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News > Alumni Spotlight > From Jakarta to Canada: A Serendipitous Journey of Legal Pursuits

From Jakarta to Canada: A Serendipitous Journey of Legal Pursuits

Monica Layarda '12 has long aspired to a career in law. Originating from humble beginnings in Jakarta, she did not anticipate that her journey would eventually unfold in the legal landscape of Canada.

As a child growing up in the suburbs of Jakarta, it was beyond my wildest dreams to be practising law in Canada — a foreign place my family and I knew very little about. In the decade following my high school graduation in 2012, I moved across the world, completed my liberal arts degree at the University of Toronto (U of T), and ventured into two mini-careers in banking and legal tech before returning to my alma mater to earn my Juris Doctor. In 2022, I graduated from law school. I took a much longer route to law than many of my SJI International peers, but I am finally beginning a career that I hope will be a lifelong odyssey of passion and purpose. I am a true believer in perseverance, but as my wise professor recently reminded me, serendipity — or one may see it as a blessing — often plays an equally pivotal role in shaping one’s life journey; all the things you undertake prepare you to seize the opportunity when it presents itself!

Clerking and the exciting beginning of a legal career

This past year has been a rewarding and transformative experience, to say the least. Upon graduation, I had the unique opportunity to work as a judicial clerk (i.e., a judge’s research assistant) at the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Canada’s busiest intermediate appellate court. In this position, I get to work closely with two judges throughout the full lifecycle of civil and criminal cases. I brief my judges on upcoming cases, attend court when these cases are argued, and then discuss and edit judgments that my judges author. For an aspiring litigator who loves the study of law and is very much intrigued by the legal process, this is a dream come true! Not only do I get to peek behind the curtain to see how the law is developed, but I also get to be an integral part of law-making while learning from some of the sharpest legal minds and kindest souls at the court: the judiciary, staff lawyers, and my clerk cohort. I am immensely grateful to have the privilege of combining an intellectual exercise that I love, utilizing skills at which I am relatively decent, and making a meaningful impact on people’s lives in my everyday work.

Having made Toronto home since I first landed in the country in 2013, I will soon pack my suitcases once more to embark on the next exciting adventure in Ottawa as a clerk in the chambers of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

SJI International: The Great Propeller

When I look back, I cannot think of a more critical time in my life that set me on this course: SJI International. The generous scholarship that my older brother, Petrus Layarda, my little sister, Priscilla Layarda, and I received gave us a key that helped open many doors in our lives. It has led us to Singapore and the world beyond. For this life-altering gift, my family will forever be grateful to the school, its dedicated faculty, and its most generous donors.

To tie this to my theme of serendipity, I will share with you one of my mom’s favourite stories about my application process back in 2008: for whatever reason, I was not notified of when and where the scholarship examination for SJI International was going to take place — so clueless me in middle school assumed that it would be sometime “in the future”. One late Saturday night, while I was practising with my school’s marching band for our upcoming national competition, my mom received a call from a friend asking her if she knew how to get to a certain school. This piqued her interest. She asked why the friend needed to go there early the following morning. And lo and behold, this is how I learned that the examination was less than 12 hours away. (Thank goodness, Google Maps wasn’t a thing then!)

In the remainder of this article, I will offer some hindsight reflection on the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and share my path to law in North America. For students who grew up in a British education system, this may be a less familiar and more daunting path. I took several fortunate albeit somewhat arbitrary shots in the dark. I’m very fortunate they worked out great, but I hope I can shed some light for you.

A decade’s reflection on IB

To the Josephians who are currently going through IB, I won’t lie: there are no shortcuts to success. There were tough times in my journey despite having a supportive circle of friends and teachers and despite my frequent visits to Mrs. Teo’s office. Living away from home at fifteen was a difficult transition, and on top of that, IB was rigorous. The program challenges you to excel in a variety of subject areas while juggling a myriad of extracurriculars. It demands a lot of independence and time management. Over a decade later, it has continued to pay dividends. I still apply the discipline, critical thinking, and writing skills I began to develop during IB.

I still remember my struggle to learn Chemistry HL and practice debate. I had some debating experience in Indonesia, but doing it in a second language was arduous and sitting in the back of the class was discouraging. I came close to giving up both, but I decided I detested quitting more. So, I learned to persevere. No, I never won a debating match, although these remain some of my most cherished personal accomplishments — the pivotal experiences that built my character. As a bonus point, I later received university credit for Chemistry HL, which meant I no longer had to take life sciences at university! The same self-doubt came creeping in again when I was mooting (i.e. doing an appeals mock court) in law school. I reminded myself I showed up before, I could do it again — I did, and this time we took home all the trophies!

All roads lead to law? My long path from IB to liberal arts, then law

It took me a full decade to become licensed as a lawyer in Toronto. I always had the desire to pursue a career in law, but growing up without knowing a lawyer made the idea of committing to law and being tied to a specific jurisdiction seem all too daunting. Now I know that the profession is more mobile than I imagined as foreign-trained lawyers can often complete accreditation courses and/or write the bar exams to become licensed in major markets in Canada and the U.S. I spent a lot of time thinking about my university options and compared various metrics on a spreadsheet in grade 12. The final decision was a leap of faith: the allure of discovering North America, which, up to that point, I only knew through pop culture and history classes, was far more exciting to me, and I loved the Hogwarts-like architecture, so I chose to take up the full-ride offer at U of T over the surer options of reading law at NUS and HKU. Only years later did I come to appreciate the immigration potential this decision afforded me.

As is the norm in North America, U of T offers a liberal arts undergraduate degree, which means you can choose your classes broadly and need not declare your major/specialization until your second or third year. I did not plan to study International Relations but decided on it after enjoying the intensive courses I took during my exploratory first year. It was truly something that I fell into and the interdisciplinary nature — combining history, political science, and economics — suited my broad-ranging interests and international background. There is no pre-law program per se at U of T (and many other liberal arts universities). My specialisation cultivated fundamental skills to succeed in law as it trained me to read, analyse, and write well. While humanities and social sciences seem to be the traditional options, I know successful colleagues who came from business, STEM, and even opera singing.

The “Canadian Dream”

Do I recommend taking this longer path to law? Yes, I do. I’ll be honest while deferring law school for two years (due to immigration and financial reasons), there were frequent bouts of regret for not going to law school right away, which would have saved me time and money. In hindsight, two years is not that long of a wait, but I felt left behind as my high school and undergraduate friends were either practising then or were enrolled in law school. However, this unconventional journey proved to be a great fit for me for three reasons. First, through various undergraduate internships and work placements, I gained clarity and entered law school with a sober understanding of the demands of the profession. Second, my full-time work experience cultivated emotional maturity, which made me a stronger candidate in the job market. Additionally, it also enabled me to identify my competitive edge, the problems I was interested in solving and the impact I aspired to make — this is a good general framework to keep in mind when deciding which career path to embark on.

Finally, my educational journey paved the way for me to build a new life in the world’s most multicultural settings. Not once did I ever feel disadvantaged on the account of gender, race, nationality or religion since I landed in Toronto (granted, I have spent my life in the safe bubbles of university and court life). The older I get the more I appreciate having found a society that resonates deeply with my personal values and worldview. Historian Margaret McMillan said in my convocation in 2017 that Canada was an “oasis” in the turbulent world — it was true then, it is true now. Other than easy accessibility to maple syrup, my immigrant definition of the “Canadian Dream” consists of having the clearest path to permanent residency (sans an arbitrary lottery system) for international students; government support for continuing education, healthcare and other social services; and last but not least, Canadians are nice, eh!

My journey from Jakarta to Singapore and then Toronto has been filled with perseverance coupled with serendipitous choices and strokes of luck. I am immensely grateful for the opportunities I have been blessed with, and I am thrilled to have found a profession that I care deeply about and want to keep learning about! Your journey will be unique, but I hope my story can offer you some insights as you chart your own path. Remember to embrace the opportunities and friendships that come your way, and have faith that your hard work will lead you to a fulfilling future. 

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