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Fireside Chat with Médgine Gourdet

Katya Assoé, BLSA Canada Communications Committee member and University of Montreal LLB graduate, sat down with Médgine Gourdet, a civil and commercial litigator at Robinson Sheppard Shapiro, to discuss her law school journey, the creation of the Udem chapter of the BLSA and breaking the glass ceiling.

Q. Please introduce yourself by telling us a little about your law school and career journey, research, and any fun facts.

A. I am a commercial and civil litigation lawyer in a Montreal law firm. I also do some insolvency which is quite interesting. I studied at the University of Montreal in Montreal, QC quite some years ago. I am Hatian and Canadian: I came here in Canada (Quebec) when I was 15 years old.

Fun fact: I have a Dachshund (sausage dog) sleeping next to me. He’s quite possessive and I’m so surprised he hasn’t barked at you yet. I am the second of four black women - I have three sisters in my house[hold].

Q. Can you walk us through the process of putting together that chapter of the BLSA? And what advice would you have for a student who would like to create a similar kind of group/space in an environment not very conducive to such an initiative?

A. We’re going back to 2014-2015 when that happened. I think I was in the middle of second or third year of law school. There weren’t that many black students. One of my best friends, notorious housing lawyer Yorrick Bouyela basically told me “Girl, we have to do something. Everybody’s everywhere and no one’s together”. I remember thinking “let’s just see what we can do.”

At that time, we used to go to McGill a lot because they had a chapter of BLSA and one of my good friends, Stephanie Déborah Jules, was the president of BLSA Canada at the time - so McGill really helped with the idea of building a chapter at UdeM and with how to do it.

The issue came from the Faculty of Law. At the time, it was pre-black people dying and it being seen on live television. The whole concept of having the need of being part of a black community so far off in law school. We faced a lot of resistance because we were trying to disrupt the status quo - being that “ you guys are there, there’s no need for you guys to organize yourselves or be together because you’re creating a ghetto” and that’s the word that was used back then.

When we started the chapter, we were not able to become a student body under the Faculty of Law because they basically said no. We ended up becoming a student body from the student association of the whole University - not specifically under the Faculty of Law.

As time went on, I left the University and continued with my life. I understand that we were finally able to be under the Faculty of Law, but back then that wasn’t even a possibility.

It was the main reason why I was able to finish law school because that group created a space for me to feel safe and exist until I was done with law school.

Q. What advice would you have for a student who would like to create a similar kind of group/space in an environment not very conducive to such an initiative?

A. It’s now taboo to tell people “Stop creating a ghetto at school” which is what we got 6 years ago.

Some people are going to say no because when you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, you’re creating change and you’re changing the status quo. Understand that people are going to say no, not because your idea is not right or because it’s crazy, but because you’re being disruptive - not even in a bad sense - I think that black people have to be disruptive because that’s how we create space for ourselves to exist in this system that we’ve been living in.

Find your tribe and surround yourself with the people that “get it” because if you try to do it alone, it won’t be sustainable for your mental health.

Q. Why has community involvement always been a priority throughout your career?

A. I want to be to others what I've never found for myself. My experience in law school, during the bar and now as a lawyer: it’s such a lonely journey. I don't know how to say that in any other words… It's just like the feeling of not belonging, the feeling of always being out of place. There has been a feeling of inadequacy that has been part of my entire journey.

So, I keep going back to myself, back in law school, and how it would have changed my journey and how it would have felt if I had had somebody like me telling me that I'm not crazy, telling me that what I’m feeling is valid and that’s it's normal to feel that way. I keep giving back to basically try to be what I haven't had.

I also have a community-based mentality: if I'm winning, you’re winning, we’re winning and everybody is winning - in the words of Issa Rae, we want black people to win, that's it - that's my mentality going into it.

It’s like my duty that I created for myself to be present in the life of the black students. I'm doing this for the black student because I think this is where a lot of people stop. I have met so many people that did not finish law school because of that feeling of inadequacy, that feeling of loneliness and that feeling of not belonging.

One of the main reasons why I stayed and I'm able to speak to you today as a litigator is because I found my tribe of black beautiful souls at the University that even I didn't have to talk to - I could look at them and they would already understand how I felt at that moment and that made me feel seen, that made me feel that I could keep going.

The goal of getting involved is letting the student know that whatever they’re feeling has been felt before. That’s the reason why history exist so you can learn from people before you. If you don't have access to the people before you, you’ll think that you're starting the history yourself and that you’re just so lonely and so small in what you're going through but the more black lawyers we have talking about how it was for them back then, the more we talk about how we feel and how we’re just basically figuring it out day by day, then you don't have to feel alone.

That's the reason why I do what I do because honesty, all the pain, all the emotions, all the ups and down and all the crying is worth it if I'm able to let another black person feel seen by sharing my story.

Q. What do you think prevents women from securing those senior leadership roles? And what will it take, in your opinion, for women to finally break the glass ceiling and establish themselves as leaders in the workplace.

A. I think there's an issue in the roles that we want women to aspire to. We have to redefine those roles. It’s like you have to be a certain type of person to be in that role - you literally have to be molded into the role instead of the role being molded to fit you!à.

I think there has to be some kind of movement of redefining what a leader, specifically in the law profession, is. If you're talking about law firms, you become a lawyer and then you become a partner, that's like the highest you can do in terms of your hierarchy. A partner has to be a certain kind of way and the way of leading is mainly based on masculine energy when we have both masculine and