Thinking about studying Law? Consider this.

I feel like over the past few months, I’ve written enough descriptions of my experience of law school to fill a novel.  No, it hasn’t been on this blog (mostly), but rather via email to native and non-native students who have contacted me for ‘advice’ about going into Law.  Mostly I ramble on at length without much coherent structure, because I’m trying to respond before my procrastination gets the better of me.  My apologies if you’ve been on the receiving end of this less than stellar performance.

I’ve decided as a time-saving device, putting a little effort into what has been a reoccurring request will actually benefit me by reducing my sense of guilt and anxiety over producing a decent response.  Whether or not it actually helps anyone else is not within my power to predict. Youse takes yer chances.

I am not a lawyer, and may never be

First off, I have not been called to the Bar of any province or territory.  I am not a lawyer.  I am not sure I will ever bother to become one.  Then again, it may not actually be up to me, as I’ve had a number of women in my life threaten to hunt me down if I don’t eventually ‘get that piece of paper’.

I graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta in 2009.  I did a year at McGill in 2010-2011, though I basically stopped going to classes in the second semester, choosing instead to study French full time at one of the francisisation centres.  I showed up for finals.  I took two courses in civil law at the University of Montreal in the fall of 2011.  Unfortunately this coincided with a burn-out I foolishly thought I could avoid by working part time, studying and doing too many other things as well.  I did not show up for finals.  In fact, I wrote the blog post about Attawapiskat the day I should have been doing my Business Law exam.

I am an intelligent person, but a shitty student with crappy work habits.  I take on too much and then push myself to collapsing while my scholastic responsibilities explode like guilt-fireworks around me.  I can give you a better ‘how not to’ than a ‘how to’.

How not to approach applying for Law School

I was teaching at the Alberta Distance Learning Centre in Barrhead, AB when I applied for Law School.  Here’s how it happened.

“I’ve been thinking about going to Law School for a while now.  I’m pretty sure I want to stay teaching though.  Oh well, it’s not like I’m going to get in on my first try, might as well apply!  Oh shit!  The deadline to write the LSAT is Monday of next week!  I have three days to study, and I’ve got a massive headcold!  BLAAARGH!!!!”

*a few months later*

“What the heck?  I got accepted?  They must have made a mistake, I’d better register before they realise what happened.  Um…now I have to sell our house and move my family to Edmonton before classes start.  Better tell my boss I’m leaving!”

Don’t do it this way.

If you’re thinking about going into Law, doing a little bit of research on the program and more importantly, on the career itself, is a much better idea.  Honestly, I went into law school not knowing a damn thing about either.  There are no lawyers in my family.  Plenty of interactions with the legal system, but not from that side of things.

One thing I did learn early on, and had confirmed again and again, is that the person running Admissions at the Faculty of Law is an invaluable source of information and guidance.  This person is at the centre of an amazing web, just like kookum.  Call that person and ask who you can talk to in order to learn more about the program.

I suggest speaking to at least three current students.  A bit of warning though.  You know how mothers like to regale one another with the horror stories of their birthing experiences, especially in front of a ‘first-timer’?  The “omg I was in labour for 89 hours” crowd?  Law students are a little like that too.  Don’t let them scare you too much.

Then again, some repress an awful lot and make it seem like the most fun you can legally have.  Don’t let them fool you.  Sleeping in and not getting a divorce during law school is way more fun.

How not to approach being a Law student

Law school is a faculty full of Type-A personalities who were generally at the top of their class in whatever program they graduated from before.  The type that break into hives when they get Bs.  A lot of them are seventh generation lawyers-in-waiting, with strong political aspirations.  I don’t care what Faculty you are coming into Law from, the anal retentiveness of the average Law student will put all your previous experiences to shame.

This can and will make you feel incredibly inadequate, especially if you aren’t coming at this as a family tradition and haven’t been networking since you were in diapers.  However, Law students also come from incredibly diverse scholastic backgrounds.  I went to school with a lot of graduates from Poli-Sci, but I also had classmates who were musicians, sculptors, someone who I think had been studying neurosurgery and was also a stand up comedian, police officers, parents, grandparents, a big group of Mormons and a whole bunch of Russian girls who really liked to party.

What there aren’t a lot of, are native students.  There were 13 of us when I started in 2006, and they split us up between 3 cohorts.  There was also only one native professor in the entire Faculty, and to be honest, that’s more than you should expect at most Universities.

Don’t approach being a law student as a competition.  What’s the saying?  You’ll either become incredibly vain, or you’ll be paralysed by a belief in your own inadequacy.  The latter is more likely.  Law school is hard work, but no one really has much of an advantage, regardless of their background.

That being said, there ARE things that you will experience as a native student that you do need to be prepared for.

Don’t expect your worldview to be mentioned, much less validated

Law school is about breaking you down and rebuilding you, cultural norm by cultural norm.  It happens to every law student, but it’s going to be particularly hard on you if you come from a different set of cultural values.

Property law is an obvious soul-destroyer.  You get to hear all about how the Crown magically gained sovereignty over the entire territory now known as Canada either through the Doctrine of Discovery, the Doctrine of Conquest, or Some Other Doctrine That Legitimises This Sort Of Thing.  It doesn’t matter that a lot of this has been rejected by the Canadian courts, because no on in Law school is seriously going to question the validity of that underlying sovereignty.  Not really.

Honey, you’re in Law to learn the rules.  If you want to ‘make change’, you have to wait until you have the professional credentials for anyone to take you seriously.

For a lot of settlers, the process will also be painful and difficult, but only because it is inherently painful and difficult.  This discomfort will be offset by a deep validation of western systems of thinking about the world, about humans, and about property.

Native students, you are going to learn all about a foreign system of law, and of governance.  One that has systematically denied your people rights, and even their humanity.  You probably think you’re used to it after a lifetime of state-mandated Canadian education, but I can tell you right now, you are not.  Nothing can properly prepare you for the realisation that you are sitting in a room full of people who are going to be making legal and political decisions based on what they are learning as they sit beside you.  What’s really going to bring it home for you is discovering just how invisible and marginalised indigenous issues are in the minds of these people.

Sorry, what?  Did you just suggest that you too will be making legal and political decisions down the road?  Oh, yes, of course you will.  As long as you accept The Rules and play by them.  In which case it doesn’t matter if it’s you or them doing it.

Don’t expect Aboriginal law to be about aboriginal peoples

Aboriginal law is all about how the Canadian state chooses to relate to indigenous peoples.  Occasionally there will be important legal decisions or political choices that have a real impact on the lives of indigenous peoples, and sometimes it’s even our people who have caused that change to happen.  Nonetheless, our law, our indigenous laws, are not really part of the equation.  What we think about things are only relevant insofar as the Canadian state recognises something it already agrees with, and often, they’re dealing with a poor cultural translation anyway.

If you want to learn about your people’s legal traditions, you’ll have to find a program that actually integrates this.  There is some amazing work being done by indigenous scholars in this area, and if you feel called to contribute, you will be helping to rebuild something very beautiful.

Do keep a balance in your life

If you graduate with a law degree, as a native person, you are going to be a trailblazer.  I say this unequivocally, because although the numbers are improving, we are still vastly unrepresented in all post-secondary institutions, and very much so in Law.  You will feel a lot of pressure because of this, to do something important with that degree.  Before you let the weight of those expectations crush you, remind yourself that merely getting to law school in itself important.  You are helping to normalise post-secondary education for those that come after you.

You will have people tell you that you have become assimilated and colonised because you have a law degree.  You will have others treat you like you are something very special.  These mixed messages will come hard, they will come fast, and they will hammer away at you from all sides.

Remember where you come from.  Root yourself deeply.  Your family and your community can provide you with the strength you need to make it through this process, but you have to be careful about what you let in.  You will walk a fine line between vanity and despair.  This education will open your eyes to things other simply do not understand, but that does not mean they are incapable of understanding it.  And if they’ve been battling these systems for a while, they may understand a lot more than you think.

On the other side of things, you may be less willing to assert yourself because there is a kind of shame we feel when we do well in settler systems of education.  Do not allow yourself to denigrate what you have achieved.  Having a law degree, or any post-secondary degree, does not make you an apple, or a traitor, or a future pawn of INAC.

People are going to make assumptions about you, no matter what.  You’re probably used to that by now.  Having a law degree may flavour those assumptions, but they will still be there.  You can survive it.  Even if you need to drink a lot of tea, and unload a lot of complaints on your friends to do it.

Finally, would I recommend it?

Law school wasn’t a lark.  I had two young children to raise while I studied, and I separated from my common-law spouse of nearly 11 years half way through.  I questioned my fitness to be studying law almost every day, and I very nearly gave up in my first year.  Law school changed my life in many way.

And I’d do it all again in a heart-beat.  Law school provided me with an invaluable set of skills.  I no longer fear structures of power, nor the people who hold positions of power.  I am not intimidated by their words, or their actions.  Nor am I dazzled or impressed by the same.  I have no super powers to make nation-wide change, but no one can tell me that I cannot succeed in Canadian society as a strong indigenous woman.  It didn’t break me.

One more tip.  If you found this article overly long, you might want to reconsider Law school.  I once estimated that we were reading about 250 pages of the most yawn-inducing text a day.

Good luck!


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Categories: Aboriginal law, Alienation

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12 Responses to Thinking about studying Law? Consider this.

  1. john lavers says:

    i did get admitted to a bar, and not one that serves drinks, although i did that as well. lw school is full of children of priviege. however the great leveller is the course material and exams. very few people have any advantage in law school from their background. if you are good a studying and exam writing it will show. in fact the children of privilege often have the disadvantage of really needing to do well and sometimes they don’t. often they go too young or after years partying and breezing through undergrad and are totally unprepared for the massive amount of reading. you have to read those piles of dull boring cases whether you like it of not. and there is always more

    so anyone who gets in can do well. i excelled in things like constitutional law, human rights and oddly property.. but i loafed through a lot of the rest. so my lovely a’s were riuned by a few d’s and a lot of c’s and b’s==so. but i got though when a few rich kids had mental breakdowns and even a few suicides. so it really is quite fair from that perspective.

    on the other hand i was the only anarchist socialist at dalhousie–probably ever! i was certainly the only one who sympathizied with the provisional ira and their fight for liberty. and being a quarter acadien i was the closest thing to a native. however my granddad(who was either half or a quarter native–people were loath to admit such questionable ancestry, it was bad enough being part french in a very protestant town) married a red hairs scot, and so did my father, so i am dark for a hebridean scott but no one would guess we had some native blood. as i recall there were two or three black students. so you are not going to study social justice, just the tools to sue for it if you ever get the chance.

    however you do gain valuable tools in writing research and public presentation and lose all fear of authority, because you know how to sue their asses–and i still enjoy occasionally suing their asses for abusive behavior, even though i am happily retired.sadly they always give in when i sue, as soon as they find out i was once a lawyer–ruining the fun of embarrasing the assholes in the witness box. in addition when i became a musician –for much longer than a lawyer– a was every musicians free legal rep.

    so law school is never a bad thing in your skill set, but it is long hard a dull. however when i was bored and overworked i remembered when i was mining, blasting and drilling and was thankfull not to be risking my neck for lousy money.

    and finally i agree

  2. brock says:

    Yes, good plan – please, potential law students, contact a current upper year law student and recent graduate and a young lawyer first and talk to them about being a lawyer. It is not what I expected either. Great article as always Chelsea.

  3. korenLE says:

    you forgot to mention that as an aboriginal in law school you have to opportunity to meet so many awe inspiring aboriginals in the same field.. and you make amazing friends and create some amazing bonds.. that help keep you sane for years to come or help to justify the insanity.. either way bonus. . Great article you never cease to amaze me

  4. Miranda Moore says:

    Whilst our children are still being stolen by the state, our nationhood attacked by colonial law and policy, our people jailed, murdered and victimized by state police and the ‘injustice’ system, and we are subjected to legislative and societal genocidal tactics aimed to eliminate our distinct identities, laws, values and beliefs (particularly our relationship to land), Anishnabe:kwe will always be urgently needed as front line fighters against the grinding system of colonial law in kanada. While critiques sit on the sidelines tsk tsking away about us ‘native lawyer sell outs’, we lose another child to the system, another sister succumbing on the ‘inside’, and another one of our woman is murdered or will go missing without any notice or real effort to find her. Yes, the study and practice of law leaves a horrid taste in our mouthes….however any Nee Chee who has ever been a victim of police brutality, systemic racism, child apprehension or sat on the inside of a cell wrongfully accused by racist state robots urgently requires our diligent courageous assistance. Miigwetch for sharing your thoughts and journey and ‘place’ within the chaotic space of colonial legal education, aspirations and reality we are all inseparably engaged with.

  5. A.Non. says:

    I can’t claim to be a Cree-speaking Metis woman in Montreal with kids. Actually, I’m none of those things. You might say I’m one conception of “the opposite,” in fact: I’m an English-speaking white guy from Alberta with no kids. So to the extent that this post’s target audience is Aboriginal women who are considering law school, I can’t offer the insider’s view on the law school experience.

    I adopt a more universalist view of law school than Chelsea, however. If Chelsea felt alienated during law school, well then, join the club. Alienation, disenchantment, depression, and ennui are common symptoms suffered by law students and recent law graduates of all genders, ages, races, and backgrounds. So in the hopes of providing a complementary view on the perennially popular topic of “Should I Go to Law School?”, I offer three observations about law school, observations which I think are relevant regardless of your background.

    First, law school mostly produces lawyers. Law schools don’t always advertise that fact in the glossy brochures. This is partially because law schools are run by people who went to law school, but who didn’t really enjoy being lawyers all that much, i.e., law professors. Yet the incontrovertible fact is that most people who go to law school become lawyers, at least for a while.

    There are exceptions. Most lawyers can point to law school classmates who have gone on to do interesting things outside of practice, like working for the UN, joining the Army, writing a novel, or starting a business. Sometimes their law degree comes in handy, but just as often, they’ve exchanged three years of their life for a credential that manages to impress the uninitiated, but doesn’t have all that much relevance to their exciting post-law career. If you aren’t sure you want to be a lawyer, but think that a law degree might be a fun experiment, you should understand there’s a substantial likelihood you will be wasting your time and money. For my single classmates with no kids in their 20s who had rich parents to bankroll their educational whims, three wasted years aren’t a crushing defeat. (After all, at least it gives Mom and Dad something to brag about.) But the classmates who racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt, or sold their business, or remortgaged their house, really had no choice but to practice law after graduating.

    Which leads to my second point. Most people don’t know what lawyers do. I certainly didn’t – not before law school, and not even during law school. While most people are smart enough to realize that Law & Order and Boston Legal are not reality TV, just as few have any idea what a typical day is like for a practicing lawyer. At least you’re filled with blissful ignorance before law school. If anything, law school imparts wildly misleading expectations about the nature of legal practice. Law school is largely about reading cases and critically analyzing those precedents. While there are practicing lawyers who spend their days reading cases and analyzing precedents, there are a lot more lawyers who go weeks at a time without reading a case, but who do spend a lot of time reviewing documents and churning out paperwork and calling clients. The practice of law isn’t a fascinating intellectual endeavour where you sit on the 30th floor of Bankers Hall and debate whether Justice Wilson’s dissent is more persuasive than Justice Cory’s majority decision. It’s a client-focused business.

    Which now leads to observation number three: Being a lawyer often sucks. If you are in private practice, you will spend a large amount of your time responding to demanding clients, sucking up, and worrying about billings. If you work for the government, you will quickly learn that the title “Barrister and Solicitor” does not exempt you from being part of a bureaucracy. If you hang out your own shingle, you will learn the joys of doing work for free and managing your own trust account. Clients will think you charge obscene amounts of money to do minimal amounts of work and will resent you. Opposing counsel will grate on your nerves to the point you have violent revenge fantasies. You will spend less time with your spouse and family than you would like. You will make less money in the first ten years of your career than you expect. You will probably live at the edge of a big city and spend a lot of money on a house that is a long commute from your office. If you are a woman, having a child will set back your career substantially, so you will either choose not to have children, or you will have fewer children than you would like.

    Despite the pessimistic tone of this post, it isn’t my intent to throw a pity party. Unlike many members of my generation, I don’t subscribe to the view that I’m a special shining diamond to whom the universe owes something. I can’t say I’d trade my life with anyone, and there certainly are happy lawyers. But they’re mostly the ones who have consciously managed their expectations. They came into law school understanding they’re probably not going to win a medal. They’re open to the idea of working somewhere other than downtown Calgary. They realize that every lawyer in private practice has to be a businessperson. They know that the next thirty years will be a constant struggle to balance work and life.

    If you come to law school full of piss and vinegar, ready to change the face of the legal profession as we know it, that’s fantastic. Just please also acknowledge that all change in law is incremental (some might say “glacial”), and there’s no force in the law stronger than inertia. And a lot of the change that lawyers produce isn’t through the practice of law, but instead, within their communities in ways other than practicing law, for example, by running for elected office or starting a non-profit.

    • An excellent addition to the subject, thank you! A friend recently noted however, that his 24 year old self would have read these words and decided, ‘but not me!’ and gone anyway, so we may be whistling into the wind 🙂

    • Elmo never wears red says:

      Indeed, a lawyer is a type of bureaucrat –even if it may be a freelance bureaucrat.

      Much of this was already lamented by Jeremy Bentham who wanted to abolish the profession (along with “legal fictions”) and have a system of public administration that would entail the massive inefficiency of a salaried class whose job is to read a mix of broken Latin and Norman French (called Legal English).

      I don’t know if I’ve met anyone who wanted to be a lawyer; I’ve met many people who wanted to be rich.

  6. Student says:

    I am not a native, nor am I a law student or considering to become one. Yet I somehow ended up on your page and I am glad I did. I find this illuminating and enriching.
    I feel that like many other Canadian students, I know very little about the people of this land. I am not even sure about how to address them in a way that they would deem acceptable or just correct.
    I know very little about how you see things like university and the content taught in it (or lack of some content). You wrote this for natives considering law school, I plead you to write more also for non-natives that want to learn things that we cannot be taught in class and to help us open our eyes and mind.

    • The bulk of what I’ve written over the past six months has been focused precisely on that: trying to help non-natives learn more about the issues aboriginal peoples face. I hope you stay and look around! Try the Aboriginal Issues Primers for a good start.

  7. Diogenes says:

    I looked up this site again because of that amazing blog you wrote on the day you skipped the Business exam. I found it via Dawg’s Blawg. I wanted to link to it but then I ended up reading this.

    Some might think it was wrong to skip that exam but Canada is better for it. You made a small difference that day and that’s better than I’ve done in my entire life. Keep it up.

    For what it’s worth, I hope you do eventually become a lawyer, perhaps a judge, or a politician. You have a wonderful gift for writing and expression of ideas.

    I rarely blog; did my first in over a year. Writing is so damn hard! Headaches, Health Care and Drug Dealers goes on about Canada’s Patent Laws, lawyers, and Canada’s drug oligarchs. Your training should help you get through it.

    I have lived in the Netherlands for the last 5 years, and to be honest, I can’t believe some of the things that have happened in Canada in that time.

    Success with whatever path you choose. You have already made a difference; may you continue to do more of the same. I expect you will.

  8. Marc says:

    It’s funny how law schools and the experiences we have at them can differ. At the school I went to, we learned quite a lot about aboriginal law, even if we didn’t take Aboriginal Law as a specific course of study. Our first-year core classes included discussion about women’s issues and aboriginal law issues for each core course, and some of the profs didn’t bother, but most took it seriously. Ironically, it was probably my property law class that was the biggest eye-opener for me. We had one of the aboriginal law profs, Bruce Ryder, guest-lecture for a class or two, and he was pretty frank about the fact that Canada was built on the Doctrines of Deceptive Treaty Terms and Colonial Condescension. He also explained the difference between the European conception of property, and the “aboriginal” communal conception of property, and how the enshrinement of the “aboriginal conception of property” in the Charter was causing all kinds of headaches for bands and Nations that didn’t actually subscribe to the communal conception of property.

    In all, I’d say that for a guy who never took an Aboriginal Law class, I managed to learn quite a lot about aboriginal law, enough to know how much more there is to learn in any case, and what I learned was pretty critical of the usual Eurocentric interpretation of that law.

    Could the school have done better? Yes I think so. I’ve since encountered a few things in my practice that point up the fact that for all its good intentions, there was still an amount of cultural filtering going on, and that I in no way got a true Aboriginal perspective on aboriginal law. Perhaps the best example of this occurred when we studied a case called Nanabush v. The Deer Nation. A great way to introduce green law students to the idea of conceptions of law foreign to their own, but it was still basically an attempt to shoehorn a fairly sophisticated instructional story into the format of a case brief. Not bad, but not really getting across the deeper, more important points, either.

    I guess what I mean to say is that there are schools doing the job better, but I guess even those are still at the “See Jane Run” level.

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