The fact that the upper tiers of our profession are dominated by white men is something I try not to think about too much. At law school, I have wanted to avoid being too “political.” But when you are a racialized woman in a remarkably conservative profession, your very existence becomes political. Your voice becomes political no matter what you say, so you might as well start talking.
The best part of my U of T Law experience has easily been my involvement with the moot program. Mooting competitions bring together some of the brightest law students from across the country, and afford them the opportunity to interact with and learn from accomplished members of the bar and judiciary. We are told that these accomplished people are examples of what we should aspire to become.
And yet, after my experience at a national moot competition this year, I wonder if they are worthy of my aspirations. A number of these advocates do not treat students who look like me with basic respect. Why would I want to emulate them?
Take the lawyer who told one of our female opponents “your argument was good, but your manner is too cold. Try and warm up, try and smile a little. You should seduce the court.” He later complimented my (white male) teammate on his “powerful” voice and added, “not everyone has a voice like you. Like my wife, for example. She has only a little voice. But she’s not an advocate, so it’s okay.”
Take the multiple senior members of the bar and judiciary who came up to me and my teammate at the receptions, shook his hand, engaged him in conversation, and ignored me.
Take the organizer who presented the awards at the banquet who looked at my name on the paper, said “I know I’m going to butcher this,” and proceeded to, yes, butcher it. Who had not thought to, perhaps, ask me—as one of less than twenty mooters in total—how my name was pronounced. Who somehow managed to pronounce other complicated Italian and German surnames without editorializing.
Take the judge who shook my teammate’s hand and both my coaches’ hands and did not so much as glance at me until one of my coaches interjected to introduce me by name. Then he looked down, shook my hand, and turned back away from me.
Take the assessors who had criticized a mooter last year for the cut of her skirt, leading me this year to agonize about the least important part of my argument: my outfit.
We joke sometimes about the conservatism of the profession and how the old guard is fading out. But the truth is, the old guard still exists. And as long as the highest levels of the bar and judiciary pay lip service to diversity while making diverse students feel unwelcome in these settings, this kind of behaviour will not change.
It’s 2016. I am proud to be a racialized woman representing U of T Law at a national advocacy competition. I should not then be treated like a piece of furniture next to my teammate, who happens to be a white man, dependent on him to introduce me into conversation at the cocktail party. It’s time for members of this profession—at all levels—to quit using diversity as a marketing buzzword and start examining their own behaviour. We are here to stay. You might as well shake our hands.
Editor’s note: Ultra Vires’ usual practice is to not publish anonymous articles. In my view, this recounting of personal experience is both valuable to our readers and something that we could not otherwise obtain from a named student. – Brett