Lana Li is a partner at Kornfeld LLP, and the proud mother of two sons. She graduated from the University of British Columbia (“UBC”) Faculty of Law in 1988, having gone straight to law school from the third-year of her undergraduate studies in the Faculty of Arts. Growing up, Li always considered going to law school, and never made any backup plans in case law school did not work out. Having been in practice for the past 27 years, Li’s instincts were certainly on point.
Li was born in Hong Kong, and immigrated with her family to Vancouver at the age of three. She grew up in East Vancouver, and when the time came to apply to post-secondary institutions, Li did not consider any other school besides UBC. The decision was primarily a financial one for Li, whose university education was funded almost entirely on scholarships and summer jobs.
After completing three years of a bachelor’s degree program, with a focus on English literature, Li decided to take the Law Schools Admission Test and apply to law school. Law had always been a part of the plan, although Li admits that she had no idea then about what the legal profession was like. When Li started at the law school in September 1985, she remembered feeling intimidated by the caliber of her classmates, although this quickly dissipated as she developed friendships with peers and an interest in substantive legal topics.
Li recalls having a number of memorable professors during her time at the law school, such as Professor Michael Jackson, whom she describes as “dynamic and theatrical” and Professor Bob Reid, whom she will always remember for “Black Acre and White Acre.” She notes that the personalities of her professors were very different, and each brought a different perspective to the study of law. She also remembers that there were only a handful of Asian students in her graduating class. The few that were Chinese volunteered at the Law Students’ Legal Advice Program (“LSLAP”) Clinic in Chinatown, providing assistance to low-income clients in Cantonese or Mandarin.
“From LSLAP, I got to know more upper year law students and Chinese lawyers who were supervising at the Clinic. They were all very supportive and gave their time generously,” shares Li. “We were a small group, but we had a lot of fun.”
Li remains connected to her peers, especially to a group from her first year section, and they have had several “mini-reunions” over the years.
“All of us experienced the challenges and rewards of law school together. We were all in the same boat. Our group looks back on our time at UBC fondly, and when we get together at reunions and mini-reunions, we reconnect immediately,” says Li.
Li’s graduating class, the Class of 1988, collaborated to create the Vince Bjorndahl Scholarship in honour of a classmate who passed away early in his legal career.
“Our graduating class has gone on to do some pretty amazing things, both in and out of the legal profession,” Li adds.
Li was fortunate to have been involved in the Family Law Clinic (the “Clinic”) at the law school. She was particularly drawn to her experience with the Clinic because she had been given the opportunity to shadow a family lawyer and really get a sense of litigation practice in the real world. Certainly, Li discovered her passion for litigation early on in law school, having enjoyed mooting and taking classes such as Evidence.
The search for articles was a computerized process for Li. She recalls having gone through the typical motions of sending out resumes, getting interviews, and then embarking on a process whereby students and firms ranked each other in order of preference, submitting the results to a computer-matching program.
Many of the law firms that interviewed Li were very interested in her Chinese heritage, her connections to Hong Kong and China, and her ability to converse in Chinese. This was slightly problematic for Li, as she did not want her practice to be shaped exclusively by the ethnicity of her clients. Luckily, she was able to find herself in a firm that did not just hire her because she was Asian. Li articled in a full service firm in downtown Vancouver, practicing everything except for criminal and admiralty law. It was a booming time in the late 1980s, and Li describes the work culture positively.
“Everybody was valued at the firm, and I never felt out of place because I was female or Asian. I articled, and became an associate and partner there. I was really fortunate that the firm was quite progressive in some ways and I never felt that I didn’t get work assigned to me because I was a woman or a visible minority. It was about our ability to do the work.”
Li practiced law at Douglas Symes & Brissenden for 11 years; however, the firm dissolved in 2000 (just three months after Li returned from maternity leave). Li then moved to Kornfeld LLP, a law firm that is actually housed in the same building as her previous firm – Li has in fact been practicing law in the same building for 27 years.
When asked about changes that she has noticed in the legal profession, Li responds, “Firms are a lot more specialized and there are more boutique firms now. In the 1990s, many firms raced to merge with larger, national firms. Nowadays, some of that is still going on, but there are a lot more smaller, specialized firms, such as Kornfeld LLP.”
Another change that Li has noticed is the increased diversity in the profession.
“If a client wanted to hire Chinese-speaking litigator in 1989, there would have been very few to choose from. Many Chinese-speaking lawyers were solicitors back then. Now, there are a lot more Asian lawyers in general (and more Chinese speaking litigators) and of course, more women in practice,” says Li. “There are more support systems for females and minorities in law than when I started.”
Li cites organizations such as the Canadian Bar Association (“CBA”) Women Lawyers Forum and the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers for increasing the support for diversity in the profession. She credits lawyers for being generous with their time and mentoring students, but also praises students for taking the initiative to reach out to lawyers for help.
Throughout her career, Li has always been involved in the community, adopting a “pay it forward” mentality. After graduating from law school, she returned to the Chinatown LSLAP Clinic to volunteer as a supervising lawyer for a number of years. Through the CBA, she was also involved in a number of committees, including the Advisory Committee to the Judicial Council, the Work-Life Balance Committee, and the Court Services Committee. She was the CBA appointee to the Board of Directors of the Continuing Legal Education (“CLE”) Society for four years. After that, Li volunteered as a member-at-large for the Women Lawyers’ Forum for four years. Outside of law, Li also sits on the board of St. John’s School and she is involved in several school committees.
One of Li’s career highlights so far was being an adjunct professor at UBC Law where she taught Creditors’ Remedies for three terms. She found the experience of teaching very rewarding and illuminating, given she took the course as a law student and then taught the course from the perspective of a practitioner. Today, Li’s litigation practice is broad, encompassing civil and commercial litigation, landlord-tenant disputes, creditors’ remedies, and select family law disputes.
During her spare time, Li is very involved in activities with her children and enjoys travelling with her family. She admits that it can be hard to juggle the practice of law while being a mother, but credits the support she has received from her spouse, other family members, and other female trailblazers who have paved the way for her and other women lawyers.
“I always tell students and young lawyers to get involved in something outside of their law firm. It really helps to stay healthy and to balance out your life. I learn so much from volunteering in different organizations, whether in law or outside of law. For example, while I was involved in the CBA BC Provincial Council, I was exposed to issues affecting our profession nationally and provincially. Through the Women Lawyers Forum, I was able to get involved in programs and events that provided support and mentoring to young female lawyers and law students. There are many volunteer opportunities out there, and it is all these extra activities that make the practice of law so much more rewarding.”