By Andrea Tredenick
Parting thoughts from a feminist, soon-to-be-grad on feeling vulnerable within the law
I am in the final semester of my degree at McGill’s prestigious Faculty of Law. In the first class of Family Law, my professor warned us that through learning family law and its associated cases, we might feel unsettled by the rawness of the material or even be triggered to events from our own personal lives. Not even a week later, I was triggered. I had forgotten how shocking it feels to read about an injustice in the abstract, only to realize that it has happened to you. I had taken mostly business-related classes during the preceding year and, although interesting, business law did not resonate with events from my personal life like the courses I took during my first two years, notably Tenant Law, Employment Law, Extra-Contractual Obligations, even Animal Law. The combination of the trigger in Family Law and my imminent graduation have prompted me to reflect on my life, which I conceptualize in two parts: pre-law and post-law.
Like many students at the Faculty, I came to law school to educate myself in order to help others. For myself, this desire stemmed from experienced injustices; this is why learning the law has never been a purely academic quest for me. I came to law school to help not only others, but also myself—to empower myself with legal knowledge. I would like to say that I feel better equipped to tackle the world post-law, but I am not sure I am. It boils down to a question of vulnerability: am I less vulnerable post-law than I was pre-law?
I have learned many things during my time at the faculty. I have learned the law, but I have also learned concepts that, pre-law, I could feel but lacked the vocabulary to vocalize—first and foremost, feminism, but also solidarity, intersectionality, and access to justice. Most of these concepts I have learned from outstanding and downright inspiring women at our faculty. I have been blessed to have so many informal mentors. On the other hand, I have also learned that sexism and racism sadly permeate our justice system – a system that remains so unfailingly neo-liberal. I was introduced to ableism, ageism, the struggles of trans people, and the problems created by institutional and normative ignorance surrounding the reality that gender exists on a spectrum rather than a binary. I have learned that aggression, or proactive action, is almost always needed to win. This truth, despite repeated calls from the legal community to tone down the adversarial nature of law, requires kind hearted people—who so desperately want the law to hear them—to shed their nature and act as aggressively as the law requires. Post-law, I can say that I am at least desensitized to the rigours of legal procedure, and I eagerly await my call to the bar so that I may act aggressively on behalf of others.
More than anything, I have struggled with the concept of privilege. First, I struggled with its general unfairness. Later, I struggled to understand my own privilege. I had never thought of myself as privileged in my pre-law life. I was told that, by virtue of attending this faculty, I was privileged. I hated hearing this because I felt it minimized all that I had endured pre-law. Now I know that regardless of how hard I worked to get into law school, my legal education does endow me with privilege. I know my responsibilities, as spelled out to me in Legal Ethics. I feel the weight of my juridical responsibilities every time my fellow students and I mobilize against injustice (which has happened many times over the past four years) and every time a non-jurist asks me for help. Aside from being privileged due to my legal education, I am inherently privileged because I am white. I will never forget the wakeup call I had while venting stress about finding an articling job to a Muslim friend at the faculty, she told me, not unkindly, to shut up. My white name would surely give me the edge over her Muslim name.
So yes, I am privileged, and I am educated, but am I necessarily less vulnerable? Pre-law, I believed that learning the law would make me invulnerable. Pre-law, I experienced sexism and knew very little about the meaning of consent. Post-law, I not only know the meaning of consent, but have the ability to identify sexism (especially micro-aggressions). I proudly feel obliged to explain these concepts to other people. Yet despite everything I have learned, I realize in my final semester that I still feel vulnerable as a woman, especially as a woman in law.
Over the last four years, I have experienced and witnessed the law’s antipathy towards women. The intensity of this antipathy disturbs me and is now the source of my feelings of vulnerability. I can handle the aggressiveness of legal procedure: I aspire to practice litigation. I can tackle racism, ableism, and homophobia, predominantly because they affront my understanding of justice, but partially because there is nothing personal at stake if I do—which may be a terrible thing to say. I am privileged and educated and yet, having faced the law’s antipathy to women, I worry that I cannot satisfactorily handle sexism in my professional life. I have questioned whether my future clients will be at a disadvantage because I am a woman. I think about having to ingratiate myself to the ‘boys’ club.” I cringe at how I may be judged when I enter a law firm or courtroom without four-inch stiletto heels. I think about the “aggressive men are go-getters; aggressive women are bitches” double standard. Ultimately, I think about having to justify my worth because I am female. I feel so very tired, and I have not even begun.
I refuse to end this article and my time at McGill on such a depressing note. Although I feel vulnerable, I strive for resilience. I forcefully remind myself that by conceptualizing the legal system as “the Law”, I forget that there are human beings in this system. The older generation of judges is slowly retiring. My classmates are the upcoming generation of jurists; solidarity works wonders for treating vulnerability. Undoubtedly, some students will go on to maintain the status quo instead of challenging it. We are still at a point where privilege, sexism and racism feature too strongly in the institutional transfer of power. However, this will grow smaller over time. After all, change is an infuriatingly and painstakingly slow process. Similar to the way that significant legal change is preceded by societal affirmation, change in our legal culture must be preceded by a shift in the mentality of jurists. Changing the mentality of jurists’ sounds like a monumental task in the abstract. I feel vulnerable just contemplating it. On the other hand, introducing the concepts that I have learned to fellow humans (jurist or not) through everyday conversation – now that is a job I am definitely prepared for. The change will be slow, but it will happen, and I will be part of that change.
“[Your life] amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”