For many undergraduates in Arts, deciding on a career path may seem daunting. All too often, Arts students are told that what they are pursuing academically and professionally will not lead to high probabilities of success, money, or lucrative opportunities in today’s job market. This is not entirely true.
As an Arts student myself, only just now dipping my toe in the professional sphere, I’ve already seen how useful soft skills can be across fields and disciplines. Soft skills provide the foundation for which every relationship, every project, and every innovative idea is formed – and for me, this realization began when I started studying in Arts. I wanted to learn how McGill’s current Arts alumni are using their expertise provided to them by their academic backgrounds in Arts within their current professional pursuits.
Recently, I spoke with Emily Vaillancourt (Grad of 2021) about her experience navigating the first two years of Law school. She provided some insight on how various aspects of her McGill Arts background shaped her into the person she is today.
Would you mind telling me a bit about your experience at McGill?
My name is Emily and I graduated from McGill in June of 2021. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Joint Honours Political Science and English – Drama and Theatre. I was also very involved with extracurriculars throughout my time at McGill, serving as the VP External for DESA, the VP External for WalkSafe, the Backstage Manager for Tuesday Night Café Theatre, and participating in numerous theatrical productions with theatre companies across campus. Currently, I am in my second year of law school at Western University in London, ON.
How do your passions for each area of study (Political Science and Drama & Theatre) play out in your current career pathway in Law?
I knew from the time that I started my undergrad that I wanted to pursue a career in law. Law school does not have any prerequisites, so I was in a great position to choose an area of study that I would both really enjoy, and that would help me to develop transferrable skills to help me in law school and my future legal career. With those goals in my mind, studying Political Science and Drama and Theatre seemed like a natural fit.
My political science major helped me to develop my research, writing and analytical skills. Further, much of political science concerns the context in which law is practiced. I have a strong interest in constitutional law, and many of the classes I took in my undergrad, such as Canadian Federalism, provided me with the background knowledge of how the provincial and federal governments are organized and how power is exercised.
Through the drama and theatre program, I learned how to communicate effectively to an audience and developed my creative thinking skills. I plan to pursue a career in litigation, which involves making arguments in court and being able to clearly, succinctly, and persuasively make your case in front of judge(s). Many of the practical skills I learned in my theatre classes have transferred over to my mock trials and mock appeals (we call them “moots”) that I have done in law school. I also wrote my thesis in the English department under the supervision of Professor Myrna Wyatt Selkirk, which involved a close reading of different translations of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Much of the work that I did for that thesis, which involved looking at similarities across texts as well as distinguishing texts from each other, has been helpful in law school. Most law school exams require you to distinguish and analogize the cases you read in class to fictitious fact patterns, so being comfortable with that line of thinking has been very helpful.
What area(s) of law do you intend to practice after law school?
I am keeping an open mind and exploring a variety of different areas of the law to figure out what I am most interested in. Last summer and through this school year I have been working as a research assistant for Professor Wade Wright, mainly in the areas of constitutional law and Crown/government liability (the special rules that apply when suing the government). This summer, I will be working as a summer student with the Constitutional Law Branch of the Ministry of the Attorney General. I definitely have a strong interest in public and administrative law, but I am also interested in child advocacy, labour and employment law, and human rights law. Thankfully, I still have time to figure it all out!
Were there certain skills you developed during your Bachelor of Arts that helped you get to where you are today?
My theatre major gave me the opportunity to develop my teamwork and leadership skills, as many of my assessments involved group performances. It also helped me develop an openness to criticism, as well as developing my ability to give feedback to others effectively. Both my writing and my performances in my theatre classes were often very personal and vulnerable, and learning how to appreciate feedback and see it as an opportunity to improve and grow has been invaluable as I learn new things and seek opportunities to improve in law school. My theatre major also involved analyzing theatrical works, which allowed my creativity and critical thinking skills to flourish. Thinking creatively and critically about legal problems has been a huge asset in law school, where it is often necessary to explore both sides of a potential problem, present and analyze legal arguments, and draw conclusions.
Similarly, I think my political science major helped me to develop my critical thinking and analytical skills. I also learned how to refine my research process and develop actionable research questions. I learned how to summarize complicated articles and identify the author’s main arguments and points used to support those arguments. These are also very helpful skills for the LSAT!
Additionally, studying two different majors (and participating in so many extra-curriculars) helped me to develop my time management and prioritization skills. This has been very helpful with managing not only my law school work, but also the extra-curriculars I have been participating in at school, such as a legal clinic I was volunteering in where I had to manage multiple files with competing deadlines. I am sure this will also serve me well in my job this summer, where I will be receiving work from multiple supervisors and will have to prioritize accordingly.
What was your favourite part of studying Arts at McGill specifically?
A huge part of why I chose to study at McGill is that the BA program offers such a wide range of programs and allowed me to pursue all of my passions. The theatre program at McGill is also such a supportive and tightknit community, and I am still in touch with everyone in my graduating class. One of the memories that stands out in particular was one of our rehearsal days in Acting 2, which was a movement and mask improvisation class. We were preparing to perform a talent in character, and Arts W-25 was a flurry of people dancing, juggling scarves, twirling ribbons, singing etc. I remember taking a look around the room and thinking about how lucky I was to have such a fun environment to learn in.
Another awesome memory was in my last year while taking Politics of Race as my Political Science honours seminar. This was during the pandemic while classes were online, but towards the end of the semester there was one day with really nice weather where our professor, Dr. Debra Thompson, organized a coffee hour on the steps of the Arts building. It was the first time many of us were able to meet in person, and it was during a time where every opportunity to connect with people was treasured! Being able to meet with people I had gotten to know through a computer screen and chat about our future plans, reflect on our time at McGill, and further our discussion of the class material was the perfect bookend to my undergraduate experience.
Do you have any advice for current Arts undergraduate students at McGill planning on pursuing a career in the legal sector?
On the practical side of things, take any opportunity to develop your reading and writing skills! Law school is a lot of reading, summarizing and writing. In general, though, study something you enjoy and participate in extracurriculars that genuinely interest you and that you have fun doing. There is no one formula to get into or succeed in law school, and I have classmates from a wide variety of academic backgrounds with varying interests. Enjoy your undergrad, take the time to learn about things you are passionate about, and get involved in the school community to maximize your experience. I am also happy to answer any questions anyone might have about applying to law school and my experience so far, feel free to email me at evailla3 [at] uwo.ca.
Emily perfectly illustrated how two drastically different passions can complement each other well. There are so many career paths and opportunities to students studying Arts; it can be reassuring to know that if students ever find a career path that is not directly related to their undergraduate studies, their Arts degree will still undoubtedly contribute to relevant foundational skills. If you are currently working on your undergraduate degree and hoping to pursue law as a career, other great resources on campus to check out include the McGill Pre-Law Students’ Society or get in touch with McGill’s Career Planning Services.