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Don't let law school shape you: shape law school

Photo Credit: Seamus Wray

Tansi Nîtôtemtik, good morning everyone,

"Your reputation starts today"

Nerve-wracking opening words, no?

In law school culture in Canada, some key phrases set the tone for the years to come. Speaking with more seasoned lawyers, some still remember the anxiety associated with ideas like "if you don't land a job in your first year, you'll die early and alone" and other such dubious incentives.

Speaking with current law students, the phrase "Your reputation starts today" circulates similarly. It can be a heavy load.

Many have worked hard to overcome that negative pressure and find their own measures of self-worth and love. The trauma-informed lawyering work of Myrna McCallum gives some tools and examples for this [1].

Consider this definition of reputation:

"The general opinion or estimate of a person's character or other qualities" [2]

There's a lot a person can do about their reputation. I believe that's the spirit law school communities intend with this phrase: students should be aware that they are part of a professional community starting now, even before they become lawyers. And I imagine many students appreciate that context.

However, if your reputation starts today, you also have a role in shaping the reputation of others today, too.

That agency of acting as a reputation-maker matters as much, if not more, than being a reputation-receiver [3].

By whose standard do we assess a reputation?

It takes a village - or a profession - to make a reputation. Those who suffered through events like the Salem witch trials [4], and those who continue to suffer through unfounded stereotyping of Indigenous peoples [5], females [6], racialized minorities [7]and so many other otherized groups, know: reputation has as much - or more - to do with social norms than your behaviour.

When those with institutional power view those without it, "these perceptions are informed by a system of policies and corresponding practices which are to be found within institutions." [8]

Under these conditions, the phrase "your reputation starts today" could easily be taken as a code to conform to the norms of the profession that will judge you fit to practice, even if they are harmful.

At the same time, as we know from the TRC Calls to Action #27 and #28 [9], the culture and norms of the profession and its educational institutions need to change.

That's why this week, we are talking about law school cultures.

Fortunately, "Your reputation starts today" offers a silver lining. It is open-ended: we have the opportunity to bring kindness, open minds, anti-racism, and so much more to what law school cultures mean and who shapes reputation.

Changing norms start today

If there's one thing the TRC invites incoming students to do, it is to change the social norms of law school to practise being more open, accepting, and appreciative of difference.

The way we engage with reputation matters. As law students, there are many important ways to be mindful of our reputation. Perhaps the most crucial way is how we judge - or refrain from judging - others.

So with the relationships of reputation in mind - how we treat and perceive each other, whose values we uphold, and why - perhaps a TRC-informed message from this set of students to our next set of incoming students might be:

Don't let law school shape you: shape law school

With confident humility that keeps us open to learning [10], the chance to breathe life into the TRC Calls to Action and shift the legal culture in Canada for the better starts today.

We would be so glad to hear from you if you are someone involved in making these changes in any way - whether by how you treat the people around you, institutional reform, or how you choose to love yourself.

Kinanâskomitin, thank you for reading and take care,

Hero and the ReconciliACTION team

[1] Myrna McCallum, "The Trauma-Informed Lawyer" online: The Trauma-Informed Lawyer on Simplecast <>.

[2] The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed, sub verbo “reputation."

[3] For a discussion of individual agency and law, see Roderick A. McDonald and Jason MacLean, “Navigating the Transsystemic: No Toilets in the Park.” (2005) 50 McGill LJ 721.

[4] Dustin Luca "​​On 325th anniversary, city dedicates Proctor's Ledge memorial to Salem Witch Trials victims" (July 19, 2017) online: The Salem News <>.

[5] For a brief introduction, see "Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People" (undated) online: MediaSmarts <>.

[6] Leah Rodriguez, "6 Unbelievable Facts About How Badly Women Are Represented in Media" (July 26, 2021) online: Global Citizen <>.

[7] Carl James, "Stereotyping and its consequence for racial minority youth" (undated) online: Ontario Human Rights Commission <>.

[8] Ibid.

[9] John Borrows, Canada’s Indigenous Constitution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010) at 28-35.

[9] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (2015), online: National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, University of Manitoba <>.

[10] Cheryl Rose and Brenda Zimmerman, conversations, Masters Diploma in Social Innovation (University of Waterloo, 2013).

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