Last September, I walked into law school eager to join a new community of capable, energized individuals with big ideas. Everyone was certainly capable and everyone had ideas. But it took me until the end of the academic year to feel the sense of unity I had been expecting. Instead, competition smacked me in the face.
I was astounded at how individualistic and competitive first year was right from the get-go. Surely we had nothing to compete for during orientation week. Yet people were already sussing each other out. The common question asked was what kind of law do you want to practise? A fair and relevant inquiry at any stage of the law-school game. Yet on more than a few occasions, that question was followed by, “Oh, OK. Good. So you’re not my competition,” when I replied with an area that wasn’t of interest to them. Really? Already? It was only Day 2!
That sort of attitude continued throughout the school year, peaking at exam time. I kind of understood the anxiety and competition then because we had heard the bell curve was tight. To be honest, however, it still didn’t make much sense to me because all of us first years were in the same boat. The learning curve was steep for everyone. No matter whether we were mature students or fresh from undergrad, we were starting from scratch. We all felt anxious. We were all terrified. We all thought that we could have prepared more. What was the use of pitting ourselves against one another when we were all feeling the same thing?
What I had hoped for was support and collaboration at a time like this. We all want to excel, but only 10 per cent of us are going to get As. Statistically, we can’t all shine. So why not help each other out and pat each other on the back instead of hiding our summaries from peeking neighbours and asking how many hours we put into our exam prep before we even say hello.
What’s more is that in first year, we don’t need to battle for jobs: there are no OCIs and there are so few summer firm positions that it’s highly unlikely any of us will get one in the first place. But even during the job hunt season, I would hope that we could be adult enough to conclude that the best man or woman will win and all we can do is simply wish each other well.
Don’t get me wrong, my first-year classmates were not cruel or overtly nasty. We were all civil and friendly (even more so as the year went on) and I found many life-long friends in the bunch. But the underlying tone of first year was so tense that for the first time in my life, I felt I couldn’t be myself. I had to play my cards close to my chest. Perhaps this was a good life lesson because the world is not always rose-tinted — sometimes you are going to have to put yourself first and be OK with it.
Perhaps my reaction has something to do with my own competitiveness. I know I have it in me, but it’s a quality that I don’t want to develop and this atmosphere really egged it on. Perhaps this is just the nature of the law beast and I have to suck it up. Or perhaps there is reason to be critical of the competition at law school. What is the real purpose? Does it do us any good? Will we get farther because of it?
Thankfully, I did eventually feel that collaborative spirit I had been expecting at the beginning. It happened one week in March when a few events at Osgoode Hall incited a sense of solidarity amongst the student body as well as the faculty. Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode, triumphed with the Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford case and the entire law school community cheered, tweeted, and debated the outcome. The Black Law Students Association organized a hoodie movement for Trayvon Martin with the co-operation of other clubs from all backgrounds and interests — more than 100 students participated. The law school buzzed with discussion and opinion. Despite exams looming, people were more focused on the law in action than the bell curve.
My decision to study at Osgoode is one I’m proud to have made. I should make clear that my criticism refers to the mindset of first-year law in general rather than the specific policies of my school because I think many law students across the country feel this way. After my experience, I call for more collaboration between students and less competition. We’re all in this together and you never know who you may end up working with. We need each other’s co-operation to survive. And we will achieve a great deal more if our colleagues truly have our backs.
Rebecca Lockwood has just completed her first year at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.