In high school, I wanted to be a lawyer. Since studying Women and Gender Studies at UBC and working/volunteering at a local rape crisis centre I’ve decided I want to be a badass feminist lawyer who dreams of a legal system grounded in care and respect and who eats patriarchy for breakfast. Things change.
Some things don’t change. 5 years later, people are still responding to my desire to go to law school in a lot of the same ways: “yah, that’s a nice dream, but I’ve heard law school is really hard”, for example. I got so tired of hearing how hard law school is, and how hard you have to work to be a lawyer, that I stopped telling people it’s what I wanted to do. I guess it started to bother me when I noticed that people weren’t telling my brother how hard it is to get a PhD or telling my cousin how hard he’ll have to work as an engineer. Last time I checked, life is hard. So why is everyone taking all this time to warn me about it?
Turns out, I’m not the only one who’s being warned. I’m currently enrolled in a prep class for the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test). Speaking with a friend who’s also enrolled in the course, we realized we were having a lot of the same experiences. Neither of us think it’s a stretch to suppose this might be because we’re women. An article in Osgoode Hall’s Obiter Dicta explains that “according to the Canadian Bar Association, in 1970, 5% of lawyers were women. In ten years it became 15%, and in another decade grew to 30%… [in 2003] there were 20% more women than men enrolled in Canada’s law schools.” Hold the phone. Where are all these lady lawyers coming from? How are they possibly coping with the stresses of law school and the legal profession?! HAVEN’T THEY HEARD HOW HARD IT IS?! In all seriousness, if women are entering law school and becoming lawyers at an equal rate to men, why are people still acting like two young women planning to enter law school might as well be kittens threatening to scrap with a rottweiler?
“Maybe people just think law school is hard in general and it has nothing to do with your gender?” you ask. Maybe. But consider the following. I asked my LSAT prep buddy to send me some of her experiences relating to people’s reactions to her career goals. She explained that she’s had an interest in law since her difficult experiences with her parents’ divorce at an early age. As she got older, she spent hours in courthouse galleries, she completed high school presentations and university papers on women’s underrepresentation in the law, and she started volunteering at legal organizations like West Coast LEAF and Pivot (even working with Pivot to create this report for the attorney general in 2012). Given these pursuits, her wanting to be a lawyer seems pretty damn understandable. But people ask her things like: “you don’t need to be a lawyer if your boyfriend is” and “how does your boyfriend feel about you wanting to go into law?” Where I’m starting to get the feeling that this whole thing is just a wee bit gendered is that no one asked her boyfriend if his decision to attend law school would affect his girlfriend. She goes on to say,
People constantly make sympathetic and concerned remarks about my partner, asking how this might impact him or make him feel, as if I might be jeopardizing our relationship or making him feel insecure. No one asked him if he was jeopardizing our relationship when he went to law school abroad and we maintained a long-distance relationship for 3 years (any concerns that were vocalized by friends were based on the location of his school, not his decision to attend). He had no related work or volunteer (or educational) experience to law, and had expressed no interest until his final year of university, yet I cannot remember anyone questioning his motivations for pursuing law. The fact law school is hard didn’t come up in his conversations, other than people telling him he would get in “for sure”… Was there enormous pressure on him? Of course. Did people feel a need to mentally prepare him for failure or struggle? Absolutely not.
So, are the warnings justified? Are things really so much harder for women lawyers? Well, at the very least, something is making women leave the legal profession at a higher rate than men. The Law Society of BC notes that “of all women called to the Bar in British Columbia in 2003, only 66 percent remained in practice five years later.” To figure out why women were leaving the legal profession, the society created a group called Women in the Legal Profession Task Force (WLPTF) whose research found that women are facing discrimination, barriers to career advancement, sexual harassment, and racist and sexist comments within the legal profession.
In addition to leaving their jobs at a greater rate, the WLPTF also notes that “women lawyers in Ontario were less likely to be partners or sole practitioners, less likely to own businesses, [and] less likely to attain management or supervise others.” Why are firms not investing in women by making them partners? BC Business writer Neal McLennan thinks that it’s because we still live in a world where the only thing that goes together better than peanut butter and jam is women and babies. McLennan explains that
off the record – the place where old-school sexism still lives – many of the partners I spoke to, at medium-sized firms across Vancouver, are fearful of committing to the expense of nurturing young lawyers from articling student to associate if the candidates are going to halt the process to have kids, then potentially never return. In the short term, it’s still safer to go with a man.
Now, McLennan never really problematizes this by pointing out that (a) not all women want or are able to have kids, and (b) a woman having a child doesn’t necessitate her leaving her job. Women’s relationships to parenting and employment are complicated, nuanced, and bound to be different given the multitude of factors that affect different women’s lives. Assuming every woman you interview is going to follow a predestined guideline regarding parenting is an outdated and lazy hiring policy.
So here’s the deal: if you want to warn me about law school because you understand these things, because you get that, as a woman, I might face difficulties that a man in my same position might not face – okay. But if you are warning me because even a tiny part of you is buying into ideas that women aren’t cut out to be lawyers or because being a lawyer will somehow conflict with my supposed destiny to be the kind of mother that’s only ever really existed in 1950′s sitcoms – I hereby promise to disregard your opinion in its entirety. I’ll let my friend explain it in her words:
I think [negative reactions and/or warnings] come from people who feel something unsettling (or genuine fear) about a change in the balance of power… When people tell me, “it’s very hard for ‘female’ lawyers” I often feel this is a warning or a dissuading tactic, rather than a genuine acknowledgement of the systemic patterns of discrimination women face in the public sphere.
In other words, when you “caution” me about how hard law school is going to be you reinforce the notion that there are certain kinds of people who do and don’t “belong” in law school and I happen to not be one of them.
What strikes me, in reflecting about this, is that, while my gender might cause a sense of “non-belonging”, my whiteness affords me the privilege to “belong” in other ways. My educational experiences, job opportunities, and career advancement will always be mediated by the unearned advantage afforded to me because of the colour of my skin, as much as it will be by my position as a woman. As I think about my own experiences, it is important to see them as part of a web of “non-belonging” in which people’s complicated identities in relation to race, class, sexuality, gender identity and expression, and ability (for example) all make for different relationships to the process of applying to law school, to their experiences as a law student, and to their subsequent futures as lawyers.
The Law Society of Upper Canada’s Aboriginal Bar Consultation report looks into the complicated experiences of Indigenous lawyers in Ontario. The report found that, of the lawyers surveyed, 40% experienced discrimination during articling and 66% had experienced discrimination as a lawyer. It goes on to say that,
experiences cited included racist slurs and demeaning remarks by staff, other articling students and lawyers, discrimination in work assignments, and the feeling of being restricted to areas of law that were not of interest or of being dissuaded from areas of law that were of interest.
You’ve probably heard the legal profession referred to as an “old boys’ club” but the reality is that it’s not just a club built on patriarchy, but also on white supremacy, colonialism, classism, cissexism, heterosexism, and a multitude of other factors that contribute to who we do and don’t see as “belonging”.
Is there hope that the exclusivity of the “club” is chipping away? Well, groups like the Women in the Legal Profession Task Force are joined by initiatives like the Indigenous Bar Association and the Quebec Native Women’s Association’s National Secretariat on Hate and Racism in Canada as examples of national efforts to push our legal system to be more adequately representative. UBC’s Centre for Feminist Legal Studies offers an amazing set of courses to JD students (read more about them here), hosts weekly lecture series, offers students a feminist-friendly place to connect at the CFLS lounge in Allard Hall, and is carving out a much needed space for feminist legal discourse at UBC. UVIC has a course called “Indigenous Feminist Legal Studies” which has course description seriously worth getting exciting over and classes like “Critical Race and Legal Theory”, “Law and Disability”, and “Gender, Sexuality, and the Law” are offered at schools across the country and are helping me to be hopeful that law schools are doing important work to recognize the complex ways we all relate to the legal system. For these reasons, and so much more, I can’t wait to start law school in September… no matter how hard you might try to dissuade me.
Oh yah, and… please: enough with the Legally Blonde jokes. Look! Here are some famous women lawyers who aren’t even fictional!!
(from left to right: Michelle Obama (U.S.A), Elizabeth May (Canada), Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (Muskeg Cree Nation; Canada), Hina Jilani (Pakistan), and Hillary Clinton (U.S.A))
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