Where would I be without Feminism in Law School?

Patricia Barkaskas

It is an unfortunate truth that law school can be a harrowing experience. Among the first examples that spring to my mind of the more difficult issues one must face are: first year’s onerous schedule and the brutal introduction to the Socratic method, which makes first year notoriously difficult to endure; the anxiety invoked by the approach of 100% exams in second year; the need to resist the persistent push toward big firm practice—a push that results from the profession’s influence on the law school… I have spent many sleep-bereft nights wondering: Why am I doing this to myself?

Of course, I should qualify my characterization of law school by highlighting several facts: I am an Aboriginal, anti-racist feminist with a BA in History and Women’s Studies and a MA in History focusing on Aboriginal women’s political activism; I have been an activist for many years; and I am in my thirties and a mother. All of the above separate me in many ways from the average law school student, a fact that is obvious to me daily in my interactions with some other students and professors, and the law school as an institution.

I perceived law school as such a foreign and hostile environment in my first term that I almost dropped out on several occasions. The constant sense of lack of belonging and my general confusion about what a JD degree would do for me and the people that I want to work with—namely, urban Aboriginal populations within a social justice context—persisted day in and day out. So, why did I stay?

I owe that to the amazing women, and a few fabulous men, I met at law school, in my own small group and year, and those in L2 and L3 who I had the privilege of getting to know who inspired me to stay the course. (You all know who you are and you rock!) I met most of these women and men, feminists and/or activists, through the UBC Centre for Feminist Legal Studies (CFLS). In my first semester at UBC Law, the CFLS was my refuge from the generally unwelcoming atmosphere of “Curtis High.” In the Centre, respectful, meaningful, and relevant discussions—and arguments I might add—about how the law, legal system, and legal profession intersect with politics, social justice, and culture (among other things!) took place on a regular basis. The women and men, who worked with and in the Centre on a regular basis gladly shared knowledge with me, mentored me, and gave me advice about how to survive life as a law student.

The Centre was also where I met and started to get to know feminist professors and those interested in social justice more broadly. Having no feminist professors assigned to my small group, my first year legal education was entirely lacking of any of the rigorous intellectual social, cultural, or political critique that I was used to, given my academic background. I felt that without this perspective and context the case law and legal procedure I was learning about had no real value.

I was so grateful and inspired by my experiences with the Centre in my first few weeks of law school that I applied for the position as the Student Coordinator of the CFLS. Imagine my joy and surprise when I got the position! Working as the Student Coordinator changed my first year law school experience from one in which I dreaded getting up to face every day to one that I was excited about. I met the new challenges of helping to run the Centre while attending my classes, doing my readings, and meeting my deadlines with a renewed sense of hope and determination.

As the Coordinator, one of my responsibilities was to assist in the running, and then the planning of, the Lecture Series for the Centre. The weekly talks, which I had been attending already, were (and remain) a source of interdisciplinary discourse about the law, legal issues, and the broader sociocultural, political, and intellectual issues affected by legal norms. My involvement with the Lecture Series and the activists and intellectuals who took part reassured me constantly that there were people who cared about more than the ratio of a case and/or IRAC analysis. I saw that there were other people who were asking questions about and interrogating the law and power—two concepts intrinsically linked and rarely discussed in law school classrooms.

So, as I enter my third year of law school, much changed, much inspired, much determined, and much prepared for the long fight ahead of me, I wish to thank the friends, colleagues, professors, academics, activists, and/or community members who have inspired, and who continue to inspire, me to keep my head up and rail against injustice as I see it within and without the walls of law schools across the country. Without all of you, this journey would have ended before now and with a different outcome.

And, to those of you just entering the halls of these seemingly hallowed institutions all over Canada—I only hope that students who represent a breadth of backgrounds and first hand experiences can provide similar forms of support that were given to me. Whether in the form of wisdom, mentorship, or friendship, this support, in creating a sense of solidarity, will be invaluable in helping you make the most of your law school journey. I wish you the best in all that is to come.