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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Liu

Between engineering and law: entrenching equality through research, service, and advocacy

Hello! Please introduce yourself.

Hello! I hope you are doing well. My name is Michelle. I use she/they pronouns (elle/iel en français), identify as a Queer and Asian-Canadian millennial, and am a settler living and working on the traditional territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe peoples. I graduated magna cum laude from the English Common Law Program at the University of Ottawa in 2023 and received the Common Law Section Dean’s Award (shared with the amazing Matthew Tai). I am a licensed professional engineer (P.Eng) in Ontario and worked for various national and international engineering firms prior to law school. I will be articling at Ecojustice from October 2023 to May 2024 while continuing my work as a researcher/PhD candidate, EDI speaker/trainer, board member of the Ontario engineering regulator, and various other volunteer service roles.

Michelle speaking at a March 2023 University of Ottawa event celebrating the Dellelce Family’s transformation $5M gift to the Faculty of Law. Photo courtesy of the Common Law Section, University of Ottawa.

My spouse and I are proud owners of a 30-year old, 17.5-ft, fibreglass canoe, so canoe-camping in the backcountry is how we try to spend free time in the spring, summer, and fall months. While camping, we photograph insects and birds, explore the forests and waters around us, and read by the fire (and I will let you guess what is in the cooler). In the winter, you can find us snowshoeing and hiking!

What made you want to go to law school?

Trigger warning: my responses discuss gender-based, racial, sexual, and homophobic violence.

My love of camping probably gives away my love of being outside. Indeed, I would work in a muddy field over an office any day, any season, and in any weather. I earned my Honours BASc and MASc in civil engineering from the University of Waterloo with the goal of working in construction, design, and project management. I went on to do just that, and the work was phenomenal. Contributing to the design of a piece of infrastructure—a bridge, a building, a watermain, or something else—and supervising its realization sparked a lot of joy for me.

But the people were abysmal.

The realities of this colonial, white, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, and ableist society was never lost on me. From attending a Catholic boarding school in rural Québec to working odd jobs across small Ontario towns and cities, I have always considered myself well-acquainted with bigotry, intolerance, and violence. “Chink,” “open your eyes,” “go back to your country,” “fag,” and “homo,” are examples of the rhetoric that I grew accustomed to early in my life. I was/am not close to family, and going from place to place to find work and housing at that age made steady friendships difficult, so I navigated most of these moments without allies, mentors, or role models. I was independent, resilient, and determined.

But even that was not enough to prepare me to adequately supervise construction sites ranging from a dozen to a hundred men. The gender-based, racial, sexual, and homophobic violence affected me differently than it did when I worked in minimum-wage roles. Not that I ever deluded myself into thinking getting an education and becoming a professional would lessen the burden of any equity-seeking person, but I also did not expect the burden to worsen. Looking back, I see that even white women are not free from disrespect, discrimination, and violence in construction/field environments, and every additional equity-seeking identity seemed to have a compounding effect far worse in those environments than in broader society. My job, in essence, made for too many traumatic events and not enough time for the amount of therapy I needed to continue to put my best foot forward.

So, what made me want to go to law school? The number of times I thought about filing human rights complaints and using other tools within the justice system to make incremental improvements for the tens or even hundreds of thousands of equity-seeking persons vying for an engineering career in Canada.

Prospective applicants: Your reason for going to law school could be very different from mine or that of anyone else you speak to. I hope you do not let the difference dissuade you. In my view, the only people to whom you need to justify your decision to go to law school are the readers of your admission file. Even financial institutions do not typically ask you why you want to go to law school when you apply for a line of credit to pay for law school (they only care that you received admission and will enroll), so I personally would not invest too much time on workshopping a narrative unless you feel otherwise compelled (by peer/familial pressure or a recruiter, for example) to do so.

What was the application process like?

I applied to both law schools and med schools in the same application cycle while working as an engineer, doing my Master’s, holding leadership positions, and volunteering in the community, so the process was an exercise in discipline to say the least. I applied to every law school in Ontario. I was case-studying a highway in the Northwest Territories for my Master’s to inform climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies that would impact Indigenous communities, so I identified Lakehead’s law school as my top choice. I also lived in Yellowknife periodically for my Master’s field work, so living in Thunderbay sounded equally up my alley.

72.20% was my undergraduate CGPA. Even if an applicant has completed one or more subsequent degrees, most law schools only look at, or at least put more emphasis on, an applicant’s undergraduate CGPA (many exceptions exist, of course, such as within the mature and special application categories at certain institutions). Being a professional program (i.e. satisfying the academic requirement for professional licensure) is among the pros of undergraduate engineering, and relatively low grading scales are among the cons for those needing to rely on transcripts for subsequent endeavours outside engineering. I benefited from many of the pros, so I could not have too many qualms with my CGPA, even though it was prohibitively low in the context of applying to law and med schools. I wrote the LSAT once in between writing the MCAT twice. I scored in the 85th-percentile for the LSAT and in the 90th-percentile for the MCAT (on the second attempt).

I did not get into any med schools but got into every law school except for Lakehead. From there, I chose uOttawa largely by process of elimination. My spouse and I did not see ourselves living in London or Kingston as a Queer and interracial couple. Moving to Toronto would have required us to downsize, something we and our cat wanted to avoid. In addition to the pragmatic process of elimination, I had always romanticized Ottawa as an Anglo-québécoise. Growing up in Montréal, I always longed for the annual school trip to skate on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa (as if we had nowhere to skate in Montréal). Ironically, I have not had the occasion to skate on the Rideau Canal since moving here, but we still grew to like the city so much that we decided to buy a home here!

Prospective applicants: I am going to continue the thread of encouraging you to take my and other people’s stories and advice with a grain of salt. Almost every person I consulted and every forum I read indicated that an undergraduate CGPA of 72.20% made for almost no chance of admission to law schools in Ontario/Canada, but am I ever grateful that I tried anyway! In 2L and 3L, I served on the Admission Committee of my law school and reviewed many applications. A confidentiality agreement prevents me from disclosing details of the evaluation process, but I assure you that the CGPA is only one of the many factors that admission file readers are supposed to consider.

You are someone who prioritizes service and volunteerism even during a demanding undertaking like law school, and many of your contributions occurred behind the scenes. Can you share some of the ways in which you made an impact on the law school community?

Michelle and select Executive Committee members of the Common Law Student Society with Supreme Court of Canada’s Justice Mahmud Jamal (third from the right). Photo courtesy of the Common Law Section, University of Ottawa.

At the heart of my educational and professional undertakings have always been volunteer/leadership roles that allow me to support and contribute to equity-seeking groups, and law school was no exception. The roles I served in as a law student include President of the Common Law Student Society, undergraduate member of the University Senate, and Co-President of OUTLaw 2SLGBTQ+ Law Students Association. I was elected to all three roles for 2021-2022 and re-elected for 2022-2023. I was also an appointed member of the Senate Appeals Committee, the final body of appeal on academic matters within the University.

Serving on the University Senate gave me the opportunity to contribute to the adoption of Policy 130 on Student Rights and Responsible Conduct in 2021-2022. I was among the few students on the Senate who worked closely with Noël Badiou, former Director of the University’s Human Rights Office, through several rounds of consultation and fine-tuning of the draft Policy. The consultation process included presenting the draft Policy to different student, staff, and faculty bodies on campus. I liaised with several of these bodies, explained to them the purpose and importance of the Policy, and sought their support of the Policy before the Senate. The Senate appointed me to the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Rights and Responsible Conduct for my work on the Policy, notably on the wording of provisions about discrimination and sexual violence. The Ad Hoc Committee has continued to review the Policy after it came into force in May 2022. The Policy will serve the most vulnerable students, including law students of equity-seeking identities, through the creation of additional institutional mechanisms to address discrimination, sexual violence, the violation of students rights as enumerated in the Policy, and more. My hope is also that I left the University community with a clear example of law students’ potential to contribute to our institution.

Among my proudest accomplishments as OUTLaw Co-President is leading the creation of various resources for 2SLGBTQ+ students. The resources include a list of faculty and staff allies in the Common Law Section and a guide on how diversely identified students may vet potential employers (developed in partnership with the Career and Professional Development Centre). Dozens of law students in the past two years have indicated that the resources facilitated their identification of faculty, staff, and employers with whom they felt safe and fully able to participate. I understand the importance of these feelings as someone who did not have a 2SLGBTQ-identifying mentor or an open ally in a position of power until law school.

A stronger relationship with the Faculty, the foundation for a collaborative relationship with the Indigenous Law Student Governance, and Policy 7 on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion are among my proudest accomplishments after two terms as President of the Common Law Student Society. My service on the previous President’s subcommittee in 2020-2021 gave rise to my vision of a policy on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Namely, I envisioned a policy that would promote mutual learning, sustained commitment, and the sharing of resources among Student Society executives and Society-governed clubs to redress oppression and foster the inclusion of equity-seeking students. The Student Society’s VP Equity (and my brilliant friend), Julia Chung, actioned this vision through nearly eight months of drafting and consultation. Policy 7 is now in place to guide Student Society executives and Society-governed clubs, including tangible tools like checklists to ensure events and communications are accessible and inclusive. I am especially proud that the policy requires the Common Law Student Society to prioritize a mutually respectful relationship with its co-government, the Indigenous Law Student Governance.

Service-related accolades I received during law school include the Rovinescu Award of Excellence for Community Service, the Torkin Manes LLP Academic Excellence and Community Service Award, the Carole Workman Leadership Scholarship, and the County of Carleton Law Association Scholarship.

While in law school, you also pursued a Ph.D. in Engineering at the same time. Why did you choose to do them at the same time, and how were you able to simultaneously manage two demanding programs?

Michelle and her PhD supervisors, engineering professor Beatriz Martin-Perez (left) and law professor Jena McGill (right).

I set out to add the PhD undertaking to my JD studies after realizing the significant overlap between my intended PhD research and the substance of my JD courses. I had always had an interest in using sociolegal frameworks to examine the mindsets and practices in technological disciplines like engineering. I was learning about many sociolegal frameworks in my law courses, so pursuing the two in parallel just seemed to make good sense! My proposed research earned me the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (NSERC stream) and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholarship.

Unlike law and other undergraduate programs, research-based grad degrees like a PhD are not coursework-heavy. This means that I did not have to worry about conflicting course schedules. I attended my JD courses when they were scheduled and conducted my PhD work on a schedule I built around my JD courses.

Michelle serving as a co-keynote with The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the 29th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, for a Canada Foundation for Innovation board meeting in June 2022

How did you find your first law-related job?

I obtained a position with the Calgary office of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP (“Blakes”) for my summer after 1L through formal/structured recruitment in the 2020-2021 academic year. I knew little about Calgary except that its oil/gas industry made it a good place for my partner, a geo/environmental engineer, to advance their career alongside mine. I chose to try the Calgary recruitment mainly because it occurred earlier in the academic year than the recruitments for Toronto and Ottawa (keep in mind that the pandemic shifted many timelines, so this may no longer be the case). My plan was to try every recruitment sequentially. I applied to every firm using the same materials.

I had an outstanding experience at Blakes Calgary. I worked largely in the regulatory practice under a senior partner who is also a licensed engineer (and who also got their undergraduate degree in civil engineering at the University of Waterloo). I learned a lot from him, including how to leverage my engineering training in law outside of the intellectual property sphere. I researched, analyzed, and wrote about technical issues such as contract best practices for unidentified utilities in construction and liability associated with interwellbore communication in hydraulic fracturing operations. I was especially proud of a commentary I produced on Canadian courts’ treatment of COVID-related delays in construction contracts. I got to be an engineer and a summer law student all at the same time. I received an offer to return to Blakes but decided to decline in favour of a more flexible and remote position that is more compatible with my other pursuits.

I wholly credit my undergraduate studies and engineering career for my favourable outcome in the recruitment process. Completing five co-op terms was a degree requirement for my undergraduate program. On top of spending 70-90 hours a week on coursework, students in my program had to apply to dozens of jobs, attend several rounds of interviews, wait for calls, and more. The law school recruitment, to me, was reminiscent of that process. The only difference was that I felt so much safer and able to be myself in the law recruitment process.

To current students: Be open to tips for improvement, but I hope you do not feel like you have to absorb and reflect every tip in any recruitment process. In fact, you may come across tips that are incompatible with or blatantly contradict other tips. I remember reading guidelines that recommend blurring your Zoom background during interviews and others that recommend against it. Like almost everything else in the process, whether you do something is up to you, and you can only speculate about the difference that choice made, if any, in the aftermath. I am all for preparing hard and taking advantage of the myriad of resources available to you—including the incredible team at the Career and Professional Development Centre—but ultimately, trust your judgment.

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

Know what you don’t know. A little bit of humility goes a long way!

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

I am on track to complete my PhD in 2025 and hope to join a social justice-focused law faculty with an opening in tech law given my research interest (using sociolegal frameworks to critically examine the interactions between technological designs and engineering professional norms). I am also on track to be called to the bar in June 2024. My ideal career would entail (1) continuing to do research at the intersection of law and technology/engineering, (2) teaching tech-focused courses in law, (3) being cross-appointed to engineering and teaching law and ethics courses to engineering students, (4) continuing to do advocacy, speaking, and service work within engineering spaces and beyond.

Please feel free to reach out at and/or follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter/X. Thank you for reading, and thanks also to George for inviting me and for leading this initiative that stands to help so many!

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