Ultra Vires


An Open Letter to the Students Barely Holding it Together

Reflections on the other costs of law school

The University of Toronto Faculty of Law administration strongly recommends that you do not work while in school, especially in 1L. If you choose to, not only are you penalized by the financial aid formula, but Faculty policy states that you must confine your employment to no more than ten hours per week. 

I have often wondered who this advice is directed towards. Surely, anyone who does not need to work would not need to be told twice that it’s not the best idea. Someone who does is going to ignore it anyway. Perhaps it dissuades students who are on the fence who could choose to have a part-time job, but could also choose to dip further into their student line of credit instead. But then again, if you didn’t have to, why would you?

The implication, of course, is that law school is far too demanding. You only have 24 hours in a day, and you want to be dedicating as many productive hours as you can to academics, professional development, and other “worthy” pursuits. Somehow, you have to squeeze in self-care and sleep—which, of course, are the first to be sacrificed when necessary. 

However, it’s a disservice to claim that we all have the same 24 hours in a day—that we can all prioritize school if we just manage our time well enough, focus, and work hard.

In some ways, this is easy to understand. Someone who has to work X hours per week to help pay for their legal education, loses X number of hours in any given week. In a way, that math is simple—the time is tracked, documented, and accounted for. 

But what about everything else? The hours you need to invest in healthcare because of a chronic (or acute) health condition? The hours that you give to family emergencies and responsibilities? The hours that are permanently dedicated to managing disability and self-advocating for accomodations? Not to mention the significant number of hours lost in a particular week when a crisis occurs, in any aspect of your life. These types of things can be far more demanding than a part-time job, and it’s not like you can exactly choose to opt out. 

I often wonder how we’re all able to make it work. We do, of course. We wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t. But at what cost?

A few days ago, I joked that I was one How are you? away from a complete and utter breakdown. I hesitate when asked now. “Good, you?!” comes to mind out of instinct, but gets caught in my throat. Living through a global pandemic has made the response seem so disingenuous, especially when we are so constantly on edge that every little thing rings the crisis alarm bells in our brains. I’ve noticed that we’ve all switched to slightly more truthful euphemisms. “Not bad.” “As well as can be.” “Hanging in there.” 

Like most jokes made by law students, my comment was a thinly veiled cry for help. Like most jokes, it was forgotten moments after the echoes of “relatable” and “same” faded. I went back to pandemic-appropriate pleasantries. Because being here is a privilege. Studying here is a privilege. The fact that we can make it work is precisely why we cannot complain. 

If you’re like me, you still find yourself saying “good,” or “doing well,” sometimes. If I get through the day without falling over, I consider that a good day. I don’t know when exactly the bar got so low, but the pandemic certainly accelerated the descent. If you’re like me, somewhere along the way, you convinced yourself that the absence of awful is good. 

When your days have been suboptimal for the greater part of your life, a neutral day starts to feel like winning the lottery. One year ago, I was confined to my 550 square foot home and sometimes didn’t have human interaction for days. Now, the ability to watch a movie at home with my friends feels like an incredible privilege, one that I’m terrified to lose again. After all, it’s all relative.

The absence of awful is not good, but I have spent the entirety of my time at law school thus far believing that it is. The realization otherwise is jarring. 

It has also helped me better understand the folks on the opposite end; their baseline is simply different. They must believe that the absence of incredible is awful. 

It can feel isolating to hear what other students’ consider their most pressing problems when yours are quite literally life and death. The pandemic has made it painfully obvious that we may all be facing the same storm, but we are most definitely not in the same boat. This isn’t new—it’s always been that way. It’s just a little bit clearer now. 

Advocating for that to change is another chunk of hours out of our day. For some students, it’s not a choice, just as working part-time through school is not really a choice either. For some students, advocacy is not a hobby, but rather a method of survival. And so it goes. So we beat on, boats against the current. 

If you’re barely holding it together, if you don’t have the privilege of choosing how you spend the majority of the hours in your day—this is for you. I see you. I’m proud of you. I can’t promise that the cost of making it all work is worth it, but I’m right there with you. 

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