Originally published in the 6th issue of the Black Law Students Association (BLSAC) magazine.
In the West African culture, historical tradition is passed down orally through what are known in the Western world as griots. The griot is a repository of knowledge, and ensures that the lessons of one generation are passed down to the next.
It’s our pleasure as BLSAC members to be your griot, and share what we’ve learned from our experiences.
The Mende people refer to a griot as a jali, which comes from their word for “blood.” Make no mistake; there will be plenty of blood, sweat and tears during your time in law school. But there are some ways to make it easier.
Most famously is what is alternatively known as Condensed Annotated NoteS (CANS), or more simply, summaries. These notes will outline the main points you need to know for the course, including key facts and decisions of cases. There are important research and reading skills you need to develop in law school, and you should not miss out on those opportunities. But your sleep and peace of mind will also become increasingly important.
You may also find that many of your peers already know lots of law before they even arrive at law school. Some started studying over the summer, or even earlier. Others have parents or family members that are lawyers and judges. They grew up around the law. You could even say it was in their blood.
Many minority students just don’t have those family backgrounds, simply because the legal community is already underrepresented by diversity. You can’t compete with these students directly in memorizing the law. What you can excel in is developing the skills mentioned above, including analytical thinking. As Albert Einstein said, "You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else."
Another way to distinguish yourself is through mock-trial competitions called “moots.” Some require significant research. Others may require you to submit written arguments. But what makes moots great is that you are evaluated based on your oratory skills, something that may come naturally to students who may not otherwise have a natural background for.
The reason you need to distinguish yourself to begin with is that law school is incredibly competitive. And essentially what people are competing for is an articling position, which is where you work for a law firm for about 8-10 months before becoming a lawyer. There are usually more law students than there are articling positions, which results in some very frustrating situations.
And then I’ll break it to you that minority students generally fare worse than others, even when the candidates are similar in all other respects. The reason? An elusive thing called “fit,” usually used as a euphemism to exclude others of different socio-economic or cultural backgrounds.
Competitiveness does not end with articling positions. There is already an incredibly high attrition rate in law firms, and getting hired back every year means you need senior lawyers in a firm to champion your cause. Somehow you have to make sure you “fit” their bill. This means connecting with them with something other than the same legal material that everyone else is working on.
The Wolof people call griots a guewel, from their word for “circle.” Griots would often tell their tales to people seated in a circle around them. To succeed in law you need to expand your circle of influence, before you even graduate. Law school can be a very exclusionary place, even hostile at times. You will invariably face some form of bigotry or intolerance. But you’ll still have to play within this circle without leaving it for an entire three years. Make the best of it.
One of the best ways to network is through professional associations. Provincial bar associations host events across the country, which can enhance your knowledge of a specific area of law, and put you in direct contact with experienced practitioners. Staying involved in community and helping people through a legal aid clinic, pro bono projects, or other advocacy issues, helps maintain relationships which could turn into potential clients down the road.
There are also interest-based legal associations which can offer all assistance. You still need to do your part, as outlined above, but they’re there for a helping hand. It’s why most of us are involved in the Black Law Students Association of Canada (BLSAC), and continue to give back in the same way people once gave to us.