Not all law students have been preparing for a legal career since realizing their dream as a kid. And not all are bluebloods for whom higher education is a given. In fact, for many, pursuing a law degree is a step up, or a way out—from humble circumstances, a troubled neighbourhood, or a bad job.
Meet three Canadians who overcame significant obstacles to go to law school, surprising those around them—and sometimes even themselves.
University of Alberta
The son of a warehouse worker and a stay-at-home mom, Michael Prestwich as a teenager had no ambitions to go to university. “All I knew about university was it’s where you went to become a teacher and it was really expensive,” he recalls. So in 1989, when Prestwich—by then the father of three daughters and a custodian for the local school district in his northern B.C. hometown of Williams Lake—started taking distance education courses from the University of Waterloo, he had to explain the point of learning about a subject as esoteric as philosophy instead of something more concrete, like, say, welding. “This is for me,” he remembers telling people who asked what he hoped to get out of his studies. “I need to have this degree, and that’s a good enough reason for me.”
It took him more than 15 years to figure out what to do with his education. After taking a few years off from studying, he hit the books again in 1999, took one course at a time and got his philosophy degree in 2006. Diploma in hand, he googled, “What can you do with a philosophy degree?” The Internet answered: “law school.” It was a revelation for Prestwich. “Wow, I could be a lawyer? It was a light-bulb moment.”
Many law schools have special application processes for mature students who may have proved themselves through work experience rather than academics. But Prestwich realized quickly that his experience as a custodian and casual labourer wasn’t going to offer any advantage, so he applied as a regular student. He remembers the day he received his acceptance letter with crystal clarity. “Career wise, I was as dead-end as it gets,” he says. “With the letter, I realized that there is life beyond this. It was pretty wonderful.”
In 2007, at the age of 43, Prestwich moved into residence in Edmonton and entered law school at the University of Alberta—the same year his youngest daughter started university.
University of Windsor
Mesha-Gaye Donaldson could be a character from an immigration fairy tale. Her parents moved to Canada, away from the violence and poor education system of rural Jamaica, because they wanted their daughters to pursue higher education, an opportunity they themselves never had. But when they moved to the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of Toronto in 1990, they didn’t find the Canada of their dreams. Donaldson calls her first home a “ghetto,” characterized by poverty, violence and friends who are now in jail or dead.
Nevertheless, in Grade 3—around the time most people are planning careers as firefighters and astronauts—Donaldson decided she wanted to become a lawyer, and the decision stuck. “I guess I’m stubborn,” she says, laughing. No one from either side of her family had gone to university, but in secondary school she studied hard while working evenings and weekends to save for tuition—and she still managed to graduate a year early. Her plans were not always encouraged. “I’ve had a lot of naysayers,” Donaldson says. “I had a teacher in high school laugh at me when I told him I was graduating early.”
When she applied to law school at the University of Windsor after earning a double degree in political science and women’s studies there, she knew her employment, volunteer experience and strong marks made her a competitive candidate. But she was still anxious. “I had never met a black lawyer,” she says. “I was worried about going into a profession that was predominantly male, white and middle-class.”
After two years in law school, Donaldson, 25, has found that both the Windsor faculty of law and the legal profession in general are working hard to become more diverse. And as for her parents’ Canadian dream? Not only are two of their daughters now in university, but Donaldson’s mother also went back to school and is now a registered nurse. “[My mom] was an amazing example for me,” Donaldson says, “because it proves that I could do anything despite what people tell you.”
At 17, Jim Janson started working in a Halifax-based carnival, travelling the Maritimes driving trucks, becoming an expert at fixing the cotton candy machine, and running a popular gambling game where customers throw plastic hockey balls at different-coloured squares. He also enrolled part-time in Dalhousie University that year—1979—eventually earning a degree in economics, but he wasn’t particularly interested in university.
The carnival life treated him well as a young man. But in 2004, after 25 years in the business, Janson realized that he had to do something different with his life. He had six children. One of his oldest daughters began travelling with the carnival before she was three months old, he remembers: “Her first crib was a fish tray next to our bed in the travel trailer.” He wanted a more settled lifestyle for his kids. Besides, two of Janson’s bosses had died of heart attacks at the ages of 54 and 65. “There are not very many old guys who work at the carnival,” he says. “They all wear out. It’s an intense lifestyle.”
Janson set his sights on becoming a lawyer, wrote the LSAT and applied to Dalhousie. But he had been out of university for 20 years, and the admissions officials needed to see that he could handle the academic load. He was rejected. So he started taking courses—intro to law, criminology and so on—and he excelled. When he was rejected a second time, Janson began to get frustrated but, finally, he was wait-listed on his third try and was eventually accepted.
He thinks that his perseverance was key to getting into law school. “I was very serious about doing it once I decided,” says Janson, 48. “I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ll have to do whatever they tell me I have to do, and I’ll get in.’ And it worked.”