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June 16, 2022 Article

Resilience and Thriving: From “English as Second Language” Law Student to Trial Lawyer

My journey as a first-generation immigrant trial lawyer, the successes and failures I have experienced over the years, and how I overcame the difficulties and eventually became who I am today.

By Mengxue Xie

It was my second week in the U.S. I walked into a Subway restaurant and was ready to order a sandwich. “Six inch or foot long?” the girl standing behind the counter asked me. “Foot long? Why do people here measure their food with the size of their foot?” I wondered. Just like that, I started my journey in a country I had never set foot in. I learned everything like a baby while managing to survive law school.

Understanding my professors and fellow classmates was the biggest challenge in my first year of law school. It is one thing to be able to pass the English proficiency test, but it is another to study law in a language that I did not grow up with. Class group discussions were full of surprises for me—surprise that I could barely follow the conversations, surprise that I have watched so few American movies. I was even more ashamed of my accent. I thought no one could understand my English or would have the patience to explain a slang term for me. So I didn’t speak one word during the group discussions in the entire semester.

I video-called my parents one day and told them that I wanted to go back home and that there was nothing exciting about living in the U.S. But my dad reminded me that when I first started to learn Taekwondo, I was the only girl in the room, so I always practiced with the boys who were much stronger than me. I ended up winning the girls-only competition. If I choose to walk the more difficult path, change will happen, my dad said.

So, in my second year of law school, I chose classes that focused on writing and public speaking—two things that I feared the most at that time. I enrolled in a year-long Appellate Practice class. As the name suggests, we wrote briefs and practiced oral argument in front of the whole class every week. Very often, I thought I was going to pass out before an oral argument practice session. Thankfully, there was always a podium that I could grab on to. The class concluded with a local moot court competition. I prepared, prepared, and prepared, and I successfully delivered an oral argument before three moot judges. The experience broke for me the myths around being a litigator as a nonnative English speaker—being a good litigator is much more than being good at English. It is about mastering the subject matter, putting in the hard work, knowing the facts inside out, and always being prepared. It was the first time I felt I had control over my future career.

Armed with the skills I obtained though the moot court program, I confidently signed up for the Criminal Law Clinic in my third year. But my confidence was immediately shattered: “You are the first international student who has ever attempted to try this clinic, your English skills are limited, the criminal cases are too difficult for you, and you can’t handle it,” my instructor told me.

My teacher was absolutely correct. Standing in a real courtroom in front of a judge with my client depending on me felt totally different from delivering a “fake” argument in the classroom. It was also the first time I had the taste of what it was like to be an Asian female litigator. When I introduced myself by pronouncing my Chinese name, I heard my client starting to giggle next to me; someone walked up to me and asked if I was the translator while I was waiting outside the arraignment room for my client.

I recognized quickly that, unlike my moot court experiences, the perceptions and bias of others are not things I could work on. This was the reality outside my control. With this grim realization, I worked even harder on my legal and language skills. I believed, and I still believe after four years of practicing law, that while people’s perceptions do have an impact on the outcome of a case, hard work and knowledge are the most powerful weapons in a trial lawyer’s arsenal. I used every networking opportunity to interact with my fellow classmates and legal professionals, with the hope that I could challenge people’s stereotypes about someone like me.

To me, resiliency is about having the courage to face the reality, staring down that reality, starting where you are, using what you have, and doing what you can.

The resilience I have built up over the years gives me the ability to see challenges from multiple perspectives in my day-to-day practice of law. When I started as a baby lawyer, I was very anxious about responding to a less-than-friendly phone call from opposing counsel complaining about discovery issues. But I asked myself, “What is this problem an opportunity for?” So a stressful meet-and-confer session becomes an opportunity to practice speaking calmly and confidently with an equally “resilient” lawyer, thereby making me better able to handle the situations.

Born and raised in China, never in my wildest dreams did I think that someday I’d become a trial lawyer in the U.S. It has been, as the Beatles would say, a long and winding road. I thought I could say that I’ve “made it” if I finished law school and found a job. But, as I sit in my office with my law degree hanging on the wall today, I say “I made it” because I am content and confident about where I am in life and because I’m able to look at the future with a positive mind-set to be the best I can be.

Mengxue Xie is an associate attorney at Ulmer & Berne in Cleveland, Ohio.

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