Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

“…your argument was good, but your manner is too cold. Try and warm up, try and smile a little. You should seduce the court.”

The words came sharply to the forefront of my mind on the February night where I parted with the Cup my moot partner and I had won last year at a regional trial moot competition. Mere moments later, the Dal #LawNeedsFeminismBecause photos were released.

It caused me to reflect in earnest on an experience I had last year, which may be of some benefit to others – so, for all you feminists out there… here goes.

First off, a bit about my personality. I like to think of myself as a naturally happy, high spirited, and enthusiastic person. Life and law school have certainly altered that a bit, but I nonetheless am a glass half-full individual at heart.

Moreover, anyone who knows me (especially the law school version of me) knows I have a pretty strong character. I speak my mind with confidence and am certainly not one to back down from a challenge – sometimes to a fault.

So it comes as no surprise that I want to be a litigator. I love the challenges it presents.

Which is why I leapt at the idea of taking a trial advocacy course in my second year at law school. The course had the added value of providing a window into Dal Law’s only trial advocacy moot for four of its students. I had a ton of fun learning how to run a trial – from openings and closings, through witness examinations, to objections and procedure.

You can imagine my excitement when I was granted the opportunity to be a part of the team representing Dalhousie at regionals in the Winter semester! I started working on the problem over the holidays and put my all into prepping for trial.

Dal had a strong group – we placed first and second – but the stars aligned as my team was selected to go on to nationals. We worked even harder to better our performance for the second leg of the competition. What was most thrilling about it at the time was the chance to keep honing my advocacy skills, while being exposed to more of the most experienced and bright litigation minds in the profession. I had an innocent and giddy outlook towards the whole thing.

But nationals brought with it a more unexpected truth: women still have to fight for a place in this world and, as one of my opponents from the competition put it, “the old guard still exists.”

Prominent litigators were assigned to provide feedback on our performances such that we could improve our trial advocacy skills and become better advocates. What you see at the top of this piece is the feedback I got:

“…your argument was good, but your manner is too cold. Try and warm up, try and smile a little. You should seduce the court.”

I returned to Halifax with a heavy heart. I fell into a sort of depression. I barely left my room, skipped class, and had no appetite (thank goodness I have a wonderful roommate who made sure I didn’t wither away to nothing). I was plagued with self-doubt, anger, and guilt: Was I crazy? Did he really say that? Was it really sexist, or was I just finding reasons to justify the fact that I didn’t win the competition?

More importantly, I questioned whether I even wanted to continue to pursue a career in law: Do I really want to spend my career facing gendered barriers? How would I even begin to advocate for women’s rights, my rights, in such a conservative profession? What impacts might that have on my clients’ cases? Do my concerns about this even matter if my job is to do everything I can for my client… for the case at hand?

After a week of wallowing, I decided it was time to gather myself and face the music. I had invested far too much blood, sweat, and tears, let alone money (sunk costs be damned) to give up on law school now!

I tend to deal with my emotions by talking to people. So, I went out and spoke to fellow classmates, friends, family, and even lawyers. I shared what had been said to me and was astonished by the responses.

The men I spoke to rallied behind me, while the women opened up and shared their own experiences. In this sense of community, I encountered a newfound drive. I recognized the layers of privilege I have at my disposal and decided I would find a way, whatever it may be, to overcome those gender barriers.

Almost a year has passed and I have come to realize what the truly invaluable lesson in that experience was: although the old guard still exists, our world is ever-changing and we must continue to build community by sharing our stories. Obviously I cannot speak for all women’s experiences in the legal profession. Heck, I have yet to officially become a part of it. But if this has helped anyone see that they are not alone in this struggle, then I have achieved my goal.

And I will not be silent in the face of discrimination in all forms. I will be an ally, as many of you were for me last year. And you know what…I might even do it with a smile.