Looking Beyond and Within: Spirituality, Resistance and Success in Law School

“The key to a successful career is realizing that it’s not separate from the rest of your life, but is rather an extension of your most basic self.” – Marianne Williamson (A Return to Love)

I remember the day clearly – September, 2009, Orientation day at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International was delivering his welcome speech to law students in the auditorium. I remember looking across the room, observing the zeal, the passion in the eyes of most students as they listened. The determination to fight for justice, to make a difference with their law degree shone through as their collective applause echoed in the room. But as the year progressed, that fire seemed to fizzle out. All around me, I saw my peers hopeless, filled with anxiety, feeling that their dreams were slowly being shattered. The competition and hostility, the rat-race of OCIs, lack of articling positions, the pressure to pay off a six-figure debt,- everything seemed to be the ingredients for failure – failure to create the meaningful legal career that they had dreamt of.

To this day, I meet students who feel completely disillusioned by the law school experience. With the increased corporatization of our legal education system, law schools have become more about getting students to conform to a dominant culture that glorifies Bay Street, and the prestige and social status that come with a corporate career, and little about fostering an environment that perpetuates the idea of law as a profession of service. In her paper, “Is there Room for Spirituality in Canadian Legal Education and Practice?” Andrea Chisholm brings attention to recent studies that describe law school as a place with little room for emotion and imagination, and that learning to “think like a lawyer” entails giving up one’s ideals, ethical values and a sense of self. The curriculum puts emphasis on black letter law, and students feel let down by career services which are focused on guiding students toward corporate jobs. This, coupled with the fact that there is a scarcity of paid positions in social justice, and that tuition fees and student debt continue to hike, students who dreamt of building social justice careers are consistently disempowered and stripped of their happiness as they go through their law school journey.

The good news is that students are mobilizing, launching campaigns and starting important conversations with their peers, law schools, the law society and lawyers to challenge the structure of our legal education and the profession. But a large part of the problem remains. As students continue to fight for long-term, systemic changes, their individual mental and emotional well-being continue to suffer. In the short-term, students are still making sacrifices to their dreams and aspirations, and before they know it, they graduate with nothing to look back at but three years of dissatisfaction and despair. But meaningful and effective change, whether short-term or long-term cannot come from a place of hopelessness and unhappiness. So, time has come to bring the well-being of law students, the neglected piece of their struggle, to the forefront of the conversation. How can students arm themselves to not only change the system in the long-run, but ensure that they find success and fulfill their dreams while they go through a system that strives to negate their agency? It is time to inject spirituality into the objective, logic-laden, spiritually empty space of law school.

In her paper, Andrea Chisholm talks about the ways in which our pedagogy, our curriculum and teaching strategies can be altered to turn law schools into more spiritual spaces. But today, I invite students to take this responsibility of being spiritual upon themselves, rather than relying on schools to do it for them. This entails doing a tremendous amount of internal work. It requires a complete shift in mindset and attitude, a radical transformation in the approach to going through law school. In other words, it is time to put spirituality at the center of law student resistance.

Spirituality does not equal religion, or a set or ritualistic practices. These are often components of one’s specific spiritual path and should be embraced and celebrated unapologetically if they form one’s particular belief system. But in a broader and universal sense, spirituality is much more. Deepak Chopra, for example, describes it as a “journey into self-awareness.” He calls it a “domain of awareness where we experience our universality, where we are inseparably one, even with the source of existence, which religious traditions call God.” “When we’re there,” he says, “there’s love, there’s compassion, joy, and equanimity.” In other words, spirituality is the wisdom that allows one to be in true alignment with who they are, to be aware of one’s harmony with their fellow beings and the larger universe, regardless of whether one belongs to a religion or not. It is marked by love, compassion, unity and humility. It is about raising one’s consciousness to be in a constant state of gratitude, peace, contentment and unwavering faith in the grand scheme of the universe regardless of outside circumstances.

Many of us already embody these values. We have a strong sense of who we are, and the values that guide our lives and our lives’ work. We are brave, compassionate, brilliant and full of love, and this is precisely what reflects in our personal statements when we first apply for law school. We just tend to forget after we enter this space, because all those sentiments and passion and worldviews that people bring by virtue of their unique identities are considered “past lives” and to be left at the doorstep before entering law school. Because in law school, only one thing matters and determines success – thinking like a lawyer, becoming a lawyer. And going through this rite of passage means unbecoming everything else that we consider to be the essence of our deepest selves. Today, I urge law students to reclaim that identity and re-align with their authentic self, to use love and compassion as their greatest career guide.

I was a law student not too long ago. I graduated with a debt in the amount of $ 100,000. I am a racialized, immigrant woman who is visibly Muslim, with no previous-generation familial connections in law, at least not in Canada. I did not graduate at the top of my class, and never found myself to have the ability or interest to fit into the corporate world. Yet, I look back at my law school experience with nothing but a feeling of fulfillment, joy and liberation. Each time, I have been able to find the job of my dreams, and so far, I have not been in a financially devastating situation. I am no spiritual expert, nor do I claim to be successful by the standard definition of success in the legal world. However, I do claim to be empowered and happy. I feel grateful that I have been able to design my own career path so far, based on the definition of success that I have created for myself – which is the ability to serve the community. This is why, I would like to share with students how a spiritual approach in my own journey has helped me find fulfillment, and can help you, too.

One of the most important things to remember is to stand by your conviction. Constantly remind yourself why it is that you came to law school and work towards your goal. If you have always wanted to be a corporate lawyer, great. If your only reason to ever come to law school was to pursue social justice, if that is a passion that is aligned with the very core of your being, your values, then do not sway from that. Do not feel guilty for not following the crowd or participating in the OCIs process. Take the courses that your own professional goals require, not what others or the law school believes are essential. Let that be your only career guide and career counselor. Attend talks and conferences where professionals who do work in your area of interest speak. Talk to professors who do research in those areas. Create a network of mentors, both professional and academic. Ask them for ideas and connections. You will be surprised at how people will go out of their way to help you. Research firms, clinics and organizations that do not normally advertise positions, make yourself available for volunteer work and internships, and do such a kick-ass job that they are forced to give you summer employment, possibly even articling. This is how I found work. One research paper led to an internship which then led to my summer job at an amazing human rights firm. OCIs did nothing. Keep your focus on your goal and watch opportunities open in your favour. Being true to who you are is the first step in empowering yourself.

The more crucial step, and possibly the most difficult one in this process is to detach from the outcome, and this is where your spirituality will really be tested. Others who are less selective than you in their job search will secure work faster than you. There will be a whole crowd that will quickly conform to the system simply because they feel that they have to, and the voices will come back to take you off your own path. “You have to pay off debt,” “you cannot afford to wait,” “you will not make enough money,”etc. This can create an unhealthy attachment to results. It will constantly make you worry about whether you will find the job that you desire, and whether you should quit your path and follow the crowd afterall. But do not fall into this trap.

The key is to remember that emotions such as worry and anxiety do not serve you. In fact, they compel you to try and manipulate situations which you have no control over. This actually pushes your desired results further away from you since you will be in a state of mind that is not conducive to optimal creativity, clarity and focus. Never compare your path to that of others – this will help you discard half your worries. Know that your journey is unique to you. You must block out all the noise around you. Avoid spaces and gatherings where negative, discouraging, competitive dialogue takes place. Find like-minded people and generate ideas on building collegiality, form wellness groups and foster positive conversations where you support and inspire one another. This is a crucial aspect of being spiritual – knowing that while your journey is unique to you, you and your peers are interconnected in the pursuit of your goals. In other words, you are neither above, nor beneath anyone and so there is no need for competition and rivalry. The idea is to train your mind to be in a state of peace and positivity, so that you have the necessary emotional and physical energy to excel, to do your best. The results will then come automatically.

Law school can often make you feel as though it constitutes the entire universe, that if you fail to find a job, or get the best grades or conform to the system, your life is over. Being spiritual means knowing that your career is an extension of your most basic self and your values, but also that your career is one aspect of yourself and your life. This space known as “law school” is not an end in itself. Both your life before, after and outside of law school matters, and it matters a lot. Do not let worry and anxiety take time away from pursuing your hobbies, spending time with family and reading, doing things that make you happy, and most importantly, practicing gratitude. This also means that if circumstances do compel you to take that high-paid summer job or articling position that is not in line with your values, do not be hard on yourself. Some of us may have certain privileges that allow us to be more experimental with our careers. For some of us, it may actually not be an option, at least in the short term. If this is the case with you, it does not mean you have fallen off your path. See this as transient, and a transition to your dream career. Shift your perspective to focus on the positive, and see your current job as an opportunity to acquire skills that you may not have had in any other position.

I invite you today to break the fortress that law school has created around itself and look beyond it to think creatively, to go and seek opportunities and design your career in a way that makes people go “wow!” At the same time, I encourage you to build a fortress around your soul that makes you look inward and preserve the pristine nature of your beliefs, your worldview, your passions, that bars any negativity and competition, any feeling of despair that maligns its greatness. But also remember to leave windows to allow the light of your soul to be reflected into the outside world, so that you can build meaningful connections with other beautiful and courageous souls. Remember that some of the greatest heroes in the legal world, such as Gandhi and Mandela did not take the conventional path. It is your audacity to dream, your incredible strength, your infinite capacity to love and your belief in your authentic self that has brought you into law school. Keep that alive, resist with the very happiness that law school tries to deny you and carve our own path. Be a trailblazer. Change your own reality, and change the world!