Back in September 2018, I wrote a post titled, “What If I’ll Never Be Like Marie Henein?”
The post was therapeutic for me to write because I struggled balancing my perception of “being a strong lawyer” and battling mental health issues. I used Marie Henein as an example to my insecurities. She is bold, fierce, and unapologetic. I aspired in law school to be all those things as a human rights and labour litigator, but then depression hit.
I wrote the post back in September 2018 – two months before my November 2018 bar exams for the Barristers and Solicitors exam. I remember feeling anxious and unsure of my exams. As someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (along with Major Depression Disorder & good ol’ OCD) I felt I already disappointed myself because I would never be the bold Latina lawyer that Canada needs.
It’s now January 2019, almost February. I passed Barristers! I found out that I need to re-do Solicitors but I only missed the target by eight points. So close! I’m scheduled to re-write my Solicitors exam in March.
So why am I writing this? To let you know an update on my life?
Well, yes and no. My mental health journey since writing the post “What If I’ll Never Be Like Marie Henein?” has been fairly good.
But this past week in January 2019, I wanted to give up law. I was at Scotia Plaza on King Street in downtown Toronto. For those not from Toronto, Scotia Plaza is in the heart of the financial district, filled with bankers and lawyers. I couldn’t stop crying. I tried, but the tears kept flowing. I called my mom and sister, “I failed. I want to quit.” The anxiety of failing my Solicitors exam was too intense. On Monday of that week, I only had 20 pages left to read for the Wills chapter. It took a solid week to read 10 pages. I couldn’t understand what was happening. By Thursday of that week, panic set in.
I can’t finish this.
Law school was a waste of time and money.
Those feelings were strong and I couldn’t hold it in. I now know distraction and loss of motivation is a symptom of depression. We’re told as litigators and lawyers to keep in it. You don’t want your opposing counsel to see your strategy and your emotions. You definitely don’t want to start crying in front of the judge or arbitrator. I told myself at Scotia Plaza,
Stop crying, Elsa.
But nevertheless, I cried.
Now enter Marie Henein in my story.
Back in September 2018, Marie actually responded to my post. Among some other stories she shared (I’ll keep those parts confidential), she shared something touching in her message,
“Having flaws, weaknesses and challenges is entirely normal. Who doesn’t? Being able to overcome them is what shows true grit and strength. You have. You should celebrate that.”
It took some days of self-care, sleep, and a good manicure to remember this email from her back in September. I pulled it up and re-read it again. I realized that this bad week in January 2019 was just a challenge – that’s all. Furthermore, crying as a reaction to this challenge is normal. Sometimes you just have to let it out.
Mariel Henein’s email taught me two lessons:
- Expressing emotion to a challenge is normal, whether it is frustration, crying, or silence
- It’s how you decide to respond to the challenge that deserves your energy.
I share this anecdote for those law students and lawyers battling with anxiety or in general, when faced with moments of weaknesses and challenges. In law, we often romanticize lawyers for their “strong skill set” – their litigation techniques, their analysis to the law, etc.
But let’s go deeper.
Ask yourself: how did they respond to challenges in their life?
I go back to Justice Bora Laskin, the 14th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
We often remember Chief Justice Bora Laskin of the Supreme Court of Canada as a brilliant legal mind for his legendary dissents, which later became majority decisions in later courts and cases. He was a person ahead of the game. Personally, he remains my favourite Justice in the Canadian legal system.
But we often forget Chief Justice Bora Laskin struggled obtaining employment. Why?
Well, he was Jewish and the legal profession in the 1930s – 1940s was very anti-Semitic towards Jewish lawyers. He struggled to find articling, despite his academic achievement from the University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall Law School and Harvard Law.
So we have a challenge: to leave an anti-Semitic profession, or keep fighting, despite those barriers?
Chief Justice Bora Laskin eventually ended up in academia. The loss of Private practice became the judiciary’s massive gain.
I tell you this story because when I want to give up, like I did in January 2019, I remember Marie Henein’s email and the biography of Chief Justice Bora Laskin.
We will face challenges as lawyers, especially those like me with depression and anxiety. Honour your emotions, cry it out if you need to and retreat for a bit.
But you will rise, the same way Chief Justice Bora Laskin did.
Think and reflect on how you will respond to a challenge.
“Being able to overcome them is what shows true grit and strength.”