First year law school, also known as 1L, can be a trial by fire. It can be stressful, intense and even overwhelming at times. But one of the joys that I discovered, even during the frantic weeks and months leading up to exams, was that of the law itself, in all its endlessly fascinating and often bewildering complexity.
I had the opportunity to recap my impressions and revisit those thoughts and reflections today, when I delivered a talk on my experiences in first year. Notwithstanding the facetious title, it was truly a shaping and engaging experience.
Postcards from 1[hel]L: my first year at law school
I am sitting in a room of dilapidated elegance. Morning sunlight slants through the bay windows along one wall, illuminating the faded frescoes and elaborate crown moldings around the ceiling. I am seated, along with sixteen other students, around a heavy wooden banquet table. It is an exquisitely evocative setting—the kind of moment that is steeped with a golden nostalgia even as I am living it.
It is my second week of law school, and after a week of frantic socializing during orientation, we have finally settled into our regular class schedule. Readings have been assigned and we have begun to puzzle our way through the peculiar, often arcane and labyrinthine phenomenon that is case law.
A bespectacled professor with a kindly, vague expression and curly grey hair beams at me from the front of the room. I had met him during orientation week, and he had seemed sweet, but a little absent-minded.
I now know otherwise. He has just finished dissecting my argument with a surgeon’s precision, extracting each of its internal organs in turn, casually remarking on the fatal flaws that make it untenable, and then discarding it.
Don’t get me wrong–this isn’t like the Paper Chase, where the daunting Kingsfield uses his acidic wit to humiliate a student in front of all of her peers. No—this is a kinder, gentler law school. This particular professor–who is one of the top scholars in the world in his specialization, a man whose theories are as elegant as they are controversial–is unfailingly kind to his students, but simultaneously ruthless in his attack on their arguments.
During those moments, even as my fellow students eye me with sympathy—knowing full well that their turns will come—I feel strangely exhilarated. It takes me a moment to realize that this is a distinctive combination of awe and excitement. I’ve never seen anyone reason like this—anyone able to separate the tangled threads of different thoughts and arguments that I have put out there in a messy jumble, incisively extracting each of them before undermining them one after another.
The law teaches a way of thinking—so-called legal reasoning is actually many things at once, but perhaps the most important element consists of this ability to look at complex issues, take them apart and then frame arguments around each of them in a methodical way, complete with contingencies and rebuttals.
As the weeks go by, I begin to wade into the painstaking and often frustrating process of acquiring this skill for myself, even as I revel in the ways that studying law helps open up my understanding of the world and how it fits together.
But, it is not till a few months later, during the first lecture of my Administrative Law class, that I have my epiphany. I suddenly feel like Neo, in the first Matrix movie. If you haven’t seen it, it is about a man who finds that he is living in a complex, but seamless social construct. There is a moment of clarity and insight towards the end of the film, when the underlying construct, consisting of lines of code, suddenly becomes visible to him, and he begins to see how this world he’d been inhabiting has been put together. He begins to understand how he can navigate that world in new ways—and even begin to change it.
That’s how I feel in this particular lecture, as I suddenly begin to understand the true reach of the law. It is everywhere. It is in the thickness of our walls, and the telephone and electricity lines that are hidden inside those walls. It is in the width of our roads and what we can and cannot do on those roads. It keeps our food safe and our water flowing through the pipes of our buildings. These are the regulatory standards. It also governs our behaviour, outlining ways in which we ought to conduct ourselves—in a car, on the streets, with regard to our families and loved ones as well as towards the world at large.
And yet—you cannot touch the law—the words on the page reveal how a statute is formulated, how a regulation is phrased, but the words on the page just represent the law. They aren’t the law itself. The law is lived and living. It is intangible, but ubiquitous. This is what I see, during those moments in class, and it takes my breath away, with its scope and its marvelous complexity.
References to the Matrix aside, in the course of my day-to-day routine, the University of Toronto Law School actually reminds me a little of a combination of Gormenghast and Hogwarts—dusty motes of sunlight; genteel, slightly threadbare, elegance; a library filled with arcane tomes; and an emphasis on old rituals that go hand in hand with the practice of courtly etiquette.
The law itself sometimes feels a little like magic, though again, a more complex, difficult, subtle magic than what you’d find in the Fantasy classics. The study of law is a matter of acquiring a language that looks oddly familiar and very much like English, but is actually subtly yet profoundly different, and has the potential to change how we, as individuals in a social construct, interact with each other and with the world.
Change the law, and you legitimize certain activities while disallowing others—suddenly something is permitted and another thing, that was allowed moments before, is a crime.
Laws can even change the very nature of who a person is, in the sense of how their rights are defined, in society. I had touched the edge of this as a Lay Chaplain. Before law school, when I had performed weddings, I had some inkling of this mysterious process by which two individuals became linked, through the ritual of marriage. But here it was—part of what I had sensed in those moments when I’d pronounce two people legally united. Suddenly, through a simple, mutual act, your rights and obligations change, both with regard to the person to whom you are married, and with regard to the world at large. You are suddenly a different legal entity, at a fundamental level.
This is the law.
There are other peculiar, Hogwarts-like rituals. The Grand Moot—a name worthy of J.K. Rowling or Lewis Carroll—is held in early October each year, and in the days leading up to this event, there is a sense of rising excitement among the upper year students and profs. A quidditch match for the brain, the Grand Moot is a mock trial in which the top mooters in the school are grilled by justices from the Supreme Court of Canada, the Ontario Court of Appeals and the Ontario Superior Court. It requires meticulous preparation, but is also a battle of wits, a display of quick thinking and adroit rhetoric, as each mooter’s arguments are rigorously tested in front of their profs and peers.
Much of the school turns up amid an atmosphere of festive anticipation. As a first year student, uninitiated into the complexities and nuances of appeals-level argument, I am sometimes lost, but among the profs and upper years, every thrust and parry of the argument is greeted with loud, collective gasps or groans—or the occasional, spontaneous burst of applause.
After the elegant reception that follows, life falls back into the routine of courses, smattered with fascinating talks and visits from special guests and distinguished speakers from around the world. A woman lawyer comes to speak. She has spent the last six years in the Hague, preparing the case for the prosecution for war criminals, and she speaks with passion about the suffering and heartbreak that the victims and families have experienced, the horror of the mass graves and the testimonies of those who come forward. Bill Graham, former minister of defense, gives a fireside chat and q&a, discussing the difficult choices he had to make around Canada’s original deployment in Afghanistan. Other key shapers, of NGOs and Environmental summits, all pass through, give talks and answer questions, in the intimate, sunlit rooms of the two ivy-covered buildings on University Avenue.
As we move towards the end of the year, the pressure rises. Final exams loom, and my brainy classmates—all of whom I am by now convinced are far brighter than I am—all tense up like high-spirited thoroughbreds. The anxiety in the air grows palpable—we are all in the same classes, doing the same readings, and able to watch each other’s progress while wondering how we will fare. The anxiety runs high among my classmates—when grading is relative rather than absolute, it matters how everyone else does in relation to you.
I escape the law school whenever possible, stealing away to the meditation room in Victoria College or to one of the cafeterias or libraries elsewhere on the campus. I try to stay grounded amid the madness, even as my body breaks out in rashes from the sustained stress.
And yet, through it all, I find myself continually engaged, fascinated and drawn in by my study of the law.
Why? Because underneath the complexity, the arcane language, the labyrinthine reasoning, the law is an intensely human story. It is narrative, at multiple levels. Every court case is a story of conflict—often tragic, occasionally bizarre, and, very rarely, funny. The facts in each and every one of the court cases we looked at could form the basis of a novel. How could I not be hooked?
But those aren’t the only stories, riveting though they are. At another level, the struggles of the judges, trying to work their way through the complex turns of the common law, in search of justice—which itself is far from black and white—forms another layer of this story of adversity and aspiration. There is no doubt, whether or not you agree with the outcome, that each set of written reasons is hard come by and painstakingly wrought, in the attempt to make the law fairer and more just—despite the flaws in many of the judges’ conclusions, in an imperfect world.
This quest for justice is another of the ongoing narratives of the law.
And, at the highest level of all, the law is the story of a society’s aspirations and the ways in which it falls short.
We have a Charter because we believe in a society in which we have certain rights that respect our humanity, our dignity, our freedom of thought and belief.
But if we always met our aspirations, of honouring rights and respecting each other, then we wouldn’t need to write them down and give them the power that we do—they’d simply be givens.
Documents like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and even the Criminal Code, tell us how we should treat each other—but also, by the implication of their very existence, they tell the story of how we have wronged each other again and again, often in tragic or horrifying ways.
This is what keeps me engaged by the law—it’s not just about dusty tomes and dry cases. It’s living, breathing, ever-changing. It’s the story of our aspirations and of our imperfections. It is vibrant, tragic and also beautiful. To see a judge struggle for justice and somehow, get things just right, so that his judgment comes to represent a foundational principle of law—it’s extraordinary. And the fact that we keep trying—that no matter how many times we fall short, and how imperfect we may be, we keep reaching for justice, and for ways to do what is right, and to help each other. This is what makes the law so profound, so moving—and so endlessly fascinating.