family faced the greatest loss during the war: my mom witnessed beheadings; my mom had to flee her childhood home during the night; and the worst of all – her brother Mauricio Perez – my Tío Mauricio – went missing and presumed murdered from death squads.

My mom and dad came to Canada in the late 80s and I was born in 1991. Even from an early age, I witnessed my mom experience panic attacks and depression. If she was in an intense situation, she would shake and cry. These were the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. My mom lost her whole family from the war – she only had her two kids and her husband. When I wanted to play outside as a kid, my mom was hypervigilant that I wouldn’t go missing. This was her coping mechanism to protect the ones she loved. In other words, from my mother, I learned early on to panic/ be anxious in a stressful and intense situation.

Fast forward to grown-up Elsa. As the licensing process to become a lawyer became more intense and stressful, I started to panic. I started to get anxious. I started to become hypervigilant that I wouldn’t mess up. I would examine each email from the Law Society forty times to make sure I didn’t screw up. This was my coping mechanism to feel as if I’m in control of my situation. Sounds familiar?

I became my mom.

I didn’t witness a war. But I was feeling the psychological trauma from the Salvadoran war.

The current licensing process ignites stressful situations and disruptive triggers

To become a lawyer anywhere in the world requires a lot of work. It takes dedication and long nights. I’m not calling for the system to become “easier” because as agents of justice, we need to know the complexity of law.

With that said, the licensing process could reduce the amount of triggers that it inflicts on licensing candidates and lawyers.

Let’s use Ontario for example – the good character requirement. The good character requirement screens each candidate to make sure they are in “good character” before admitted to the Law Society. Many lawyers have since voiced opposition to this admission requirement. Aside from the fact that it’s a vague requirement, it triggers the past trauma for many licensing candidates.

My trigger point was the bar exam, not the good character requirement. The bar exam is more an endurance test than a “do you actually know real estate” test. The testing environment was…dreadful. It’s around seven hours long; you are filled with 400+ students; and there is a massive clock counting down the time. For anyone, this is stressful. But for me, it was a nightmare. My natural childhood reaction was to hide. I actually ran to the bathroom and cried for 30 minutes. It brought back my mom’s stress and hypervigilant personality. After the exam, I swore I would never do the exam again. I would embrace a new career but to subject myself to trauma was not going to happen.

With a mix of therapy and good ol’ time, I’m better. Not perfect. I still have flashbacks to  June 2017. I will eventually write the bar – but not before I raise my concerns with the Law Society (and all other law societies).

Reducing Trigger Points

In the end of every essay, I offer suggestions to reform the legal system. The Law Society of Ontario (and again, every law society in the world) needs to realize that the old system is just not working.

Scrap the good character requirement, which affects Indigenous communities. Hold town hall sessions with students, that way they know the system ahead of time. These town hall sessions shouldn’t appear in 3L. Start in 2L. Although I’m tempted to say “scrap the bar exam!” I do see some value in making sure everyone knows the basics before becoming a lawyer. Alternatively, I offer another option: rather than relying on accommodation, why not revamp the system? Does the bar need to be in the form of an exam? Why not in the form of extra classes, like the licensing process in Alberta? Offer selection to candidates. Some prefer an exam – that’s fine. But for those who cannot do an exam for trigger reasons, classes are an acceptable option. Extra classes may take longer to finish but it promotes a safe space for those experiencing intergenerational trauma, like myself.

I don’t want others to go through the pain I went through. I hope I offer insight and for those interested in contacting me – please feel free to do so.

However, I won’t sit around and throw a pity party. It’s time for real change.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s