Ontario Lawyer, Class of 2010
Law school for me felt like a mental and emotional boot camp. During the first year, law school served to break down everything I had previously believed about myself: who I was, what I was good at, my self-esteem and place in the world. Overnight I went from being at the top of my class and being generally successful at whatever I tried, to being completely average and struggling to maintain a place at the middle-to-bottom end of my class. I went from loving school and enjoying my colleagues, to having almost nothing in common with my classmates and hating the subject matter of my classes. In my first week of law school I felt that everyone I met was better than me at everything: everyone appeared to he fit, happy, healthy, they owned business, sat on multiple boards, ran charities, had kids at home, had 5 years more experience than me, had PHDs… and not to mention pretty much everybody seemed to be related to a lawyer in some way. They all seemed to know the system and had some idea of what to expect from law school. I did not come from an upper class background. I had never even met a lawyer. I had no idea what to expect. And frankly, I hated it. I felt so out of my league.
I did find a few friends who felt the same way – we all hated the subject matter of our classes, the rigid way that the lens of the law forces you to think about the world – and we bonded together over our dislike of who law school was trying to force us to become. It took all of my mental energy to try and stay true to myself; not to apply for jobs I knew that I would hate just because everyone else was doing it. To try not to worry about the money and debt, and stay true to my calling even if it meant a life of poverty and indebtedness. Not to get sucked in to conversations about grades, and the inherent competition and rivalry that the bell-curve creates amongst students. After my first year I was so miserable I was ready to drop out. But then I volunteered at a student legal aid clinic during the summer and in my second year, and meeting the wonderful clients at the clinic helped to keep me grounded and reminded me of the good that the law can do in the real world and how it can help people. So I stayed enrolled, for the clients.
What would have helped me through the experience would have been a counselling office on campus. Somewhere confidential where I could speak to a counsellor who specifically understood the law school situation (as opposed to a general counsellor through the university). Someone I could come to on fairly short notice, when I was in crisis mode – particularly during exam time. I needed someone non-judgmental to talk to and encourage me, and let me cry. I think that having a mental health worker on law school campus would have significantly improved my experience, and I would recommend this for all law schools. I also recommend practical experiences like legal aid clinics, as they serve to remind students what the practice of law is all about – as opposed to what ‘law school’ is all about.
We wonder why lawyers have a bad reputation for being liars and cheats and cut-throat, win-at-all-cost types. The answer is obvious: law school breeds competition. It fosters rivalry. The bell-cure encourages bad sportsmanship. The awful reputation of lawyers starts in law school. So if we want to change the perception of lawyers in society, we have to start by changing the culture in law school.
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