People seem to have concrete ideas about what a lawyer is meant to be. However, those impressions aren’t always positive nor are they always based on fact. Nonetheless, when you tell someone you want to be a lawyer, you are sure to get a reaction.
When I was 15, I revealed to a good friend’s mother that I wanted to go to law school one day. She scoffed. She told me I was too “soft” and much better suited to something like teaching where my personality would be rewarded. “You must be aggressive in law and you are not aggressive, Rebecca,” she warned.
A burning feminist argument formed in my teenage mind, but I didn’t say anything. After all, she was an adult and I wasn’t. Of course she would know better than I did. My fresh ambition was squashed before it even had a chance to flourish. For the next several years, I never spoke of my lawyerly goals for fear of being judged like I was that day. I believed her; lawyers must be loud and assertive to be successful.
Later on while I was completing my undergrad, a family friend (who has since become a great mentor) asked me directly if I had thought about going to law school. I was taken aback — he had figured out my secret ambition. I recounted the conversation I had some years earlier and explained I was no longer seriously thinking about law. Now he scoffed. Not at my desire to go to law school, but that someone would tell me I couldn’t for such superficial reasons. In his experience, which includes working alongside many lawyers both here in Canada and abroad, law is a very diverse profession. He explained that the only tools you really need to be a good lawyer are an analytical mind and strong people skills. Aggression and assertiveness are not prerequisites — they are stereotypes.
Relief! I was surprised I had actually let someone tell me otherwise. Yet I understood how my friend’s mother had that impression of lawyers because I also believed it to a certain extent. That is what you see on TV dramas: lawyers in power suits battling it out in a courtroom, intimidating their competition.
Negative public opinion is not always the case as there is also a certain respect for lawyers in society. Although, I think it is safe to say that the prevailing stereotype of a lawyer is the zealous advocate fighting vehemently for his or her client.
So, I ask my fellow law students, what was your first impression of lawyers before starting law school? Has it held true after your entrance into this profession? Was it positive or negative?
Certainly, there are some commonalities among law students and lawyers; ambition and intelligence being two of them. However, as I’ve learned about the law from an insider perspective, I’ve come to see just how diverse it is and how many different personality types it requires to function.
The competitive, aggressive type exists just as much as the introverted, reserved one does and neither is superior to the other. I wrote last month of the competitive spirit in first year that I believe stems, in part, from people’s preconceived idea of what a lawyer is supposed to be.
The negative perception of lawyers concerns me just as much as the competitive culture. The prevalence of the idea of the aggressive lawyer may deter many bright minds from going to law school for fear that they won’t fit in. And once in law school, the pressure to follow a certain path is strong and again, there is anxiety about fitting in.
What doesn’t get as much publicity but perhaps should is that there are so many branches of law that require diverse intellects and personality types to function. Some of the best professors I’ve had and the most brilliant lawyers I know are very compassionate, human, and understated individuals — not at all fulfilling the stereotype of the power-hungry, overbearing lawyer.
Last week, Osgoode Hall Law School hosted a welcome day event for incoming 1Ls. The new students seemed a bit apprehensive about the whole process and brought along a lot of questions. Thankfully, they met with a group of students and staff who (in my opinion) represent the diversity of the legal profession: students with backgrounds ranging from neuroscience to literature and faculty with experience from legal aid to Bay Street and everything in between. It was a positive night all around and I hope that those new law students saw that there was space in this field for all types.
First impressions have a lasting impact, so to better represent this new profession of ours, the one of law should be true to life.
With this column, 4Students welcomes our new law student columnist Rebecca Lockwood. Her column Ab Initio — which means "from the beginning," which she feels “is appropriate since I'm just starting my law career” — will appear each month on the 4Students web site. Rebecca will be entering her second year at Osgoode Hall Law School this fall. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.