Beatrice Rutayisire, BLSA Canada Communications Committee member and 2L at McGill, sat down with Barbara Brown who tuned in from Ghana to discuss her law studies, clerking at the appellate level, and the importance of building community within BLSA. Barbara is a law clerk to Justice Michael Tulloch at the Ontario Court of Appeal.
Q. So just to get started, I’ll have you introduce yourself by telling us about your law school and career journey, as well as any research or fun facts that you wanted to share.
Yeah, so law was not a path that I always saw for myself. But in my last year of my undergraduate degree - when I was studying criminology - I had a lot of strong feelings about the criminal justice system and a feeling that I was called to do work in that area, so I decided to go to law school.
I wasn't really sure how it was going to work out for me and I was really just trying to come out alive, with a law degree, on the other side. But I found that I really thrived in law school, and I had such a great community around me and so many great people supporting me -- particularly BLSA. That was the one group that really got me through the whole three years and encouraged me to become a more active part of the law school community. I don't think I would have done it without the support that I had from BLSA. Everything I have done since has been with that support and with the goal in mind of helping more people come after me and to have them come into a better space than I did. For instance, I was Equity Officer for BLSA my 2L year and then I was President in 3L. I got to do so many different things in the role like creating the Africa Summit where we were connecting internationally through Norton Rose Fulbright, which was a highlight of my time at BLSA.
Now, I’m at the Court of Appeal, like you mentioned, and it's been a real honor to see the justice system from this perspective.
I'm learning that things aren't as black and white as I thought, and that in order to really push the system forward, we have to be making strategic decisions and looking at things critically. I still have a lot more time here and I'm excited to learn more but that's pretty much me in a nutshell.
Q. Great, thank you so much! I think it's a really great model for a lot of us who are currently in law school to emulate and see how we can make a difference, especially within the BLSAs at our schools and other ways as well. Another question that we had for you, being that you're a recent graduate. I'm sure you can probably relate to a lot of the struggles that current students are dealing with, including managing networking, deadlines, applications, etc. Can you speak to how you managed your time in law school and prioritized the items that were most important to you.
In law school, for me what was most important was creating a very clear plan for what I was going to do as I came up to the end of the semester. I would always create a summary of all the readings I needed to get done, all the lectures I needed to listen to, etc. So I knew on this day, I'm going to get these things done, on this day, I’ll get other things done. Part of it was just helpful for me to see and visualize what I had to do all in one place, because I think when it's just in your head, it can become very overwhelming. So putting [my tasks] down on paper made me realize that it was feasible to sometimes learn a whole semester in two weeks [laughs]. But it also just gave me the satisfaction of being able to check items off my list, which is a really satisfying feeling, especially once you’re grinding through end-of-semester studying. Having those little milestones make a really big difference. So that was the most important - having a comprehensive end of semester plan in place.
In terms of how I managed my time throughout the semester, I had an agenda that I was pretty diligent in documenting everything that needed to be done, whether they were the applications I needed to be submitted, whether I was just grabbing a coffee with someone or if there was a particular reading or assignment I wanted to get done that day. I think you can make journaling or keeping an agenda very creative. I designed all of my planners, so they were very unique to me, they were personalized, and they had exactly the kind of format I needed. That made it also a little bit more enjoyable to organize my time. But just writing things down in advance, I think, helps to keep me on track and organized.
Q. Those are really great tips, and something that I'm trying to implement myself as I go through exams this semester! Now we'll move on to your clerkship… As we all know, clerkships can be very competitive, particularly at the appellate level and particularly in Ontario, which is a big province. Could you tell us at what point you decided to pursue clerking and what you feel made you stand out as an applicant?
Yes, so I decided to clerk early on in my 2L year. The opportunity was presented to me and I was like, “What is a clerkship? I’ve never heard of this thing,” and I asked my roommate who was another BLSA member and she explained it to me. She said, “I think you'd be great for it. There's not a lot of Black students that either apply for it or get clerkships but you should try it out!” So I said, “okay, let's do this” and I was going to information sessions and it seemed really interesting because you're on the other side of things. You’re seeing it play out. It’s the “do or die” of the case or the appeal and I found that really exciting. I was also really lucky to have the support of Joshua Sealy-Harrington to coach me through applications and what they’re looking for, and how to do the interview. So, again, there was that BLSA mentorship there because I definitely would have submitted a totally different resume and cover letter. I would have gone into the interview with a different mindset if it weren't for him. So I’m grateful for all the help that he gave me. But yeah, I think in general it was wanting to get that different perspective of how cases get litigated but also wanting to have more representation in the courts.
And in terms of what I think made my applications stand out… honestly, I was myself, and I know that's super cliche and sometimes not very helpful as advice. But for example, my writing sample was a piece on race and racism and how I felt the courts were not doing a proper analysis of race. As I was putting together my materials, I was thinking “Maybe this is a little bit too ‘spicy’ to send in for application, like I don't know if this is really the vibe that they’re going for.” But then I was like “Well, this is me. They can either take it or leave it.” I really put who I was into my application and tried not to be too worried about whether it was the correct type of application. I think that gave me an edge in my interview, because they were definitely very interested in my writing sample. And I tried to let that come out in terms of the other more interesting experiences I had in law school. So I think if there's anyone who's considering a clerkship, my best advice is to be yourself because that's going to help you stand out because, like you said, there are so many applications that they are looking for unique personalities.
Q. Thank you so much! I think those are all really great points, especially for Black applicants who might be concerned about how to present that in an application, so thank you for that. That leads to our next question. We had spoken about this topic at the clerkship open house, but for the benefit of viewers who might not have been present, I'll repeat it. We spoke about representation of black people at all levels of the law, and we know there's still significant deficits in the legal industry, and particularly in the court system. In your opinion, what is the significance of seeing more Black people as law clerks, litigators and judges and what impact do you see it having on the development of the law itself?
When you have more Black people in the legal profession, I think it helps us to understand the reality that the law is not just something that white people are thinking about and talking about but it's something that affects people as well. I think it's important as a Black legal professional to bring that perspective, wherever you have it, and wherever it fits. As the only Black law clerk at the Court of Appeal, if there are issues that involve race or racism, I want to be someone who's available to lend my expertise or my opinion, because I know that I have an unique perspective. That doesn't mean that it's your job to do that, or that you’re obliged, but I think it's an advantage that we do have over people who aren't Black or racialized.
In terms of its impact on the development of law, I think it really helps the law to try to self-correct from some of the wrong approaches and conclusions it has come to before. I think as a Black law clerk, you have a lot of power because you are collaborating with your judge a lot and you're able to present the issues in a way that they haven't considered, because they just don't have that perspective. That could be the perspective of a Black person, but it could also just be a perspective of someone who experiences the road differently - who doesn’t take for granted the things that maybe a white judge would.
So, I think it creates a law that is more human, more diverse and more tailored and responsive to how people actually live in the world. Because we know that white privilege means that a lot of the time, white judges are exempted from a lot of the realities that other people face, you know, by virtue of being both white and occupying a prestigious position.
I think it's an opportunity for Black law students to use their voice and to practice using their voice in what's a safe space, but is also a very, very impactful space, especially when you're at the appellate level.
Q. Going off that topic, more broadly, how can law schools and organizations like BLSA Canada address or reduce systemic barriers to accessing those professions or those spaces?
I think for both law schools and organizations like BLSA, the outreach piece is critical. Like I said for me, what's been so important throughout my law school journey and being at the Court now is the mentorship and support I had from other Black legal professionals. I think it's important for law schools to be thinking about how they can reach out to students who are Black and racialized.
One thing that Osgoode is putting in place is a program called “Raising the Black Bar”, where they're reaching out to high school students in grade 10 and 11, when it becomes really important for them to start thinking about whether law is what they want. Then they can get into the right courses to eventually get into law school. Those kinds of programs, I think, make it a reality for Black students at a young age, and help them understand that this is something that they can do. BLSA Canada also plays a similar role, but the mentorship piece is even more important in that regard. I love that BLSA Canada has such a strong culture of mentorship and a commitment to mentorship because without it, you know we're really not a Community. Ultimately, I think just making ourselves available, innovating and finding new ways to reach people where they are is what's really going to increase the numbers. Whatever BLSA Canada can do in collaboration with law schools to come up with those ideas and to look at their admission practices, I think, is ultimately going to be a benefit to Black people in Canada.
Q. That's so important too. Even the fact that we were able to connect has all been through BLSA Canada and it's initiatives, so it really shows just how much you can really bridge the gaps between law schools, between black applicants, students and everyone else. I'd love to give you the final word to say anything to our students that you want them to know and take to heart.
I will always encourage people to be involved with BLSA, because for me, it was everything
So I have to come back to Community. I feel like I might be beating a dead horse but I mean this with all of my heart. The BLSA Community at Osgoode and nationwide is what made me choose Osgoode. It’s what got me involved in extracurriculars, showed me how to put in those applications, have a network, and just gave me social support when I was going through it during exams and I needed someone to be with. I don't know what I would have done without my BLSA community, and I think it's so important. What I would say to anyone who's watching is find your people. Whether they're part of BLSA or not. Find some people who are going to support you, who are not trying to compete with you. Who understand that there is enough to go around and just want to help you get to wherever you're trying to go, whether that means strategic connections, or just support.
And offer that same support to other people! Don't be afraid to collaborate with others and see this as a partnership that you're building with your fellow BLSA schoolmates or whoever your schoolmates are. I think it's important not to get lost in wanting to do well for yourself and forgetting that there are all these other people who can take you farther than you can take yourself. So that's my advice, I will always root for BLSA. I will always encourage people to be involved with BLSA, because for me, it was everything.