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Livia Popa - The Road to You | People of Justice 2023 Bucharest

"We are more than a profession". Livia Popa talked about the courage you need to make decisions that are totally different from what the world or society expects of you, when you feel you are not in the right place. With a story about how she didn't initially see herself in the career options offered to her by the university she was attending (Law), Livia left us with the idea that it's important to find out what we really want, beyond the images constructed by others.

Author: Livia Popa

I am Livia, I graduated from law school in 2014 and I am neither a lawyer, nor a judge, nor a prosecutor.

The question "Did I go to college for nothing?" has long haunted me. Now an even harder one haunts me: if I'm not a lawyer, judge or prosecutor, what am I? 

"Because simply being is not enough. You have to do something, and something very important to be recognized as a human being."

My last year of college is a very vague memory for me, I was operating more on autopilot. I had numerous panic attacks, [pause] episodes of generalized anxiety, a couple of weeks where I couldn't sleep at all because I felt like I was going to die. And I didn't understand what was happening to me, why I was going through all this...

In law school you have only two career options... or at least that's all they talk about: the judiciary or the law. I had a choice between two clothes, and one seemed to squeeze me while the other was loose.

I continued to mistreat myself and after I finished college I applied to the Bar, in spite of my gut instinct that I wasn't ready and didn't want to do this... 

I failed, of course. 

It reconfirmed how broken I am. All of my colleagues seemed to have a well-defined path. They were determined! [pause] And certainly there are people who are born for a certain profession, but most are "cursed" (or "blessed") to seek it out. 

I was to find out later how many colleagues were going through exactly what I was going through. Although I felt pretty damn safe and no one was talking about it.

I was no longer able to learn. It was like my brain was fried, the information wasn't getting in! I had to start reading something other than law, that's how I discovered psychology, and I started doing things other than learning. 

I started travelling, with the Erasmus+ programme. 

That's how I first ended up in a refugee camp in Italy, where a light bulb came on. There were people who, in fear for their lives, had fled their home country and were seeking protection from the Italian state. At the same time, I met refugees who had already been in the country for some time and had managed to rebuild their lives. The difference between the two stages was overwhelming.  

I returned home and, sobbing my eyes out over the stack of bar exam books, told my mother that I couldn't go on and that I would be neither a lawyer nor a judge.... 

My mother accepted, although I felt she was not long at peace with my choice, and my father still asks me when I'm going to be a prosecutor. 

I worked in a fast food restaurant for a while, then I worked in a café. I wanted to do anything to feel in control of my life, that I was capable of making a decision and that I didn't necessarily have to be a lawyer or a magistrate. Although I really enjoyed working with the law and couldn't see myself doing anything else, but I didn't know where I could use what I had learned...

One day, I was in the kitchen of the restaurant in the mall where I worked when I saw a former college classmate who was a lawyer at a nearby company at the cash register. If a hole could have been dug in the ground to get in then, I would have. I hid in the cold room instead! 

I've been working hard with this shame and feeling like I've failed.... Every day! When I put on my uniform... and no, not my lawyer's robe, but a black hat and a red t-shirt stained with guacamole.

Eventually I gave up on taking the bar a second time, enrolled in a Master's in international law and discovered an area of law where I felt at home, which tied in perfectly with the refugee camp in Italy and my passion for social justice. That was fuel for everything that followed.

I now work at the Romanian National Council for Refugees, an NGO that provides legal advice and assistance to refugees. In this way I can also put a brick in their integration process in Romania. This is where I met Ahmad, who works at a popular bakery in Bucharest and who brought cakes for the whole office when he was granted refugee status. And Hayat, from Iran, who is preparing to take the Romanian citizenship exam. And many more like them, who offer me daily examples of resilience and rediscovery.   

I feel like I've found my home. Maybe it won't be that for the rest of my life and that's okay. I can change, change my mind and take it in any direction I want. It's totally fine! 

I am here to tell you (or remind you) that there is no one way, there is no right or wrong way, there is only your way. Learn to listen to yourself, that's how you'll see the signposts in your path. That dark episode in college was the clue that I wasn't on the right path. And I still insisted on going against myself a few years later....

For students like me, we decided together with other fellow lawyers, with the same pain, to make #DreptînCarieră - a personal and professional development programme for law students, where they will have the chance to discover themselves and make a conscious choice about their profession. In this way, I hope their path will be a little smoother and they won't have to go through all the turmoil. 

I hope YOU don't have to

I have taken the courage to come before you today and tell you my personal story because I want to make you an invitation, an invitation to empathy and gentleness towards you and an invitation to celebrate every little victory on this journey towards yourself. 

I'm Livia, I'm a lawyer, I'm a NGO, I'm an empath, I'm a sister, I'm a nature lover, I'm much more than a profession.

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