“See Yourself Here”… on Bay Street?

SuJung Lee (2L)

“See Yourself Here” is an annual, daylong event held at the law school for high school students from historically underrepresented communities in the legal profession (i.e. communities with a high percentage of persons of colour and low socio-economic class). The initiative was started by the U of T Black Law Students Association in 2008, in the hopes of increasing the diversity of students at U of T. The event was held on March 9 and students from all across Peel and the Toronto District School Board attended. Interestingly, this year even included participants from schools like Bishop Allen Academy, where students generally come from more privileged backgrounds. The day consisted of a “law school” lecture on contracts law from Professor Niblett, a student panel, a game of jeopardy, and a mock trial of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

For an event aiming for diversity, various student volunteers (myself included) expressed disappointment that the law school presented a one-dimensional view of the law. True to U of T’s reputation as a conveyor belt to Bay Street, all three of the student panels were comprised almost entirely of students or alumni who worked in corporate law. To start, the information provided was inaccessible, with panelists throwing around terms like “securities” and “litigation” without much in the way of explanation; as a 2L student, I still don’t understand some of these terms. If you’re trying to convince high school students to come to law school, it seems parochial to feature corporate law as the main show.

Sara-Marni Hubbard, Student Coordinator at U of T Law, and coordinator for See Yourself Here, was aware of this year’s skewed demographic. She commented that this year seems to be an anomaly. The primary determinant of selecting panelists is the diversity of their personal backgrounds, such as persons of colour, members of the LGBTQ community, and low socio-economic class, rather than the diversity of their professional backgrounds. Because the selection pool is so small for such groups, striking the right balance between personal and professional experience is a matter of luck. However, Sara-Marni is passionate about See Yourself Here, and is always open to ideas on how to improve the program.

While I recognize that it isn’t easy to recruit the perfect group of panelists, there are definite steps organizers can take to move closer to that goal. For instance, they can target firms and ministries in different areas of the law, and members of different communities within that area. This would still prioritize personal experience, while controlling for a range of professional perspectives. More to the point, I think these steps are integral to See Yourself Here’s goal of diversifying the legal profession.

A purely corporate focus undermines the purpose of the student panel, which is an opportunity to ask about life in law school and as a lawyer. From my observation, participants were provided with a very narrow perspective on work-life balance, what the average work day looks like (corporate law and criminal law are like comparing apples and oranges), and personal motivations for their interest in law. One student asked, “What is the expected salary of a first-year associate?” to which one of the panelists answered, “$100,000.” While other panelists tried to correct this figure to a more realistic number, the standard was set: you could hear the audible gasp of excited students across the room.

Of course, as law students, we know this is a grossly inaccurate picture of the legal profession. As someone who doesn’t intend to pursue a career in corporate law, I couldn’t help but feel a little offended that corporate law was the only side of the law that the school felt was worth showcasing. Moreover, I felt that we were misleading future students and perpetuating the toxic myth of the legal profession as a path to socio-economic prestige.

I saw myself in many of these students. As the daughter of Korean parents, it was instilled in me from a young age that law school or medical school would secure a path to financial security. Indeed, getting into law school seemed like the ultimate reward at the end of the immigrant struggle. In some respects, this image of the law is true—lawyers’ salaries will often fall at some point on the upper-middle-class income spectrum, sufficient for a comfortable life. But this doesn’t take into account the amount of time, money, and ultimately, significant life choices that students must invest in exchange for that income—a trade-off that may seem more attractive than it is without all the information. The student panel reminded me of some of my own reasons for coming to law school, as well as reasons why I sometimes question that decision.

Focusing only on corporate law does a disservice to the legal profession. There are important areas of the law, like public interest and social justice work, that require talented lawyers. What happened to inspiring the future generation for social change? After all, changing the face of the legal profession is the raison d’etre of “See Yourself Here.”