We were honoured to interview George Tai, the financial managing partner at Carscallen LLP and a member of the firm’s business law practice. George is set to embark on a new chapter of his career this fall when he transitions to Dentons LLP. Over a candid conversation, George shared his story of growing up in an immigrant family, his decision to pursue a law degree and his insight into the future of the legal profession. We are pleased to present his personal story in this Spotlight series interview.
Q: What made you decide to pursue a law degree?
When I was around one years old my family immigrated from Taipei to Winnipeg. We moved a lot when I was young because of my father’s career as an engineer. I lived in Fredericton as a teenager and finished up high school in Fort McMurray. I chose to attend the University of Toronto to study biochemistry, because it always felt like I was bound to one of three careers: a dentist, an engineer, or a doctor. Being a dutiful oldest son, I obliged my parents. I knew I couldn’t be an engineer because I wasn’t any good at math. I chose biochemistry and ended up receiving acceptance to dentistry school and was waitlisted for medical school. However, those were the goals set out by my parents, which weren’t necessarily my own goal. I knew I wanted to go to law school and thankfully my parents supported my choice.
Q: What was it like growing up in an immigrant family?
When I was a child growing up in the 1970’s, there were very few Chinese immigrants. Most residents in the Winnipeg Chinese Canadian community were descendants from the rail road times and were relatively well established. I was often one of the only few Asian students in our entire school. I remember my dad hand making soybean milk and my mom making her own dumplings. There were no Asian grocery stores around us. My parents helped to set up an organization called the Manitoba Academy of Chinese Studies to teach Chinese to the immigrant kids in the city. In a way, I watched my parents help build the Chinese immigrant community Winnipeg.
Q: Did this change your view on the Chinese immigrant community and prompt you to give back?
When you are a lawyer, your time is your most valuable asset. The key for me is finding something that I am passionate it about because then it doesn’t feel like work but a part of your life. For example, I love fly fishing, so I joined the Bow River chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada. I learned a lot about the environmental aspects of water sheds and river quality.
I also volunteer for the Calgary Chinese Community Service Association. There were so many people that helped us along the way when I was young, when my parents were trying to adjust to life in Canada. I wanted to give back. While I am dealing with a different set of issues than I am used to in my practice, such as landlord tenant disputes or family law matters, I find the work very fulfilling.
Q: As one of the few Chinese lawyers practicing at the time, what would you say was your most significant challenge early in your career?
I can only speak to my experiences as a solicitor but I didn’t experience any overt discrimination. All my colleagues and opposing lawyers were gracious and kind to me. Moreover, I think times are different and stereotypes are changing. I was one of a handful of Asian law students at Western Law. There are so many young Asian Canadian lawyers and law students today, and I believe that all of you can help break down any existing barriers. That said, I think the disadvantage I had came in the form of a lack of support systems and networks. Without family connections or an established professional network of Asian lawyers in place I had to deal with a lot of adversity alone, and that was quite difficult at times.
To this end, I am very excited about the growth of FACL. I think the organization is doing great work in connecting young legal professionals to the Calgary bar.
Every immigrant wave that comes to Canada has had its influence on shaping our country, including political and social governance. A major avenue of this influence is the law. Law is a fundamental feature that influences that quality of politics and government. You can see the influence of the various waves of immigrants that came to Canada, whether it be Irish, Ukranian or Italian. Opportunities are endless for young Asian Canadians in the profession and empowering them is a necessary step to forward progress.
Q: Did you have a mentor who really helped early on in your career?
I never had one specific mentor. With my somewhat unique background in biochemistry and cultural heritage, there was nobody that could initially really relate to me at my firm. Instead I would say I had a group of mentors who were my colleagues. I was fortunate to begin my career in Calgary with a great firm and be able to learn about the practice of law from my talented colleagues.
Q: What would you say is your proudest achievement to date?
I’d like to think that I’m too young to have a crowning achievement in my career. Every file I work on, regardless of whether it is a billion-dollar deal or a million-dollar deal, it is just as important to that respective client. The satisfaction for me is when I complete a closing or successfully facilitate a transaction, and my clients calls me back for another deal.
One of my unique experiences in law would be when I was involved in an international patent dispute. Our client was being sued by a Chinese company in the telecommunications business. I had the opportunity to attend proceedings at the Beijing High Court and watch the trial unfold. It was a very high-profile dispute and certainly something I would never forget.
Q: What made you move to Dentons LLP at this phase of your career?
The world is changing, the global market is expanding. This is true for all professions, not just ours. As a solicitor, the opportunities to practice law globally are exciting. I am also fascinated by how law firms are adapting to this changing market place. At the end of the day, law firms are driven by clients and relationships absolutely matter. While our clients have become more international in their ventures and vision, they are still tied down locally.
To service clients globally, law firms still rely on having a strong local ground game. Look at a few international firms, including Norton Rose Fulbright and Dentons. These firms have grown through mergers, this reflects the importance of having local roots and connections.
I think we should view the rise of the international law firm as a response to changing client demands. Law is a service industry and it is in the best interest of law firms to have the infrastructure to help assist all the different client needs. That’s what it means to be a full-service firm. To answer your question, I think the global vision and opportunities to tackle international projects is what drew me to Dentons. This was a very hard decision because I am leaving a truly exceptional law firm here at Carscallen.
Q: What are you passionate about or interested in outside of law?
I love to cook. I am a bit of a food network junkie. Barbecue and French cooking are two of my favorites. I think what I love about it is the discovery, the challenge of not relying on recipes but just fashioning something delicious out of what you have available. My wife likes to give me a hard time sometimes because I read lots of cook books without ever following them.
I also love the outdoors, I am an avid fly fisher. I fell in love with fishing as a kid. I don’t do as much of it these days, but I still love to build rods and tie flies. There is a saying for fishermen. First you catch as many fish as you can. Then you want to catch the biggest fish you can, and thirdly you only catch the fish you want to catch. I’m past the third stage. I’m fine taking my fly rod out for a walk by the Bow River, which features some world class trout fishing and not even bothering to cast a fly.
Between my career and family, I’ve really enjoyed having the time to pursue a couple of my real passion and hobbies. It helps round out what can often be quite a hectic life.
Photos: Rafael Badiola