This month’s spotlight is on CLEBC volunteer Ming Song of Arbutus Law Group LLP. Ming is a book author of CLEBC’s BC Creditors’ Remedies – An Annotated Guide and has worked exclusively in the area of Aboriginal law representing First Nations since 1992.
What inspired you to focus your practice on Aboriginal law representing First Nations?
During my first year at law school, a small section of our constitutional law class was dedicated to Aboriginal law. Prior to that, in my day, provincial primary and high schools did not have courses on First Nations. I was shocked and ashamed to learn about how First Nations were treated and being a first generation immigrant from South Africa, I was aware of racism; our family had come to Canada to escape apartheid. Because of that, from my first moment in my first term in law school, I knew Aboriginal law was the area of law I wanted to practice and I have been fortunate to have been able to follow my dream.
Are there any misconceptions about Aboriginal law practice that you would like to address?
When I first started practicing Aboriginal law 25 years ago, it was mainly about rights and title. Today, this is no longer the case. Aboriginal law has become more complex, and you can no longer be an Aboriginal law generalist nor can you just dabble in this practice area. There are so many topics within Aboriginal law practice that require specific expertise: consultation and accommodation, tax, self-government, specific claims, and economic development, just to name a few. In today’s practice, you must find a specialization.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
Being an advocate for issues that I truly believe in. Not many people have the opportunity to work in an area of the law they truly enjoy and feel passionate about. I am very fortunate that my work continues to be interesting and challenging. It enables me to always be curious and to strive to improve the quality of my clients’ lives both on an individual basis and as a community.
What advice would you give newcomers interested in working in the legal profession?
Always be curious and courageous. Don’t blindly accept instructions from senior lawyers or clients. Pause and think about whether their requests make sense and if there are other factors and issues worth considering. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Curiosity makes for great critical and strategic thinking. Ask what the purpose, repercussions, and effects of a particular course of action are and what the best outcome is for your client. Be courageous in your convictions, whether it is for a cause, a legal argument, your client, or yourself. Your courage must be purposeful, well thought out, and persuasive. And of course, communicating your convictions should always be done respectfully, professionally, and with integrity.
On a practical level, when dealing with senior lawyers, and this may sound funny, always be calm. Senior lawyers may not always be calm because they may be dealing with challenging clients, deadlines, and difficult lawyers. Be their oasis. No matter what crisis arises, if you always respond calmly, professionally, and on time (always get your work done by the due date and do it well!), they will come to trust you and your work. They will give you better quality work which will enhance your reputation. This makes for a rewarding, less-stressful experience for everyone.
What advice would you give young lawyers interested specifically in Aboriginal law?
So many young lawyers are interested in Aboriginal law because it sounds exciting and they want to represent First Nations to help correct past wrongs. That’s all very nice, but the reality is that there is so much competition to break into this area. To be effective, young lawyers need a strategic game plan. You need to identify what specific topic within Aboriginal law interests you the most and do background research – whether that means reading all the relevant cases, becoming familiar with the important federal and provincial websites, blogs, and newsletters, knowing the First Nations, Chiefs, and political leaders who influence and can change history in your province, or being able to identify the most important issues facing First Nations provincially and federally – all of that matters and will set you apart. Currency and knowledge are extremely important in this practice area and can give you the edge you need to land that articling or junior position.
Other than law, what are you passionate about?
I love to travel. I try to visit a different country or city every year. Experiencing new cultures, languages, and ways of life reminds me that there is always more than one way of doing, thinking, and feeling. And of course, the food is always fabulous! Being outside one’s comfort zone can be scary but the rewards, like reliving the sense of wonder we felt as children, are so worthwhile. My most recent memorable trips have been to Peru, Istanbul, and Budapest.