Spotlight Series: Lillian Pan, Q.C.

Several weeks ago at our FACL board meeting, a few directors and executives discussed ways to deliver our message of diversity and multiculturalism to the greater community, beyond our fish bowl of lawyers and law students. After hours of brainstorming, we came up with an ambitious concept – to interview trailblazers in our community and allow them to share their successes and failures with us. We’ve since completed the first of many interviews to come, and so marks the beginning of our new project, the FACL Western Interview Series.
Our first interviewee is Lillian Pan, QC. Lillian was born in Taiwan, and moved to Manitoba when she was but six years old. It was there that she did all of her schooling, including her undergraduate studies and law school. After graduating at the top of her law school class, Lillian joined what is now Torys LLP in Toronto. She moved her way up the ranks, beginning as an articling student and making her way into the partnership over the span of several years. In the early 2000’s, she made her way west and joined Carscallen LLP as the firm’s first female partner.

Q. Can you share with us an instance where you faced adversity or hardships in your experience with the law and how you overcame it?
Being one of the few senior Chinese-Canadian women practicing as a litigator is unusual. But being the first is not necessarily pleasant. I don't say this suggesting that I had really unpleasant experiences in the law. I have not. It is not pleasant because when I entered law school and when I began practicing, I didn't meet people like me. When I say that, I mean visible minority women. It wasn’t hard in the sense that there was something terrible and I was being treated differently, but there was an “otherness” of being perceived as not the same as everyone else.  
I haven’t ever been out rightly treated in a different way because my use of the English language is such that no one would ever say “oh, she’s an immigrant woman and English is her second language” -  although both are true.  
In this sense I have not experienced the true adversity that I do see immigrants experiencing when they have difficulties communicating in the English language. As a child I was was subject to racism in school, so I understand that feeling (when you are treated as the “other”). I don’t let it govern my life, and I like to have a positive attitude. I do, however, see this “otherness” as an ongoing issue in a visibly multicultural society, the issue is just much subtler nowadays. This is why I am so passionate about mentoring. I have mentored a number of young women, including visible minority women, as I am concerned about the fact that a whole generation of young woman who are in the law are dropping out of law firms within five years of coming into the profession. The feeling of not getting enough support is an important reason why I keep sharing my experiences with women in the profession. To exchange experiences and help them understand how people can thrive is my way of giving back.
Q. There is always a struggle between what a client perceives as an ideal lawyer, and fitting ourselves fully into that box of how we should look and speak. What is your advice to us young generation lawyers on what we should be doing to counter this image?
Recently, I looked at the issue of the “bamboo ceiling”, a concept described in an American commentary about Asian American issues of discrimination. I wasn’t familiar with this concept, and came to realize that in America people have already coined a phrase for what happens to Asian Americans as they try to progress in their career and how they hit that ceiling in middle management coined as the “bamboo ceiling” (by Jane Hyun in her book on this issue). In gender equality issues we call it the “glass ceiling”, but here it is been coined as the “bamboo ceiling” relative to Asian Americans. It is a different issue in that it applies to Asian American men as well, but reflects the same type of “ceiling” problem that women experience with a glass ceiling.
Early on in my career, I absolutely refused to learn how to make coffee. I still to this day do not know how to make coffee. When there’s coffee being served at a business meeting I’m not the one rushing out to bring in the coffee. I did it purposely, because I don’t want to be treated as if I’m the back room person, sitting in the corner. That’s a small thing, but it’s an example where small things can make statements of purpose. Another instance is where often in my professional life, I would be the only female lawyer in the room. That’s quite common for me, especially in the areas of law that I practice. Thankfully now I have lots of young junior female lawyers who I work with so there are female lawyers in the room.  Of course, I also work with many young male lawyers. It is just that now there’s enough gender parity in the legal profession that there’s no reason to feel that you are relegated to a female bystander role.  
The role of Asian Canadian lawyers in the profession is also one of the reasons that I am so invested in FACL.  Having organizations like FACL is important. The organization creates the “milieu“ in which people can let down their hair, express their frustrations and find support. Support is one of the main things which helps people move forward, and if you can share your struggles with someone else who has encountered the same issues and get tips on have to deal with it, the frustration lessens. A group forum also engenders more positive responses. You are always better off when you have a voice, and FACL as a group can have a voice that others can listen to which perhaps an individual expressing concerns may not have.
Q. Seems that you have implemented certain strategies in voicing yourself and consciously projecting a certain image, would you have any to share with us today?
I certainly know that sometimes by being forthright you get labeled. I recognized that as a litigator you armor yourself when you go into the courtroom to act in the best interest of your client; similarly, in meetings you also have to put on a face as “I’m not shy”. So when I think I have to make a point, I make the point, and I’m not going to be sitting there in the background. Certainly I tried to be myself, and in being myself I felt the need at times to express myself perhaps louder than I needed to, sometimes to make a point, that I am not a stereotype of the quiet submissive Asian woman.  
I have purposely kept my last name because otherwise my husband and I would be Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I did not change my name.  I did not want anyone to be under any illusion when they met me that I am Asian or Chinese Canadian.
What I ended up having to do when I first meet a client, especially since I mostly deal with commercial clients i.e. in-house counsel or general counsel, is to be truly professional, and impervious to comments about how I look.  I try to find the human connection as well as be thoughtful, trying to find the touchstones the client and I have in common.  I do not golf so I don’t pretend to understand it.  I love food and that can be an icebreaker.  The key is to be authentic.  As well, I have been involved in “beauty contests”, not the type of beauty contests in the Ms. America way, but in the instances where you try to obtain a file by showing the client you understand his/her issues. That involves taking the extra steps to understand their issues, showing thoughtfulness and looking at extra legal issues and analysis that you might not normally do in a first meeting and being over prepared to discuss the legal issues. Taking the extra steps to look on a preliminary basis at your client’s issue before a first meeting always presents well to a client.

Q. You have held numerous roles across Canada from counsel to foreign clients, instructors at law schools, to directors of nonprofit organizations. What would be an experience you are most proud of and why?
I think distilling from all those experiences the role of mentorship is what I am very passionate about. In my practice of the law I have only held two working (i.e. paid) positions, as a partner in two different law firms. I was a student, an associate, then a partner at what is now Tory’s in Toronto, and then moved to Carscallen in Calgary. As part of what I have done in those firms, I have become involved in teaching advocacy at the University of Toronto Law School, participated in teaching a summer program offered by Osgoode Law School, and also participate in teaching at the University of Calgary Law School. All of those experiences and also sitting on boards coalesce for me into of what I have considered to be the role of advocacy – the idea of using the legal training you have to assist others. Out of all the things that I have done in the past, whether it was inside my firm or outside, I tried to get involved in mentoring. I think of it as our way of giving back to the community and in turn been given something that is greater than just whatever we do on a daily basis. You can make a really big difference in people's lives through mentoring. Whether I'm being mentored or I am mentoring others, the experience builds on important elements of my personal life and my life in legal practice.
Q. Is there a cause or initiative that you are currently super passionate about?
Yes, there is one that I am currently working on, partly because of FACL, and also because of my background. This initiative involves Calgary’s Chinatown.  
I was around when Justice Bertha Wilson did her gender equality report on the legal profession, and also when Judge Corrine Sparks did the visible minority women’s report on gender equality. I participated in those group discussions that lead to the reports. Because of my interest on issues relating to diversity, I recently became involved in assisting a loose coalition of Chinatown groups in dealing with the City of Calgary in relation to a land use application that will potentially change how a portion of Calgary’s Chinatown will be developed. In the course of my involvement, I got myself into a Chinese community I did not know at first. I didn’t grow up in a large Chinese community in Winnipeg, and am certainly not involved in actively meeting people who are leaders in the Chinese community. Now I had that opportunity to meet these people, I came to recognize that I too can make a contribution. My love of advocacy gave me an opportunity to assist and give back to a community that I did not know that well but have come to know well and I really enjoy being involved with people who care about the culture and heritage of Chinatown.
Q. What would you like to see in us (FACL) as an organization?
Because FACL it is so new here in Calgary, you have already started off doing a fabulous job in galvanizing and getting a large group of people together. I suspect it might be the nature of the profession in that there are not enough senior Asian Canadian lawyers around, but FACL (Alberta) should try to get more senior lawyers involved. I think FACL in Alberta can be an important voice for lobbying purposes, which it hasn’t done yet. It may be that once FACL in Alberta is more cohesive - as in when you have the involvement of a broad range of levels of experience, we can start helping Asian Canadian lawyers, and the profession by being more proactive. We have more ability as a group to influence policy or other issues that may be of concern to our group once we have the numbers. The next stage is when you look after the interest of FACL members as a group, because often a group voice can be heard and is heard more effectively than individual voices.
Q. Share something that you love outside of law?
I have lately become a convert and am crazy about professional basketball. My son plays basketball in high school and as a result I have learned to watch the NBA games with a more experienced eye. I understand many of the plays, the subtleties of the plays and have become familiar with the players. It is similar to my love of the law, in the sense that when I get interested in something I like to dive in and understand all of the types of plays, the strategies and the terminology.  
I have always thought that sports was very different world from the academic or professional world, but I have come to realize that a basketball player’s intelligence level is really important. The intelligent players can see the plays that can be developed, the holes and weaknesses of the other team. The strategies the players use in trying to get to the hoop is so interesting to watch, and a game of basketball has become an exciting intellectual exercise for me in studying strategy.  It helps that my son informs me about certain types of plays and I can replay it to see what he points out.
Q. Is there something that you think people should but don’t know about you?

When most people see me, they never think that I am an immigrant. But I moved from Taiwan to Canada when I was young (age 6). My fluency in the English language misleads people to believe that I was born in Canada. They don’t treat me like an immigrant.   I can speak Mandarin fluently but
I have never studied in a Chinese school; I can’t write nor read in Chinese. Most Chinese people I encounter assume that I am fully literate in the Chinese language, which poses another problem for me. Because of my fluency in Mandarin they assume the opposite, that I can read and write Chinese. Unfortunately, I can only use Google Translate to communicate certain things. It is a pity I cannot write. When I was in Winnipeg, the local Chinese language school was opened when I was in my late teens, I was the oldest student there and only absorbed a limited amount of the written language. So upon first impression when one wouldn’t think that I am an immigrant, I believe if I told them that I am, people will think “hmm, very interesting”.  And that’s something that people should, but don’t know about me.  
本地人见到我的时候他们不知道我是移民过来的。但是我小时候却是从台湾移民到加拿大的。 我的英文讲的让本地人觉得我是在加拿大出生的, 所以他们对待我的态度不像是移民。我没有上过中文学校,不会写也不会念,但是很多中国人见了我之后就会认为我会念会说会写。我和他们沟通的时候是有问题的,我和他们说我可以用Google Translate,但是我不会写。这一点我觉得很可惜。在Winnipeg我已经是十几岁的时候他们才办的中文学, 而我在那个中文学校里是面我是最大的一个学生, 并没有学到很多。所以本地人第一印象看到我不觉得,不过我觉得如果他们知道我是移民过来,他们会觉得Hmm,这个人很特别。而这就是我的很多人不知道的事情。
Lillian Y Pan, QC |
Sheri Wang, Hansen Wong and Steven Ngo