On Being a Young Professional Woman

Dear Reader,

I was elated when I first received my acceptance to law school. It was March 27, 2012, and I had just come home after a relaxing day at the Distillery District. I checked the Windsor SIS website halfheartedly and found myself doing a triple-take as I noticed my application status had changed to, “Verified.” I laughed. I cried. I drank. I will never forget the phone calls to my mother, father, and grandparents. Not only did an acceptance into law school mean my future now had some semblance of direction, but it also signified that I was capable of accomplishing something on my own merit. No one in my family is a lawyer and I truly had no one in the field to really consult. In fact, at the time of the application process I was living in a Cree community in northern Quebec and didn’t even have internet in my apartment (I had to walk 20 minutes in the freezing cold to the town’s lodge just to steal their internet and submit my documents)! Not a single person read or edited my applications. All it took was a half-working laptop, a lodge with complimentary WIFI, some LSAT practice books, and a stubborn girl. I share this story with you because I genuinely felt that I truly embodied the idea that if I worked hard, I would eventually get to where I wanted to go in life. How I dressed, what I looked like, or who I knew seemed totally irrelevant. I repeat: I was elated.

I was disappointed. Like many first year students I sought direction and comfort from career services. “You are a professional now,” they confirmed during orientation. I remember watching strangers around the room scrambling to write these words down.

I am a professional now.
I am a professional now.
I am a professional now.

I was utterly fascinated. What does it mean to be a young professional in 2012? More broadly, what does it mean to be a woman in her twenties in 2012? And together, what does it mean to be a young professional woman in her twenties in 2012? I felt that was a particularly important question to explore given that the legal industry appeared to perpetuate such strong heteronormative stereotypes.

The combination of career services and female practitioners’ overemphasis on superficial features became tremendously disconcerting. Do I really have a problem with intonation because I am guilty of being a female? Does cutting my hair actually tell employers that I am too masculine and therefore, too unattractive to hire? What does this mean to me, as a young woman who has visible tattoos, strongly rejects the creation of the kitten heel, and carries a deep affinity for loud patterned blouses? What if these quirks, which seem fundamentally incompatible to the desires of firms, are things I love most about me?  I mean, I am still capable of writing research memos concisely. I am still willing to wake up at the crack of dawn to get ready for work, and stay late irrespective of how long the task takes. I can still ‘note up’ R v Morgentaler like nobody’s business. Are my personal quirks that relevant? And if so, how much value should we, as an industry, place on them when compared to the quality of work I produce?

So, who is responsible for encouraging this constant cycle of scrutiny? I don’t believe that this responsibility rests solely on the backs of law schools. Many employers still perpetuate an archaic patriarchal culture that law schools cannot ignore. Schools too are a business and are concerned that their graduates find employment. But at what cost will this come to our female colleagues? Their insecurity of self-worth? I have seen female colleagues purchase new wardrobes, adopt an “I’ll go where anyone takes me” attitude, and push their genuine passions over to some forgotten backburner.

Ultimately, it is up to us law students to take a stand against perpetuating this unhealthy and obsolete idea of what constitutes a young professional woman. We need to take the power back to redefine this concept. It is a power that is rightfully ours. We should not be made to feel that we are indebted to any institution or employer. We should not be made to feel humbled for simply having the privilege to sit in these classrooms. We are here because we have sacrificed. We are here because we have worked. We are here because we have demonstrated a trajectory of strong work ethic and passion, and it is almost certain we will make unprecedented contributions to your business. How I look does not matter. The sound of my voice does not matter. When it comes to preparing your witnesses, constructing innovative arguments taken from some obscure case law, and sending last-minute documents you forgot to submit — my decision to wear pants instead of a skirt will NOT matter.

It’s the 21st century. Times are changing. What was tolerated back then is not acceptable now. I want to see strong, smart, and savvy women dominating this profession. I want women to no longer fear of an ‘old boys club’ manipulating the workplace when they arrive. And when I read the bio of a firm, I want to see an equal ratio of male to female partners from diverse backgrounds.

For me, being a young professional woman in 2014 means securing a degree that will take me to where I choose to go. I am thankful for this opportunity, but I will not be subjugated to any values or norms that conflict with mine.

What does being a young professional woman in 2014 mean to you?

Jennifer Chan


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