Looking In and Looking Out: Why I Left Law School
FORMER STUDENT AT MCGILL FACULTY OF LAW
Growing up, I had always been told that if I worked hard and got good grades, doors would open up for me. I would, of course, have to work twice as hard as others to overcome obstacles of race, class, and gender, but results would come nonetheless. Consequently, I came to believe deeply in a correlation between effort and result. I spent the majority of my adolescence consumed by academic successes in a tireless attempt to silence my persistent self-doubt and prove I was better than any obstacle. At the end of my undergraduate degree, there were many different options to explore. Instead, I did what any risk-averse keener with an interest in human rights issues would do - I applied to law school. Thinking back, I had put embarrassingly little amount of thought into what it actually meant to study law. I saw my acceptance to McGill Law as the ultimate golden ticket. My ability to tell people I was a lawyer was meant to be the final stride, one that would open any door I wanted, which made it extremely difficult to let it go.
There are many reasons I decided to leave the program after 1L. For starters, studying law is extremely boring. I don’t care if it gets better in 2L, if there’s case law involved, I’m still not interested. Moreover, practicing law didn’t seem to be any more appealing to me. No promise of prestige or financial stability could make me “think like a lawyer.” Put simply, a legal lens was not compelling to me, academically or professionally. This part was easy to reconcile with. What was difficult was the unpacking of the unhealthy amount of stock I had put in my academic successes which led to a serious depressive episode.
I started 1L passionate about various international issues and wanted to get involved in as many extra-curriculars as possible. However, instead of the meaningful year of postgraduate education I had envisioned, my life was quickly reduced to a cycle of reading and partying. I had very little motivation, energy or time to do much else. By second semester, I couldn’t recognize myself. My depression and anxiety had become physically debilitating. I felt constantly exhausted, isolated, and disinterested in my surroundings. I wanted so badly to keep up with classes but being inside the Faculty was suffocating and unbearable. It was not just lectures and readings that I struggled with; I also found it difficult to sit through a TV show, a quick bus ride or a conversation with friends. I was ashamed of my perceived fragility and carried that feeling deep in my stomach all the time. It took me a long time to accept that this was beyond my control. I had worked so hard for this opportunity, I couldn’t help but hate myself for letting it pass me by. Even now, it’s shocking to think about how quickly my priorities shifted when my sense of identity, self-worth, and my desire to live was taken from me. I was really fortunate to be able to see someone at McGill Psychiatric Services so quickly and receive the professional help I needed. Additionally, I believe it was the persistent love and patience I received from the people around me, even when I refused to let them in, and, not to my surprise, the red wine, bubble baths, and expensive candles that helped me through this difficult time.
Unfortunately, my experience with mental illness in law is one of many. These experiences are often only referred to in passive conversations, jokes, and occasional emails from the Student Affairs Office. Self-deprecating humor can serve as a necessary release of stress and fear and create an important sense of camaraderie amongst law students and lawyers. After all, who doesn’t love a good “lawyer joke”? But, it can also be a harmful coping mechanism that contributes to the normalization of substance abuse, depression, and loneliness within the legal profession, which is ultimately no joke. When the sacrifice of mental well-being is a prerequisite for an entire profession, we need to be able to do more than laugh it off. There is no easy way to begin addressing mental health, but the best I can do is start by considering my personal experience. I believe an important attitude shift is necessary within the legal profession and I think it starts with addressing the expectations and realities of law school.
On my first day at McGill, the Dean told us to treat this experience “not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.” I was starting law school with no professional plans and was relieved to hear that I had come to the right place. By the end of the year, however, only a specific career goal could have kept me in that building. In order for an academic experience to be an end in itself, I believe it has to be a space for people to take risks and develop their intentions, passions, and creativity, and that’s very difficult in a professional school environment. No matter how many times you’re told “grades don’t matter in law school,” they just do. Anywhere you are in the Faculty, people are talking about grades and even when they aren’t explicitly mentioned, the underlying competitiveness is always there. Unless you’ve somehow worked through every single self-doubt and insecurity, the herd mentality of the legal profession is almost impossible to avoid. Moreover, it is important to remember that relationships with success are deeply racialized and gendered. As a daughter of immigrants, a woman of colour and someone with no special talents to fall back on, the luxury of taking risks was limited for me in complex ways.
Due to various social and cultural pressures, my lack of direction in law and inability to simply enjoy the ride, I was quickly trapped by the noise. I always felt like I had to prove myself, to compete for things I didn’t want in the first place, all out of fear of falling behind. I could already see myself chasing the comfort of legal milestones, starting with OCIs. However, for better or for worse, because my depression took away my ability to excel on autopilot, I was forced to take a step back. I discovered the importance of being driven by passion and purpose and not simply an obsession with achievements. After all, enjoying something and enjoying being good at something are two very different things. I accepted that at this time it was unlikely I would make it out of law school as the person I wanted to be and that was more important than the security of a professional degree.
Letting go of my golden ticket was terrifying, but I cherish the time I spent at McGill. I learnt that complacency was not an option if I wanted to live a life that was in line with my values. Although I haven’t fled the country to work on a coffee farm just yet, I have found a new path that is comfortable despite being significantly riskier. My decision came at an extremely high price, both financially and personally. I recognize this is not possible for everyone, it is however possible for all of us to consider our purpose and be more proactive about our feelings, desires, and goal within our own constraints. If you’re unhappy where you are, take time to explore your options and give yourself permission to pursue them – even if it takes time away from your readings. And most importantly, if you are feeling depressed or anxious, know that this does not “come with the job” and you should take the support and accommodations you need.