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"But I look like a lawyer"

An interview with Audrey Jun about a new documentary on the discrimination, stereotyping and bias experienced by members of the pan-Asian legal community.

The Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (Society) British Columbia (FACL BC) is releasing a documentary, "But I Look Like A Lawyer." In it, members of the pan-Asian legal community, from law students to senior members of the bar, share stories on the discrimination, stereotyping and bias they have experienced, alongside academics who share their expertise on the complexity of the history, socio-economic and colonial aspects of these lived experiences. CBA National caught up with Executive Producer Audrey Jun, also a lawyer at KMK Law, to discuss the project.

CBA National: Tell us what this documentary aims to achieve.

Audrey Jun: It's partly about education, and giving the pan-Asian legal community the ability to share their lived experiences. Many of our colleagues who do not identify as pan-Asian don't know the extent of the discrimination and racism members of our community experience. So, as the documentary asks, if people don't know it's a problem, how can we compel people to feel like it's an issue that needs resolving? A lot of our contributors said that it's been quite cathartic to talk about it out loud. It's encouraging because we want to do what we can to lessen the levels of attrition among lawyers in the pan-Asian legal community – especially among those who have the potential to become advocates for our community. We want to ensure that the courtroom and all the players in the legal system accurately reflect the diversity of our community.

N: Where did the idea come from, and what are some of the stories that have emerged?

AJ: We were inspired by another documentary called "But I Was Wearing a Suit", put together by leaders in the Indigenous community. The Honorable Justice Ardith (Walpetko We'dalx) Walkem was heavily involved in that documentary and generously provided guidance for our initiative. Our title comes from a lot of the stories we hear from lawyers who are told, "you're not what I think of when I think of a lawyer," explicitly or implicitly, whether it's because they're mistaken for the accused, an interpreter, a legal assistant – anyone except the lawyer – or whether they're repeatedly mistaken for another racialized colleague. In some cases, the lawyer is told they're just a diversity hire. A lot depends on the intersections in which those people live. So, for example, young Asian men are often stereotyped or racially profiled as offenders. Women are often stereotyped as assistants or interpreters. Many individuals have been questioned about their credentials or stereotyped as not being able to speak English. Also, with the pandemic, many were reminded that members of the pan-Asian community still face discrimination and bias. This discrimination is something that exists in our broader society, and we wanted to recognize the specific ways in which it manifests itself in the legal community.

N: Does anything emerge from the documentary that might surprise people?

AJ: One interesting item comes from Prof. Henry Yu, a University of British Columbia history professor. He talks about the model minority myth—this idea that originated in the U.S. in the sixties around Japanese Americans being considered a success story even though they had been interned and suffered incredible discrimination at the hands of the government. But instead of protesting, as other racialized groups did, a significant number of these Japanese Americans became lawyers, doctors, and other professionals. But the idea of the model minority was really used to divide and pit marginalized communities against each other, as if systemic discrimination could be overcome with education and investing in success. The myth also treats pan-Asians as a monolithic group. It ignores the diversity of experiences within the community and the different socioeconomic backgrounds that individuals can come from. It puts that blame on those that couldn't succeed, as if any hardship can just be overcome by pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, disregarding what resources they may or may not have access to. In the Canadian context, it's important to remember that recent immigrants are often well educated because otherwise, they would not have been accepted into Canada. And so there's this idea that all Asians are wealthy or well educated when that might not be the case for refugees or people whose parents were refugees or who have a working-class background. So, there's this erasure of the diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds. This idea of the model minority is very problematic because it ignores the complexities of the whole pan-Asian community. While he discusses this issue in the documentary, you can also read more about Prof. Yu's discussion of this myth and the weaponizing of success in his article, "The white elephant in the room: anti-Asian racism in Canada."

N: What would you say are the top three things the legal profession needs to do to make itself more inclusive, generally?

AJ: The first is collecting demographic data. Without reliable data, showing concrete progress in diversity, equity and inclusion, is almost impossible. We need to know where we are before knowing whether, or how much we have progressed. Law societies are collecting demographic-related data, but to get beneath the surface, we need to measure both the hiring and the retention of diverse employees. Because there might be internal issues of unconscious bias that are not being addressed. Perhaps employees are uncomfortable in the work environment. Maybe they're being overlooked for promotion. There are limitations to demographic data if it's surface-level and doesn't give you insights into those more subtle cultural challenges.

Also, hiring firms could use more standardized questions. We see many questions about personal life experiences that aren't always sensitive to the fact that people from many socioeconomic backgrounds wouldn't have the same hobbies or haven't had the opportunity to travel extensively by the time they finish law school. 

The other thing is focusing on mentorship and advocacy. FACL BC facilitates mentorship within the pan-Asian legal community, which we have received a lot of positive feedback on. However, due to the history of exclusion, for example B.C. admitted its first Chinese Canadian lawyer in 1953, who was repeatedly told "We're not hiring Chinese", the pan-Asian community doesn't have as many senior members as some other demographics and groups may have. There are groups out there now making it a strategic business priority to organize reciprocal mentoring programs to connect senior leaders and executives with employees of diverse backgrounds. The goal is for these employees to receive valuable professional development advice. At the same time, those senior leaders can gain a perspective on diverse experiences and issues in the workplace that differ from their own. Also, leaders need to commit to learning about the history of BC, and elsewhere in Canada, how laws were employed to disenfranchise the pan-Asian community, the Indigenous and Black communities, and how those effects continue to last today and perpetuate systemic barriers. The hope is that by learning this history, these individuals can identify and remove these barriers in the present.

At our event on November 5th, we will ask three leaders in the pan-Asian legal community, Jennifer Chow, QC, Baljinder Kaur Girn, and Dr. Carol Liao, what changes they hope to see on a systemic and individual level. We invite the legal community to register to watch the documentary premiere and this discussion, at faclbc.ca/documentary

Finally, just keeping in mind one of the messages from our documentary, which is that the whole point of the law is that we should not be arbitrary. We should judge people by the actions they take and not by what they look like.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.