Inhibited Success

Written by an anonymous first-year female student at McGill Faculty of Law.

“What the heck happened to you?

Law school. 

Huh?

Law school. It’s hard.

Ben, alors tu te dégonfles? Déjà? Ça a pas prit très longtemps! T’as vraiment pas changé. 

Si, mais…

Mais quoi? 

C’est difficile de prendre sa place parmi tout ce monde prodigieux. 

T’as raison, je ne te reconnais vraiment plus… 

Et moi non plus. C’est grave, tu crois?

Mais non, arrête un peu. T’exagères.

But still, how can I go back to being you? me?

You can’t. 

Why not? 

Because you need to be different, and you’re still changing into the person you need to be for the work you are going to do. 

T’es sure?

Certaine. Lâche pas, mais arrête quand même ton mélodrame. Je paris que t’es pas la seule à te sentir comme ça et tu sais bien que la vie est remplie de moments difficiles à traverser. 

Pourtant y’en a qui le cache bien. 

Ça veut dire quoi, ça?

Ils ont tous l’air heureux et bien dans leur peau. Ils sont tous intelligents, aimables, des gens vraiment bien quoi. 

Mais tu sais derrière tous ces sourires, c’est probablement la même angoisse que toi. La seule différence c’est que toi t’as toujours eu du mal à la cacher ton insécurité.

You’re mean. 

Keep calm and carry on. That motto got you through alot before, and it will again now. No one ever said it was going to be easy. 

Je me suis jamais fait cette illusion!”

Sometimes I don’t recognize myself at all. What happened to that ambitious, driven, 20-year old who got so much done?  I think she’d be disappointed to see how much things have changed. How I barely express myself at all, and when I do it comes out wrong or a lot less articulate than what I used to say back then. She would probably ask “what happened?” There is only one answer: “Law school. What youalways wanted.”

The truth is, many people have an abstract notion that law school will be synonymous with success, that you’re somehow on your way to “making it” in life and that with success comes the assumption of happiness.

What happens when law school inhibits you? I thought law school would give me the tools I’d need to reach a position of influence, but somehow I feel as though it has silenced me more than it has empowered me. I don’t feel important enough to speak and when I do, I feel inadequate and that I probably should not have said anything at all.

So why is that? Why is it so hard to find my place in this group of accomplished people? If law is what I always wanted, and if I was good enough to make it through the selection process, then why is it so hard to “do” law school?

It wasn’t until I read “Stories in Law School: An Essay on Language, Participation and the Power of Legal Education” by Shauna Van Praagh that I realized that this problem was far from being unique to me. And what a relief! In her article, she explains how “unless some connection between personal narrative and institutional change is forged, students may be silenced by “too much” context, unable to find any common and powerful language with which to create standards and offer answers.”  It is almost as though law (or perhaps, the way that it is taught) is so far removed from what many of us have experienced in the past that it silences us, perhaps into some form of submission to a larger, formal, legal discourse.

As I read on and got to the section where she discusses a study conducted at Yale Law School about differences in performance between male and female students in their first year of law school, I was saddened to read that there was a correlation between women’s low participation rate in classes and their lower marks as compared to the relatively higher participation rate and marks of their male counterparts. The study also concluded that women and students of colour often have feelings of incompetence, dissatisfaction along with low levels confidence and self-esteem.

To me, all this begs the following question: Why does law school socialize so many women like myself to a subdued, passive state? Why isn’t it empowering? And what can we do to make it more empowering?

To me, the first step is to acknowledge that the study of law in Western countries has historically been, and continues to be, a privilege reserved to a selected few. A place that has traditionally favoured white males and that has taken a long time to accept individuals that do not fall into this category such as women, students of colour, and students with disabilities, among others. I see a link between this history of inequality and these unjustified feelings of incompetence and dissatisfaction amongst some female students like me in law school.

Understanding where these feelings come from and that they are part of a much larger, systemic history gives me relief. Now I know that they have little to do with what I am actually capable of accomplishing and more to do with the history of any legal education.


“Law school has been far too accommodating to men and to masculine ways of thinking. It’s time that changed. It’s time we started integrating real life narratives to explain legal principles and it’s time women spoke up about what the law should and could mean.”


These feelings are a historical, social construction of what used to be considered the truth. Namely that women were less worthy and less capable of engaging with and practicing law than men. That simply is not true. Otherwise how would the Supreme Court of Canada be headed by women like Beverley McLauchlin? She may be the first women to hold the Chief Justice position, but that doesn’t mean other women before her weren’t competent. Women didn’t just get smarter overnight! What about judges like Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, Marie Deschamps or Rosalie Abella? These women didn’t get to their positions just because of their looks.

It’s for the law to accommodate women, too. Law school has been far too accommodating to men and to masculine ways of thinking. It’s time that changed. It’s time we started integrating real-life narratives to explain legal principles and it’s time women spoke up about what the law should and could mean. Otherwise all the work and progress that was achieved thanks to those impressive pioneers like Annie MacDonald would go to waste, and we can’t let that happen. There’s alot more work that needs to be done and I say “aye!”  It’s time I took a stand.

“You can still change. You need to change. Mais c’est ton choix.  

How? 

Be greater than you are. 

What?

Dare to shine, with everybody else. T’en es capable. 

Amen.”

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