The whole point of practising law is to make the world a better place. To bring about change. And to improve society at large. As a law student, I knew that this was true. I never doubted that I would spend my legal career pursuing those important goals. But I had no idea how difficult it would be to actually effect real change.
Most law schools convey the idea that unless you leap into a high-paying job on Bay Street or Wall Street, you have failed. But the secret truth is that working for such firms usually involves working incredibly long hours and selling yourself to the corporate rich. Young people often go to these firms and dedicate at least a period of time to making the maximum amount of money for the richest clients. There is little wonder that some of them drop out of law entirely, thinking they’ve seen the best the profession has to offer. Well, it just isn’t.
But if you want to use your law degree to make the world a better place, you’ll have to resist the social pressure to enter the corporate world. And then, once you take on cases that have the power to make a difference, you’ll have to brace yourself for disappointment. You will lose in court. You will be passed over, criticized. There may even be death threats. (I have always thought: Relax, the ones to worry about don’t call first.) You’ll have to keep struggling.
And it will be a struggle. I am continually baffled at how resistant Canadian institutions are to change. Take the police. They lie about breaching constitutional rights. They prevent ordinary citizens from photographing their wrongdoing. And meanwhile, those in power often protect the police against calls for reform. My attempts to change the police have been hopeless.
There will, however, be some victories. In my lifetime, the lives of LGBT Canadians have undergone an enormous shift. They can now lead, by and large, normal lives. And they achieved this, in part, by using the courts. In 2003, the LGBT community in Ontario won the right to same-sex marriage in a landmark case before the province’s Court of Appeal. It took the federal government two more years to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. It’s true that some discrimination remains, but it is clearly on the losing end of a generational battle.
Let me end with an incongruously religious note. Over the course of your career, you are going to encounter many difficult problems. I certainly have. It’s helpful to keep in mind this verse from the Old Testament, which, in my view, captures the essence of Judaism: “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with thy God.” It’s that simple.