Permission to Dream

If you’re a lawyer, you probably grew up in socio-economically advantaged circumstances. I submit this to you not as a value judgment or accusation, but as a pretty well-established fact.

In 2011, UCLA Law School Professor Richard Sander published a paper titled “Class in American Legal Education,” which included the finding that “the vast majority of American law students come from relatively elite backgrounds; this is especially true at the most prestigious law schools, where only five percent of all students come from families whose SES is in the bottom half of the national distribution.” The New York Times added in a 2017 report that “lawyers have parents who are lawyers at a rate 18 times the rest of the population.”

Canadian studies suggest a similar situation here. In a 2015 paper titled “Law and Beyond: A National Study of Canadian Law Graduates,” University of Toronto Sociology Professor Ronit Dinovitzer noted that the clear majority of Canadian law students had parents who were professional or white-collar workers, two to three times the rate for the general population. She goes on to report that “across most measures, socio-economic background increases along with law school rank, suggesting that those who come from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to attend higher-ranked law schools.”

These are statistics I gathered just from a brief web search; I have no doubt that more recent or comprehensive studies confirm these findings, and that the situation is even more pronounced in more explicitly class-based cultures such as Great Britain. I imagine they also square with your personal experience or that of your law school peer group.

(A brief note here: If you would like to include in the comments below your contrary experience, please do — part of the purpose of this post is to encourage more people to enter law from less advantaged circumstances. I submit, however, that personal or anecdotal experience, however authentic and striking, does not disprove the general rule that the better your socio-economic circumstance, the likelier you are to become a lawyer.)

There are any number of useful directions in which discussion of this issue could proceed. We could talk about the tenfold increase in law school tuition over the last 25 years, which — whatever its merits and benefits for the quality of law school facilities, and however many bursaries and scholarships law schools offer to offset that increase — inarguably has a chilling effect on law school applications and enrolment from poorer households.

We could also discuss the impact of so many socio-economically advantaged lawyers on the continued inability or unwillingness of the legal profession to provide affordable legal services to the poor and middle class. We might even form a hypothesis that if you’ve never experienced what it’s like to live paycheque to paycheque or to grow up in communities alienated from the mainstream, it simply doesn’t occur to you to consider the legal challenges of people in those situations.

But all I’d really like to do in this column is ask you to think back to the first time you considered a legal career. For some of you, it might have been in childhood, since a parent or grandparent was a lawyer or judge and the thought came to you quite naturally. For others, it might have been during your university years, when you were casting about for a safe and prestigious occupation for which your liberal arts degree could qualify you. (Raises hand.)

Whatever was your situation, however, what you share in common with every other lawyer today is that you imagined that a legal career was possible for you. It was within the realm of consideration, if not plausibility — something to which you could aspire and that you might someday accomplish. It takes nothing away from your intelligence and hard work and resilience to note that you began with an advantage that was likely invisible to you at the time: You thought of yourself as someone who could be a lawyer someday.

That experience is not universal. Although you and I might have been raised on mantras like “Everything is possible for you if you work hard enough,” and “You can go as far as your dreams take you,” not everyone was so fortunate. There are hundreds of thousands of people in your country to whom the possibility of being a lawyer someday has never seriously occurred. Their ambitions are far more modest — not because they’re not smart enough or hard-working enough, but because their circumstances have conspired to keep their dreams smaller and more modest. As the quote attributed to Leila Janah has it: “Talent is evenly distributed; opportunity is not.”

This is a hard fact of life. But it is not, I don’t think, an immutable fact, and it’s not a hopeless prospect to try and change it.

What can you do to help more people imagine that they could be lawyers someday? Here’s one small suggestion. You know (or can easily find out) the least fortunate, most socio-economically disadvantaged parts of your community. There is at least one high school in each of those areas, and it’s likely that far fewer students there are thinking about going to law school than are having the same thoughts at your old alma mater.

So gather some of your lawyer colleagues or friends from a range of legal careers, contact the principal of the school, and ask if the school might be interested in a “legal careers session” for any of their senior classes. You and your colleagues would come in and talk about being a lawyer, answer questions about the law and legal careers, and try to shrink the distance between the dreams they have and the dreams you had. Ideally, you might also see if you can fundraise for a bursary to help even just one student at that school attend university and/or law school down the line.

There is a monumental amount of work to be done to make the legal profession more socio-economically representative of the overall population than it is today, and there are myriad benefits to accomplishing this goal. But maybe we can start that process just by raising awareness within the profession of the least visible barrier to a legal career: The difference between the people who had permission to dream about such a career, and those who didn’t — and still don’t.


  1. I was a poor kid but everyone around me told me I was going to be a lawyer because if I wasn’t reading, I was arguing, and nobody had any idea what in blazes I was talking about. Also, my dad had a lot of dealings with lawyers, so it was obviously steady work.

  2. I grew up on a farm, small rural community on the prairie. Sort of fell into law, has been great. I do go back to my old high school and speak to students. It’s always rewarding.

  3. My parents were professionals and encouraged us to be professionals. It was more about being one’s own boss than about what a legal (or medical or engineering) career might mean.