Not your typical law student

  • Subtitle: Student profile
Written by  David Gruber Posted Date: August 26, 2013
Chris Clarke has body piercings in the double-digits, but he’s not going to let stereotypes get in the way of his goal to practise law. Photo: Grant Romancia
Chris Clarke has body piercings in the double-digits, but he’s not going to let stereotypes get in the way of his goal to practise law. Photo: Grant Romancia
Like many, Chris Clarke made a few stops along the way before he got to law school. Almost 10 years ago, Clarke picked up an unusual hobby — face and body piercing. He even set up his own business making house calls for those who want a piercing but might be reluctant to stroll into their neighbourhood tattoo and piercing parlour.

Though it’s taken him some time to get there, Clarke says he never let go of his hopes of studying law. When the call centre he was working at closed, he took it as an opportunity to head back to school full time. He got a BA in human justice from the University of Regina, and four years later successfully completed his first year of the JD program at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

Clarke might not fit most people’s image of a typical law student. Besides being a single father of two, he sports several piercings himself: on his eyebrow, lip, and tongue, among other places. He doesn’t want to say exactly how many he has, but it’s a double-digit number. “I have tested on my body 30 piercings. Some came out, some didn’t,” he explains. Clarke tries every piercing on himself before performing it on others. That way he can properly explain to people what it feels like.
Reassuring his clients, calming their nerves, and preparing them for a potentially painful procedure is an important part of the job.

Although he serves as a walking advertisement for his business, Clarke hasn’t yet had classmates or professors offer up their own bodies for him to ply his craft. “It’s so out of the ordinary for law as a whole,” he says. He suggests face and body piercing “still has a subtle reputation of being seedy.” While he supposes there are lawyers walking around with discrete or concealed body piercings, they don’t go as far as Clarke in showing off their “metal.” He says at least two of his classmates removed piercings after coming to law school, but he has no intention of hiding his. “I’m not going to walk around with a bag on my head,” he says.

Carly Romanow, a third-year law student at the University of Saskatchewan, works with Clarke as a fellow co-ordinator at Pro Bono Students Canada. While she says Clarke is an energetic student with a good attitude and a knack for cold-calling volunteers, she admits she was surprised when they first met. “I don’t think I expected him to look like that, going into law school,” she says.

Even if he doesn’t exactly look the part, Clarke is serious about his legal career. He’s considering working in the music industry or — drawing on his own experiences — possibly in family law.

After going through a divorce, Clarke took part in Saskatchewan’s Parenting after Separation and Divorce program, which is run by the Family Justice Services Branch of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice. He says it was “a fantastic program,” and one that helped highlight the importance of family law for him. “I think there’s a huge demand and requirement for people to take family law,” he says, adding it’s crucial “to change the focus from clients thinking of themselves to [their] children.”

Even though he’s highly motivated, getting through law school while raising two boys, ages 7 and 9, is certainly not easy. “I definitely underestimated how much work would be involved in law school,” says Clarke. To manage at home, he’s developed a family routine, squeezing his readings in whenever he has time.

“I was actually surprised that he has two kids on his own,” says Romanow, who started working with Clarke in May.

“Going through law school with two kids — I can’t even imagine. It says a lot about him, his work ethic.”

It’s not always smooth sailing. “There are some days where I don’t even figure out how I get through them,” says Clarke.

“I mean, trying to keep house with two incredibly energetic boys, plus study and work. It’s a big juggle. But at the end of the day I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing it to make sure my boys have a better life.”

If face and body piercing is uncommon in the world of law, it’s no less strange to find out the man doing your piercing is a lawyer-in-training by day. Since entering law school, Clarke has surprised a fair number of his clients. “It’s neat to see that,” he says, describing their reactions to hearing he is a law student, “because I don’t come across as anybody that’s in law. I don’t fit that stereotype.”

Stereotypes about the various forms of “body art” may be due for an update. It might be inconceivable to walk through a major downtown law firm and find an associate wearing a bolt through his nose or sporting a prominent face tattoo, but there is some evidence the culture is changing in more subtle ways.

For one thing, the taboo against piercings seems to be at least in part generational. According to a study by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, nearly one in four Millennials — people aged 18 to 29 — have had a piercing some place besides their ear lobe, compared with less than 10 per cent of Generation Xers, and one per cent of those over 45.

Does this mean the legal community will be changing its attitude? “I think slowly. I think as the younger generation starts to move into the law, they bring their own social ideas with them,” says Clarke. “I think it will be more accepted and practised. But I think it’s probably a few years out before it gets to that point.”

Romanow, who wears a nose ring, which she replaced with a more understated stud for her articling interviews, is not as optimistic. “I do think there is a pressure to conform,” she says. “I think when I actually do start articling I will take my nose ring out. I think that sometimes appearance might get in the way.”

Meanwhile, Clarke has no immediate plans to give up on piercing. “I think I can see myself feeling the pressure to deal with how society views lawyers,” he says. “I can see myself trying to understand that or work around that. In the near future, I don’t know.

“I enjoy it. To me it’s relaxing. It’s artistic. I don’t have any intention of stopping.”

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