Left-leaning, with a thirst for justice since childhood and a desire to change that world that is almost naïve: it is their belief in principles of social equality that leads Stella*, Thomas* and Amber* to the amphitheatres of the law school. Even if they aren’t completely sure of what they’ll do after completing their master’s degree, they are motivated by a vision of a fairer society, and haven’t given up despite the obstacles in their way.
And there are plenty of obstacles. Unlike many of their classmates, Stella, Thomas and Amber don’t have any family members who have studied the law. Neither are they supported financially by their families (Stella, in fact, dos not receive any financial support). The reality of their disadvantage struck them from the beginning of their studies and is reiterated with each new semester.
Competition among students expertly wielded by teaching staff
“One incident had a big impact on me in the first year of my bachelor's degree,” says Thomas, smiling. “The professor that ran our first session said to us, ‘Look at the two people on either side of you in the year-level photo. One of them won’t be here next year, maybe both – that’s how demanding this program is’.”
Amber, who was accepted into a very selective law school prep course after high school, quickly became disenchanted. “On our first day of classes, we had a pop quiz on the book that we were meant to have read over the summer. The people that knew each other already had spread the word among themselves. If you were alone, you didn’t get the message, and you had no chance.” Barely out of high school, Amber was already learning that it’s not what you know, but who you know.
Competition among the students is expertly wielded by the teaching staff, who seem accustomed to pitting students against each other. “In the third year of our bachelor's degree, one of them said that if we had a grade average of 10 [the passing grade in France], we shouldn’t apply to the master’s degree, because we would be taking places from more deserving people. That we would never become anything like a lawyer, because that was a statistical anomaly,” recalls Thomas.
Different teacher, same story for Stella, who reports the cutting remarks of the director of the second year of her master’s. “She said, ‘Last year, some students had burnout and depression. I mean, come on! If you can’t handle studying law, don’t study law.” The message is clear: Stella, Thomas and Amber can only rely on themselves to succeed, even if they are going through a rough patch.
“I repeated a year for 0.2 points”
Personal problems do pile up as the years pass, and begin to tarnish the three students’ results. Stella, who is experiencing a family breakdown, is being supported by a social worker from the Regional Student Welfare Office and the university psychologist. “I failed my midterms in the second semester. I managed to have a grade average of 12, but I couldn’t get the credit for the failed exams, even with make-up tests. I couldn’t concentrate,” she says. The axe falls: she has to repeat the first year of her master’s for 0.4 points.
Stella decides to open up to the director of the master’s, particularly as a panel exists that can review cases like hers, with the power to increase a student's average by up to one point. “I got an unbelievably condescending email. She reiterated that it was my problem, that all I had to do was work harder, and that given how poor my marks were in the first semester, it was necessary for me to repeat a year. You would think she was trying to make me drop out,” she says, disheartened.
Amber can beat Stella’s record: she’s repeating the year for 0.2 points. Things are not going well at home – her father has cancer, and she learns, just before the midterms in first semester, that he may only have a few months to live. “I couldn’t get into the right headspace, it was impossible.” No clemency is granted to her by the administration or teaching staff. “When I found out that I had to repeat for 0.2 points, it was the end of the world. I sent an email to the director of the master’s to explain the situation. She said that she was sorry for me, but that if you don’t have the marks, you repeat the year.”
Thomas has seen many unfair situations like this. Each time, it’s the same pattern: students that are hardworking, but unlucky and socially disadvantaged, find themselves pushed aside without any recourse. “Nothing is done to help them. The teachers don’t care, they don’t try to understand. And in any case, when it comes to the homework, the students that have a kind of introduction to law through their parents have had a huge advantage.”
“I was burnt out. I had a knot in my stomach every morning.”
Thomas is convinced: from the very first semester, law programs maintain a closed social order and pick off students through attrition and injustices. “If you have help when you’re writing an essay, you can easily get a good mark, particularly in first-year subjects. When you’re all alone, it’s a lot harder. We still don’t know how to do proper legal research, for example.”
All three are holding on, but they are exhausted, and the spectre of a nervous breakdown is looming. “I was depressed. I wondered if maybe I should have stayed living at home, even though it was a nightmare. It was really difficult psychologically,” says Stella. “In my second year, I was burnt out. I had a knot in my stomach every morning. It was a disaster,” says Amber of her experience. Thomas also reluctantly recognises that he cracked: “The first year of the master’s was the hardest. I had a little bit of a breakdown. I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself. I absolutely had to prove that I belonged there. I put my social life on hold.”
Around them, other disadvantaged students are going through more or less the same thing. Amber has bitter memoires of her prep classes. “A girl injured her diaphragm through stress. She couldn’t talk and had permanent hiccups. I remember another girl that one of the teachers hated. He sent emails to the whole class criticising her. One day, before an oral exam with him, she threw up in the corridor and couldn’t do the exam. He sent an email saying that it was unacceptable, that she should have made an effort despite the state she was in.”
Stella saw the same kind of extremes in the first year of her master’s. “One of my friends had depression. When she revised for her midterms, she mainlined caffeine and other things to stay awake. She asked her boyfriend to pinch her so that she wouldn’t fall asleep. She had a breakdown in the second year.” The young woman is angry. “Clearly, if you don’t come from a certain background, you have to sacrifice your physical and mental health to succeed. This idea of sacrifice is very, very deeply rooted. Basically, if you aren’t suffering, and they aren’t torturing you, you don’t deserve to succeed.
Us, the nobodies
Many students believe that they don’t deserve their degrees. In law, between first year and second year, the failure rate is around 50%. It’s estimated that 85% of those that complete their bachelor’s degree go on to the first year of a master’s degree, and that only 10% of this group will be accepted into the second year. Year after year, the students are squeezed out, cherry-picked, and some decide to pack it in completely. “I knew people that were quite capable, but quit studying. They could have done something else, but law completely put them off,” says Thomas sadly. le taux d’échec est d’environ 50%. On estime que 85% de de ceux qui ont obtenu une licence passent en master 1, et que seuls 10% de ces étudiants passent en master 2. D’année en année, les étudiants sont essorés, triés sur le volet, et certains décident carrément de quitter le navire. “J’ai connu des personnes qui avaient des capacités mais qui ont arrêté les études. Elles auraient pu faire d'autres choses, mais le droit les a complètement dégoûtées”, confirme tristement Thomas.
Is this selection through attrition ultimately a way to maintain a social elitism in the legal professions? Whatever the case may be, Stella, Thomas and Amber can only confirm that this brutal process disproportionately affects those with the least social and economic capital. “In my master’s, the majority of students come straight from law school prep courses,” says Stella ruefully. “Some of them are doing a master’s at the ENS or Sciences Po [two of France’s most elite tertiary institutions] at the same time. I know one girl whose mother is a lawyer – really, she can do well without working as much as us, the nobodies.
She clarifies: “It’s always the same people who do “well”. Either they’ve come from a prep school, or they have parents that are magistrates, lawyers, government officials, CEOs. These people have the necessary background. Whereas we pay for all the difficulties that already hold us back. My mother barely spoke French when I was little, and my dad worked in transportation. This kind of strategy of burnout guarantees the continuity of the profession. It’s the same people that get the same jobs year after year.”
A teacher has even spelled out to her that she doesn’t belong at the law school. “I had revised like crazy, I thought that I would get at least a 15. And I got a 2. In the feedback session, what the teacher said to me basically came down to, ’You’re shit, you’re nothing. In fact, you’re just stupid, you’re just rubbish. All you had to do was learn the material.’ It totally put me off the law. I have imposter syndrome. I am genuinely thinking of just getting the degree and then doing something else. And what if it’s like this in the law firms, too?
“A widely held belief that the profession is largely inaccessible to newcomers”
Is this a strategy consciously employed by teachers and law schools, or simply the echo of wider social inequalities that the administration is doing nothing to address, for lack of time and political consciousness? It may be impossible to answer the question, but some interesting insights can be gained from the statistics of the Observatoire des inegalités, an organisation that collects national data on social injustice and discrimination. For example, 34% of university students have parents in senior management, although this category represents only 18% of all workers. When it comes to students studying bachelor’s degrees, 20% are the children of office workers and 12% are the children of blue-collar workers, although blue-collar workers make up almost 25% of the total population. For master’s students, these figures fall to 13% and 9% respectively. certains chiffres de l’Observatoire des inégalités peuvent être avancés : à l’université, les enfants de cadres supérieurs représentent 34% des étudiants, alors que leurs parents forment seulement 18% des actifs. De plus, 20% des étudiants de licence sont enfants d’employés et 12% enfants d’ouvriers (soit moitié moins que la part d’ouvriers dans la population totale). En master, ces données tombent respectivement à 13% et 9%.
Do these statistics hold for law? Few figures are available, as lamented by the Conseil national du droit in a 2019 report.We do know that 62.9% of male magistrates have a father that is self-employed, an executive, in the higher intellectual professions, or that runs a business with more than 10 employees, as opposed to 5% that are children of farmers, traders or craftspeople, and 11.7% that are children of office workers or blue-collar workers.
The findings are the same year after year, as noted in 2017 as noted in 2017 by lawyer Kami Haeri in a report to the Ministry of Justice on the French bar: “the absence of reliable data and institutional policies dedicated to diversity” mean that the lack of social diversity is difficult to quantify, on a background of a “widely held belief that the profession is largely inaccessible to newcomers”. Findings that in large part explain Stella’s imposter syndrome.
*Les prénoms ont été modifiés
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Maud Le Rest
Maud Le Rest is an independant journalist and author specialized in gender and feminism. She has worked with Arrêt sur images, Causette, Gaze Magazine and SoFilm.