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.