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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Nguyen

Breaking Through the Barriers: From “Rejected” to National Law Firm

Hi! Please introduce yourself.

Hi everyone, my name is Lindsay Nguyen. I began my legal education at the University of Ottawa at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I now hold a Juris Doctor, which I brought back to my home city: Calgary, Alberta. I am currently articling at McCarthy Tétrault with an interest in corporate, tax, real estate, and personal injury law.

I am someone who you would call a jack-of-all-trades. Throughout high school and undergrad, I worked as an esthetician, specializing in pedicures and manicures. For the four years post-undergrad, I worked in various sectors, including a few not-for-profits, a beauty supply store, a car dealership, and a law firm. During law school, I interned at a personal injury law firm and spent a summer at McCarthy Tétrault.

As a law student, I volunteered for the Pro Bono Students Canada as an Event Coordinator during 1L and 2L. In 3L, I was elected as the Vice President of Social Affairs for our student association. 3L proved to be the busiest time of my life, and this is saying a lot, considering I held two jobs and volunteered at the Calgary Courthouse for one year!

Outside of the legal world…

  • I am a passionate advocate for the Newcomers' community. I enjoy teaching conversational English to Newcomers and providing translation services to Vietnamese locals with their day-to-day paperwork.

  • I am a huge foodie and will travel very far to try a new food trend.

  • I love traveling around the world to learn about different cultures and, of course, try new food.

What motivated you to pursue a career in law?

When I was four, my mother got into a car accident. For years, I accompanied my mother to physiotherapy and doctor appointments. Eventually, I followed her to court and sat in a large room with several lawyers. As a young child, I didn't understand what was happening. In fact, I forgot about this core memory until I experienced an epiphany attending a mediation during my internship at a personal injury law firm.

Not long ago, while having dinner with my mother, she recounted the story of her car accident settlement. She mentioned that her lawyer, a kind man trying to engage a six-year-old child, asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I responded by asking what he did for a living. He said, “I am a lawyer. I help people like your mom.” Being a bit cheeky, I replied, “I want to be like you, a lawyer.”

Perhaps it was the words of a chattering six-year-old that set the course for my legal career. However, getting to law school was not as straightforward. During those days, I wished for the quick Kindergarten-to-JD path like others. Unfortunately, things didn't work out that way. Over the next few years after undergrad, I juggled multiple jobs alongside law school applications, and on my fourth attempt, I finally succeeded. What changed? Let me tell you, nothing about my application changed except my LSAT score.

Let’s start with what I applied to law school with:

  • I submitted applications to most Canadian law schools with a cumulative GPA of 3.6 (B+) on a 4.0 scale. My first two years in undergrad were average, so I spent the next two years pushing it up to a 3.7 (A-);

  • I had extensive extracurricular activities due to my active engagement in the Calgary not-for-profit community. In fact, I continued to volunteer in various sectors long after completing my undergrad; and

  • My LSAT scores varied between 142 to 146.

As you can see, the LSAT was not my strong suit. It didn't sync with my brain, nor did it make much sense to me! I explored every available study program I could afford. Juggling LSAT preparation while living independently and managing student loans was no simple task.

The years prior to law school were some of the darkest days of my life. I struggled with anxiety and was constantly stressed because of the exam. I found myself in an endless loop of law school applications, juggling two or three jobs, and battling my crumbling mental and physical health.

I remember those years working as an esthetician. I sat in the corner of a nail salon, practicing LSAT Logical Reasoning questions between clients. The scent of the nail polish fumes and constant interruptions made it incredibly challenging to focus. Every time I wanted to give up, I thought about my mother. My mother, a refugee from the Vietnam War, arrived in Canada as a young woman. She worked tirelessly to provide me with a life here in Canada. While pregnant with me, she worked as a seamstress in a factory. The strenuous job that led to her injury and my premature birth. As she often says, I was a little “fighter”. Throughout my journey to law school, I continued to fight, drawing strength from her teachings of resilience.

My mother wearing my graduation gown and holding my degree – she was quite proud!

The year I was accepted to law school marked a period of tough decisions. I decided to seek help and shed all my obligations. This meant quitting multiple jobs, taking a break from volunteering, and focusing on myself. I recognize that this option may not suit everyone, but it was the best option for me. For eight weeks, I studied, worked on managing my anxiety, applied to law school, and eventually received my winning LSAT score!

The day I received my first acceptance, I stared at the email and froze. I cried and laughed. Laughed and cried. In fact, I was crying so much I was dry-heaving in excitement. I was filled with gratitude. To this day, I never take any opportunity I receive for granted.

If I were to leave you with one piece of advice, it would be to never give up. Regardless of your background, origin, or employment history – never give up on your dream. If law school is what you want, keep your eyes on the prize, not solely on the journey!

What was your experience like in law school?

Law school is what you make out of it – that’s the beauty of it. If you're academically inclined, the school's Law Review welcomes your contribution, or you can sign up for a writing practicum. If community engagement resonates with you, clinics and numerous clubs are available. Should you seek a challenge or are interested in litigation, moot competitions await your participation.

Law school is certainly a place that forces you out of your comfort zone. I am a social person, so the social aspect of law school was not daunting to me. What made me uncomfortable was the writing and research component (literally the entire law school experience). I am not a native English speaker, so adjusting to legal writing and learning how to study law was a blow to my ego. By the time I entered law school, I had been out of school for four years and had lost the skills of being a student. Not only was I reacquainting myself with being a student, but I also had to navigate online schooling.

A few months into 1L, a professor requested a writing sample from each student. After submitting mine, the professor requested a meeting and advised me that I had a significant amount of work ahead. As you can imagine, I spent the next week in tears and very insecure about my writing. Rather than avoiding it, I challenged myself in 3L and enrolled in a writing course because (a) I needed to hone my writing skills and (b) I needed to write more than just one memo throughout law school. I'm not sure how I managed to avoid writing a memo during my internships and summer jobs, but I did. I don't think I'll have the same luxury during articling though!

Mentorship is a huge part of law school. Seek out mentors because their insights are invaluable. At my school, we had a formal mentor for our first-year cohort and several other informal mentors you can meet along the way. My mentors taught me a lot, including the nuances of participating in on-campus interviews (OCI). Mentors are also an excellent source for exams and study tips and summaries! Eventually, I became a mentor myself with the Allies in Law Program at my school.

I was quite active in the law school community. In 3L, I assumed the role of Vice President of Social Affairs of our student law association. This role stretched me to my limits. I had to master event planning for the largest law school in Canada, all while managing post-COVID expectations. This role demanded exceptional discipline and organization. Every few days, I worked with vendors, contacted decorators and caterers, addressed inquiries from various social media outlets, and worked on class assignments! Despite the steep learning curve, I am grateful for this role. It granted me an opportunity to develop my professional resilience and navigate conflicting demands.

If I could redo law school, I would have joined a moot and taken on a research assistant position. Unfortunately, my insecurities held me back and prevented me from exploring a wide range of activities. A current goal of mine is to embrace tasks that make me uncomfortable. After all, the worst outcome is gaining new self-insights – isn't it?

How did you find your first law-related job?

Do you remember when I mentioned that I worked as an esthetician for several years? Many have advised me to hide this part of my life because it wasn't a "fitting" experience for the legal profession. However, I disagreed with that statement back then and still do today. To me, one's past experiences contribute to their uniqueness and value within any law firm. Regardless of your prior background or acquired professions/skills, you deserve an equal opportunity in the legal field.

Law school provides various avenues to secure a job. Typically, students begin seeking employment in the summer of 2L, and these positions can potentially lead to articling opportunities. Although chances are rare, there are also openings for students to work in law firms after 1L. I participated in the Calgary 1L recruit and quickly struck out. Disheartened, I started a Student Proposed Internship (SPI) with an Ottawa-based personal injury firm. This SPI was rewarding because I got to draft mediation briefs, statement of claims, and participated in discoveries—something not many of my peers had the chance to do.

In the fall of 2L, I participated in both Calgary and Toronto’s OCI cycles. Being a Calgary native, I was quite popular in the recruit. The first step to getting an interview is to make sure your resume and cover letter are flawless. My cover letter underwent at least three to four revisions before I sent it to the law firms. Additionally, make sure to address the correct firm in your letter, and always double-check for spelling errors. The second step is to have a strong grasp of the contents of your resume and cover letter. The last step is to practice interviewing! I dedicated a substantial amount of time to practicing my response to the "Tell me about yourself" question.

A zoom picture taken during my 2L OCI Recruit

As candid as I am in this interview, I was the same in my recruitment interviews. I openly told the law firms that I faced challenges during the law school application process, yet that never hindered my determination to apply to law school. I shared my past as an esthetician and recounted my mother's journey to Canada, explaining how her experiences instilled resilience in me. From grappling with insecurities and turning them into empowerment, I am immensely grateful to the law firms that offered me the space to share my story.

If you could give one piece of advice to prospective or current law students to help them succeed, what would it be?

My insecurities held me back from exploring new things in law school. Reflecting on it now, I wish I had challenged myself to gain new skills. My advice is to step out of your comfort zone and embrace things that challenge you professionally or academically. Whether you join a moot competition or become part of a club, don't underestimate yourself; after all, you can't predict what the future holds. If I had doubted myself, I wouldn't have come this far! Ultimately, never allow your past to discourage you from becoming a lawyer.

What are your future career plans going forward, and how can our readers connect with you in the future?

I am now articling with McCarthy Tétrault in the Calgary office. I look forward to giving back to my community after getting called to the bar. Perhaps in the future, I will serve on a not-for-profit board and make a meaningful impact in my community.

I am happy to chat – if you want to get in touch with me, I am available through Linkedin. Thank you, and good luck!


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