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Manitoba law students share stories of access

|Written By Mariianne Mays Wiebe
Manitoba law students share stories of access

Three University of Manitoba students recently told their personal stories about accessibility and the Faculty of Law.


Three University of Manitoba students recently told their personal stories about accessibility and the Faculty of Law.

Before he came to Robson Hall, Philippe Richer, originally from Montreal and now 42, had long-term careers in the military and in sales. After his marriage fell apart in 2005, he was faced with the prospect of starting over. He consulted a psychologist for an aptitude test and found he had capacities for law and architecture. He started to look into financing a return to school, and after a year in arts, applied to both architecture and law at the University of Manitoba. He was accepted by both.

Research and his gut told him that, for him, law was the way to go. But it was an expensive proposition. Previously he had worked part-time to offset his expenses while studying, and he thought he’d be able to do the same while attending law school. He soon found out that the expectations of law studies exceeded his available time. With joint custody of his children and school expenses, Richer realized he would have to seek funding in addition to his $13,000 student loan.

When he went to see Lorna Turnbull, now acting dean of the Faculty of Law, about his problem, he discovered he was eligible for a bursary. He had assumed he wouldn’t qualify.

Eventually the bursary and loan worked out for Richer, and now it all seems worth it. Upon graduation in June 2010, he aims to practise criminal law, in part because he enjoys the performative aspect of it — a residue from his days in theatre class. He also relishes the problem-solving aspects of law.

“Many people think of the law as concrete and delineated,” said Richer. “One of the first things I learned, going to law school, is that it’s ambiguous. There’s a range of possibilities outside of each rule that makes you ask, ‘how far does the law extend [in this instance]?’ Rarely are things so clear.”

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Jennifer Guiboche was in a different kind of situation. Guiboche, who is aboriginal and will graduate this year at the tender age of 23, is among the youngest students ever to enter the Faculty of Law at the U of M. The course she took at her high school in Swan River introduced her to the law, and she couldn’t stop reading the assigned text. She loved it.

After completing two years of university at the undergraduate level, including a year in psychology, Guiboche decided that she wanted to try to skip the undergrad degree and enter the faculty directly. She felt she couldn’t afford to wait the extra year.

She made it in and was granted an entrance scholarship and multiple bursaries. Guiboche also benefited from the University of Manitoba’s ACCESS program, which alleviated some of her financial stress. Without their help, she says, she would not likely be where she is today.

“They assisted me with all my student loan dealings and financially contributed to my university education over the years, including my years in law school,” she said.

She has since excelled — but in the beginning she felt somewhat intimidated by the formal atmosphere and by her relatively older colleagues.

Faculty of Law graduate Shelley Overwater believes that these types of accessibility issues are just as significant as financial ones.

Though her philosophy is that people who really want something will find a way to achieve it, Overwater believes that with individual student circumstances shifting due to increased access to education, the faculty could do more to ease the transition of non-Winnipeg students or students to whom a world of privilege and education is unfamiliar.

A mature student from a Northern community when she entered law, Overwater was a single parent and a self-described career waitress at bars and restaurants. She was also a recovering alcoholic. While in treatment for her addiction, she decided that she wanted to help others the way she had been helped. A foray into social work through the Northern Access program, however, wasn’t a happy one. She didn’t care for the system, she said. Looking for another option, Overwater tried her shot at the LSAT and scored respectably.

Overwater recognizes that Faculty of Law fees are less than at places such as Osgoode Hall Law School, and her early offer from the U of M faculty included an entrance scholarship, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually she found work at the law library but she was “still scraping.”

She faced other pressures she didn’t anticipate. “Many undergrads [coming into the law program] are used to the networking and other expectations within the program. But as a former waitress, the only dressy clothes I had in my closet were black and white clothing and beat-up shoes.

“There were events I had to miss because of financial stressors like that.”

Overwater saw the strain on many of her colleagues too. “Law school is very competitive and I know that [all of these stresses] come with what you sign up for, but if they want to make education accessible to a broader segment of the population, then they need to be aware that there could be other problems.”

“Some of these things for me as an older student weren’t a big deal, but I see the pressure for the younger ones,” she said.

Overwater now works in Morden, where the slower pace and variety that comes with being part of a smaller firm in a small town suits her. She and her partner “absolutely love it. There’s tons of work [in rural areas], no parking to pay for, lower housing costs and the people are great.”

She said she succeeded thanks to the kindness and help she received from several Faculty of Law profs, the U of M Student Advocacy Centre and Disability Services (she also suffers from a mental health disability). However, she also feels that the program would benefit from a greater emphasis on orientation for new students to the culture, and awareness-education for those who teach in the faculty.

“There is tremendous pressure to score the right job,” said Overwater. “And with that kind of pressure, people can be afraid to say what they think.”

Overwater says access is about more than just giving money to people. She is quick to acknowledge, however, that greater access has meant an improvement, and she loves the practice of law. “I think they are doing a lot to make it more accessible.”

“And when I got my diploma, I was just thrilled.”

This article originally appeared in The Bulletin from the University of Manitoba. It has been reprinted with permission.

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