The Sunday Magazine·Personal essay

I spent hundreds of hours preparing for moot court. When I got there, I was told to smile more

Amanda Byrd faced many challenges as a law student, but she'll never forget what the judges told her after a moot court trial. Her essay is called "Smile, Girl, You're In Court."
Amanda Byrd is a law student in Toronto; she was a member of Osgoode Hall's Price Media Law moot team, which competed at Oxford University in April. (Submitted by Amanda Byrd)

For the last eight months, I've been a member of a mooting team based at Osgoode Hall Law School that travelled the US and UK to participate in an international competition. For those of you who don't know (which is very likely everyone who is not a lawyer or law student), a moot is a mock court where law students argue simulated cases. They're designed to develop what we call "oral advocacy skills" (meaning; better arguing).

I put in hundreds of hours preparing for the competition, which involved a criminal case based on a restriction of an individual's freedom of expression—serious stuff. It centred on photoshopping intimate images of people without their consent, the intent to incite civil unrest, and threats to national security and public order.

I argued the first round of the competition in the UK with my male partner. Given the seriousness of the case, it should go without saying that both my partner and I treated the material with what we perceived to be appropriate gravitas.

Amanda Byrd outside the courtroom. (Submitted by Amanda Byrd)

Here are a few things you should know about me.  I do not have a "cheerleader" personality. I chose to pursue legal education so I could do my part in curbing discrimination, after working as a law clerk at a human rights firm. I approach the law respectfully and seriously. I am a careful and conscientious researcher. 

My mooting partner and I finished our arguments, and after a short break, eagerly returned to the room to receive feedback from our judges, two of whom were male. After praising my partner, who had legitimately done an incredible job, the first of these two judges informed me that "a smile would be nice" and told me I "looked bored". The second agreed, even going so far as to state that it was a shame I didn't smile more, because it was clear that I was knowledgeable and competent in my legal arguments. No one mentioned what my partner did with his face. He was only showered with praise.

I was stunned.

I felt helpless and hopeless. And angry.

I had traveled over 5,000 kilometres to one of the world's most prestigious universities only to be critiqued on my appearance and lack of perceived "enthusiasm".  But I knew the problem went far beyond the moot court competition. I had heard these statements before. In fact, I heard them more than once from male practice judges when I was preparing for this competition. The tenacity of my legal arguments, the sheer amount of research and thought and preparation, seemed inconsequential. I just really needed to smile more.

Is this the future of the legal profession? Courtrooms full of grinning female lawyers in high heels deferring to the expectations of our male counterparts? Smiling our way through murder trials and inquests?

Fighting back is complicated. My frustration with what happened during the moot was taken seriously by some, and not at all by others. I had to explain to one woman that this was gender discrimination, that it plagues women in the legal profession, that moots are places that are full of prejudicial attitudes—not just for women, but for students of colour who are routinely told that they are "too aggressive" by mooting judges. I still don't think that particular woman understands what I was trying to get across, but I just don't have the energy to shoulder the burden of educating her.

Talking back to judges while receiving feedback is unheard of. You just don't do it. Could I write to the organizers of the moot and explain it to them? Maybe. But we are taught to be wary of how our complaints might be received, how they might reflect poorly on our school or our colleagues. We learn early in our law school careers that reputation is crucial, and that what our classmates think of us matters more than we know in the long span of our careers. But something has to give here.

I have felt shame, frustration and heartbreak in the face of what happened. But I also feel strong enough to speak up about it, and I still have to believe that the legal profession has the capacity to change. I hope I'm right.

Amanda Byrd is a law student in Toronto.