Thursday, August 28, 2014
Portrait of Alissa Saieva

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo

Alissa Saieva, Class of 2017, brought a trifecta of firsts to the Faculty of Law when she started here on August 18th: She’s the first in her family to attend law school, the first Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) graduate to attend U of T Law, and indeed the first LAWS grad be accepted into any law school.

LAWS is an outreach success story. The popular, award-winning mentorship and academic support program at seven targeted Toronto high schools focuses on pairing law student volunteers—from U of T and Osgoode law schools—with high school students interested in pursuing post-secondary education and various careers in law but who may be facing barriers to success.

Many LAWS graduates have attended post-secondary institutions. But since the program’s inception almost 10 years ago by former dean Ron Daniels, Saieva is the first of its graduates to be accepted to any law school. (She also received acceptances from the University of Victoria, the University of Ottawa and York’s Osgoode Hall law schools).

“LAWS is critical in encouraging students to set and achieve educational goals, and for exposing them to careers and networking in the legal field; it helps them to see that their aspirations are possible,” says Saieva.

Saieva was a LAWS student while at Central Technical School, the same high school her grandfather, father and brothers attended. From her home base in Mississauga, Ontario, she commuted during the week to attend the downtown school, originally for its arts program. Until, one day, she found out about LAWS—and signed up.

“Alissa excelled as a LAWS student,” says Sarah Pole, LAWS director. “She took up every opportunity to immerse herself in the law. Her strength and tenacity in working towards law school was tremendous. I hope she’s the first of many LAWS alumni to attend law school.  We are very proud of her.”

Still, her career path took some thought and time to determine.  “LAWS ignited a passion in me to help others,” says Saieva, “but my fear of public speaking dissuaded me from considering law school. In my first year of undergrad, I finally decided that this is what I wanted to do. That passion helped me to overcome my fear.”

She and her two brothers are the first in her family to attend university. Saieva studied political science and environmental studies at U of T’s New College, graduating with high distinction in June 2014, and a cumulative GPA of 3.9. That’s not all: she worked and volunteered part-time throughout undergrad, and kept busy with extracurricular activities—including her bees.

She led the campus Beekeeping Educational Enthusiasts Society, or B.E.E.S., as its president for two years, raising not only awareness but also five bee colonies on the rooftops of the Faculty Club, Trinity College and the Earth Sciences buildings. “Last year the society started to sell some of its harvested honey,” she notes.

Saieva was also involved with DigIn! Campus Agriculture (as the campus garden coordinator), the Pre-Law Society (as the New College director), and with University of Toronto Environmental Action (as a legal researcher). It’s not surprising to hear that environmental law is now her career goal.

Student Alissa Saieva and her principal at LAWS graduation ceremony

LAWS graduation: Alissa Saieva receives her certificate from Central Technical School's principal, Sheryl Freeman.

“I worked at Metro Hall Legal Services and Davies while I was a LAWS student, and I realized that lawyers are not ‘scary’,” she explains with a laugh. “I looked towards those professionals and thought ‘That could be me.’”

Saieva continues to work at boutique firm Ellyn Law, where she’s a file clerk, but she says she does much more than just filing.  “I have also conducted legal research, helped with website publishing, and assisted with the preparation of actual legal documents. One of the affidavits I helped with consisted of more than 600 documents!” 

So how did her first two weeks at law school go?

“It was a little quiet at first, but then I realized we needed the evenings for our readings. The E-Zone and ‘Glawdiator’ Games were fun, and everyone’s really nice; there’s a diversity of backgrounds. It’s really nice to see that.”

The Class of 2017 is the first cohort to start law school in mid-August, with a two-week Legal Methods Intensive course that meant hitting the books long before the rest of the student body does.

“The course is going well. I am not a fan of cold calling [by professors in class] because of my own public speaking fears, but I acknowledge that it’s an important learning skill and part of the learning process for everyone,” she says. “I did have a mental roadblock one day when the readings took seven hours, and I thought something was wrong with me. But then I spoke to other students, and realized that everyone was in the same boat.”

Saieva says she’s fortunate to be able to crash at her grandparents’ house in nearby Little Italy, as the workload gets heavier, and the commute to the suburbs seems longer.  “There’s always lots of food there too,” she says with a grin.

Comfort food provided by her Nonno and Nonna, to help Alissa become the environmental lawyer she wants to be—where her voice will be heard, loud and clear.