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Snails, Names, and Layers of Advocacy

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It’s an easy exercise criticizing the world around us. The difficulty comes when we look inwards. If anything, the current climate of politics begs us to point fingers in disgust. But before we tackle the mayhem that awaits outside our Queendom, there are a few faults of our own that are worth our attention. In light of all other current problems, these issues might seem silly but we are directly guilty of them. They are also much closer to home. We might not be able to challenge presidents yet, but we are able to adjust our own behavior and bring about change in our own castle.
 
When you start law school, everything seems perfect. The excitement and the pride overpowers all criticism but after three years, the cracks begin to show. As I am getting ready to disembark, I want to address three issues that I have noticed and experienced: SNAILS, names, and layers of advocacy. I do not write this with clean hands either. I cast these stones as a sinner but I hope that in recognizing our mutual mistakes, we can work towards changing habits that are worthy of change.
The first change that we must address is how law students treat non-law students.
 
SNAILs
 
All law schools in Ontario have SNAILs. They are everywhere. They take up our spots in the library, they crowd the line at Starbucks, and they are all over our schools. SNAILs, or “Students Not Actually in Law School”, is probably the first legal concept that we learn in 1L. Admittedly, it’s pretty funny at first. Getting into law school is the greatest ego boost a young Canadian can get, and targeting an outside group is quite the bonding experience.
 
We should not be okay with this mentality. The SNAIL label is a manifestation of a hierarchical society that most of us go to law school to combat. It is an extension of an idea that we are now part of an upper echelon that deserves certain privileges reserved for us. This idea finds logic in our higher tuition and our original struggle to get into law school. We feel that we earned our privileges and that exclusivity is a premise of this privilege.
 
This attitude can be toxic. As law students, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. The culture around our profession is one of exclusivity. We are in a constant state of competition to prove that we are better than each other. This attitude shouldn’t extend itself into how we treat the rest of the world. We shouldn’t spend 3 years belittling and bullying people who do not pay the same tuition as us. For one, we are Queen’s students as much as we are law students. Our libraries and classrooms do not belong to the law school but to the university. Even though the Learning Commons is reserved for our use alone, we shouldn’t see this as a free pass to put aside respect and decency when non-law students somehow find their way into our exclusive playground.
 
In my last year of undergrad at McGill, I took a jurisprudence class with their Faculty of Law. It was a terrible experience. There was such a divide between me and the rest of the class. Being outspoken, I always expressed my thoughts and I was always met with laughter and dismissive comments. One law student even came up to me after class and told me, “You know you really shouldn’t act like you understand the constitution, only a lawyer can understand it”. That sort of toxicity can turn non-legal people away from these important social and political discussions. Luckily my ego ignored that comment and I went on to keep expressing my opinions about the constitution. I also went on to become a law student, just like many non-law students who find their way to our corner of Queen’s.
 
The way that we target students that are not in law school is not acceptable. It contributes to the creation of a barrier between “us” and “them”. If we spend three years inflating our self-worth then naturally we grow numb to the needs of the general public. Even though we pay more tuition than students in other faculties, we should refrain from effectively dehumanizing them into a slur. I know that most of us don’t intend to dehumanize but we cannot ignore the nature of this categorization. Perhaps the sting would be less if the abbreviation didn’t add up to form a word that represents a slimy pest, but it does. Should we use a different slur? Maybe we simply should refrain from systemic bullying.
 
Names
 
In front of the Queen’s law library, there is a mosaic of framed portraits. They are the pride of the school: the alumni who were called to the bench and became judges. For the most part, they are pictures of white men, which is understandable. After all, the legal world once belonged exclusively to white men. Downstairs, in our student lounge, the faces of the new graduates tell a different story. Law school is still an unattainable reality for many new immigrants who cannot break the language barrier, but it is an available option for those of us born in Canada. We, the immigrant-born, are now as Canadian as Canadians can be. We do well in school, we get good grades, but we are still differentiated by one major factor: our names.
 
Our names are as much a part of our diversity as we are. They tell the story of our history, our culture, and our ties of kinship. Harshdeep. Hamish. Shalini. Our names set us apart immediately and nowhere is it more obvious than in the classroom. As I write these words, this point is reinforced by Microsoft Word, which has underlined these names in its red squiggle, indicating a mistake. But we are not mistakes – we are the new cast of characters in this legal drama.
 
In keeping with the age old Socratic method, law school wouldn’t be law school without the dreaded cold call. Professors love to point and put you on the spot. In a way it is the ultimate exercise in thinking on your feet and convincing a professor that you have read a case that you have not. True advocates are forged by the cold call. When you don’t have a more common Canadian name, cold calls can be a bit of an awkward exercise. In trying to maintain an air of equity, professors often try to spread out the cold calls evenly, which means they will inevitably call on the brown kid in the room. If they remember, they will try to say your name. Usually you will correct them, for the fourth time. At least they tried? It’s worse when they simply cannot remember for the life of them. So they keep pointing:
 
“Yes”.
“No, you, behind Ms. Jones”.
“Go ahead.”
 
It cuts every time, especially when you aren’t being cold called, but simply asking a question. Perhaps you ask one or two questions every single class, for 6 months, and yet you will always be “Go Ahead”, even though the esteemed professor seems to know every other person by their last name.
 
There is no worse feeling of not belonging than when your name seems so alien that it never even gets uttered. Marginalized and racialized groups undoubtedly form a large segment of those who do not have access to justice. We need more lawyers who can bridge the gap between these people and the legal system. As immigrant-born, being a child of two worlds helps in this bridge building exercise, yet being further marginalized or racialized in law school certainly doesn’t.
 
This might seem silly, but I cannot express how much of an unnecessary headache an “ethnic” name can be in law school. Going through the French public system in Quebec, my name was never an issue. It has 2 syllables and 2 vowels. Ni-ma. Granted my last name is a bit less common since it has an H and 2 J’s (Hojjati). That being said, my previous teachers never had this much difficulty with my name. I have always been vocal in classes but never before was I “Go Ahead”. It might have been due to the diversity of my teachers up until law school.
 
Perhaps a very small solution for improving law school can be to have professors call students by their birth names. Since Canadian society needs to bring racialized groups into its legal framework, a small step could be to not deprive ethnic students from their names. By treating all students as equals in the smallest of ways, the next generation of lawyers might perhaps be a more unified group. Maybe then we will all feel comfortable approaching professors outside of the classroom. Maybe we will stop being the “ethnic students” all together and just be law students.
 
My name isn’t You, it isn’t Go Ahead, it’s Nima Hojjati. You might as well learn it because I am here to stay and I have plenty of questions to ask.
 
Layers of Advocacy
 
Nomenclature included, we must address the conditions in the legal profession that require ethnic students to undergo layers of advocacy. What I mean by layers is that for an ethnic lawyer, you cannot just show up and represent your client. You must first advocate for your right to be there as a lawyer, only then can you move on to advocate for your client.
 
I spent two years with Queen’s Legal Aid, first as a volunteer, then as a student litigator as part of a clinical course. This experience forms a large part of this idea of layers. The clients weren’t part of the problem. Sometimes they would make uncomfortable remarks and most of the time they couldn’t grasp my name but I gave them a free pass. Why? Because they needed access to justice. For the most part, they were too busy getting screwed by a faulty system and as their representative, we were on the same team. From their disadvantaged position, they also really did try their best to make room for me in their perception of Canadian society. The people who added to my layers of advocacy were my fellow legal professionals.
 
There is a certain excitement that comes with not being white in a Kingston courtroom. You feel like a star – everyone is staring. And then you get up. Being the odd man out, the first thing you do is ascertain your right to be there. No, you are not a paralegal. No, you don’t need to talk to duty counsel. No, you aren’t waiting for your turn on the docket. You need to stand tall. You need to be assertive, and extremely polite. Why? Because you are not only there on behalf of your client. You are also there on behalf of your kin, on behalf of all who share your colour, and all who bear your name.
 
The first layer of advocacy is your identity. You must first solidify your right to be amongst your white colleagues. Only then can you advocate on behalf of your client. The worst part is when you need to advocate for yourself with your professors. I was once met with laughter when I expressed how one client had a breakdown in front of me.
 
“Really!!?? But you’re so….you know…. with the beard and the hair!”
 
Ya.
 
If we are ever going to address access to justice, we can’t continue with these layers of advocacy. This culture that begins in law school will have a chilling effect on the way we progress. If access to justice is anything more than a catchphrase, then it needs to be taken seriously. I strongly believe that ethnic students will be an important part of the solution because many of us can relate. We know what it’s like to be alienated by the legal system. If we are to affect change, we cannot be alienated further in law school and in our profession. The recent “Racialized Licensee Report” approved by Convocation painted a grim picture of what lies ahead for racialized students… but it is also a good step towards change.
 
It is sometimes hard not to be discouraged and to constantly keep your chin up. If we are to be architects of change then we must begin by looking at ourselves and finding how we, as part of the legal establishment, are the cause of our problems.
 
You don’t have to agree with me. You are well within your right to find my arguments unhelpful and irrational. This is what I have come to experience in my first three years in the legal profession. There is a lot of good but there are also too many unspoken problems that go on to propagate the status quo. Although foreign to most of us, we need to recognize that we are all part of the problem. The system is part of the problem. Law schools are part of the problem. Professors are part of the problem. Students are part of the problem. I am part of the problem.
 
Nothing is stopping us from being part of the solution.
 

Nima Hojjati (3L) is the President of the Law Students’ Society and a contributor for Juris Diction.

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