What If I’ll Never Be Like Marie Henein?

Written by
Elsa Ascencio
Elsa's Blog

Published
Sep 14, 2018

Sep 14, 2018 • by Elsa Ascencio

A personal reflection on mental health and being a female lawyer.

Law school is an important time in every lawyer’s development. It is a time when you learn the mechanics of the common and civil law; it is a time when you build connections with classmates and professors. But it is also a time when we start asking ourselves, “What kind of lawyer will I become?” It is a time when we begin to build our perception of what a lawyer should look like.

I entered law school in 2014, around the time of Jian Ghomeshi trial. Naturally as law students, we noticed Ghomeshi’s lawyer – Marie Henein. Many students, including myself, were in awe of Henein. She is seen as a criminal defense fighter. Media coverage surrounding Henein also came around the time when Amal Clooney grabbed public attention. Amal Clooney graduated from Oxford; and she was perceived as a fighter for human rights.

For law students, Marie Henein and Amal Clooney began shaping our expectation of what it means to be a modern, female lawyer in a historically male-dominated profession. The modern, female lawyer is brilliant; she is poised, but she is also a fierce advocate. However, I can’t help but wonder, where does mental health fit in the narrative of the modern, female lawyer?

During the first two years of law school, I felt like the Marie Henein of labour law. I fought for workers’ rights within the Latino community; and I didn’t shy away from conflict against employers. I did well in my classes and I thrived in exams. I even secured articling early at a top labour firm in Ottawa. I was on top of my game. However, by the time I started 3L, something in me changed. I couldn’t focus in my third-year classes. I started to avoid conflict. I cried a lot, in private and public; I struggled with the bar exam. At my lowest point, I wanted to end my life. I learned from doctors that these were the symptoms of serious depression.

I no longer felt brilliant. I no longer felt poised. I no longer felt like the Marie Henein of labour law. I no longer felt like the modern, female lawyer. I thought to myself, “What if I’ll never be like Marie Henein?” I truly wanted to embody the strong presence of modern, female lawyer. But for me to do this, I needed to learn how to be a lawyer living with depression.

It’s been two years since my journey with depression started in 3L. I have some bad days, but truth is, I mostly have good days now. I have started to look forward, not backwards. One evening, I was scrolling down my social media newsfeed and saw the name: “Marie Henein.” Something clicked in me.

The media portrayal of modern, female lawyers is adversarial in the court context. They use their intelligence to fight for their clients, or fight against human rights abuses. No doubt, the modern, female lawyer is a professional at her job. However I’ve learned that part of the fighting spirit is standing up for yourself. To put it simply, the modern, female lawyer recognizes that she is worth fighting for. She knows she deserves equal pay. She knows she deserves a safe and harassment-free work environment.

The modern, female lawyer also recognizes that if her soul is hurting from depression, she must honour herself first, even if that includes crying. I challenge law students to include mental health in their perception of what it means to be a lawyer. Aspire to be Marie Henein. Aspire to be Amal Clooney. Aspire to be yourself.

After my articling term finished, I wasn’t called to the bar like my friends. I needed some time off to honour myself and eventually write the bar exam. I’m glad I did because the modern, female lawyer not only fights in court, but she fights for herself.

I’m glad I fought for myself and I’m still here to tell the tale.

Elsa's Blog