TORONTO - Going to law school was not something Janine Manning ever dreamed of doing.
Now, as she's preparing to write her Law School Admission Test in October, the mere thought of becoming a lawyer still brings tears to her eyes.
"When I was growing up, I was just only ever expected to get my high school (diploma). Like getting your high school was the ultimate goal," said 32-year-old Manning, her voice choking up.
"There was no real push to go to university or go beyond high school because it's not something the generation before me had experience in. Being the first and only person in my immediate family to go to university is quite the accomplishment."
Manning is one of 25 low-income students currently enrolled in a new, free LSAT preparation course at the University of Toronto. Other similarly available courses range from $500 to $1,000.
Touted as the first of its kind, the weekly class, which runs from June to October, is taught by a recent law school graduate and covers everything from what to expect during the half-day test to how to apply for financial aid at a bank.
It's just one example of a number of measures Canadians universities have taken over the years to try to increase diversity in its law school programs.
Alexis Archbold, assistant dean of students for the University of Toronto's law faculty, says schools understand there are many reasons why some people who have academic merit don't pursue a legal education. One of the big reasons is that tuition fees for law school can cost up to $25,000 a year.
"Legal education is a privilege. It leads to a career that we know leads to leadership opportunities. If you look at politicians, leaders of business — so many of them have law degrees," she said.
"It's important that everyone has access to that opportunity. If they want to go into law and assume a leadership role in their society, there should not be obstacles to some people accessing that."
Manning dropped out of school at age 15 to help her mother raise the family. She eventually moved to Toronto for better opportunities and spent years working in bars and then 60-hour weeks as a hairdresser.
When her three-year-old son was born, she decided she wanted to go back to school to study aboriginal treaty law.
Manning said getting a law degree would represent a better life for herself, and her son.
"I could take (it) back to my community to let people know... that life isn't always going to be so hard," she said. "To me, getting a law degree as an aboriginal woman... I could be a role model."
The idea of law school never crossed Raymond Zao's mind either.
His parents, Chinese immigrants who work long hours — his mother at a cafe and his father as a tour guide — always pushed him to succeed in school but the mounting costs of law school stopped him from pursuing that career path.
This course has allowed the 20-year-old to try to see if he has what it takes to pass the LSATs, without worrying too much about the initial price tag.
"(I was) feeling like I would be overwhelmed by the debt," said Zao, who is spending his summer cleaning offices in the corporate towers in Toronto's financial district to save money.
The University of Victoria has also made efforts to attract students with diverse backgrounds — whether that be socio-economic, sexual or cultural — to apply to law school. In recent years, it has opened up 25 spots per year for students from indigenous or exceptional backgrounds.
"It's a holistic approach. It's not just academics but what life experience do they bring? Have they overcome a challenge in their life?" said dean of law Donna Greschner.
"The goal is the same. But we take a more calibrated assessment of applications, rather than looking at a raw GPA (grade point average) and a raw LSAT (score)."
Greschner said a wide range of students fall into this category, including those with physical disabilities, visual impairment, low incomes and mature students.
As part of its application process, the school also places a strong emphasis on a personal statement from a potential student on their desire or challenges they've faced on the path to law school.
"The country is diverse and the legal profession should reflect that diversity to better serve that diversity, " she said. "It's a matter of principle. This is the right thing to do."
Kate Broer, a partner at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, said firms are also trying to do their part to hire more diverse employees.
The 500-member firm has initiated a variety of programs to promote more inclusion, such as starting up a six-month internship for internationally trained lawyers to gain experience in Canada, mentoring youth interested in a law career from at-risk neighbourhoods and creating groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees.
The reality is, the majority of lawyers at the top of any firm are still men even though law schools are graduating more women than ever.
This is changing — albeit slowly.
"It's a journey. There is no question," said Broer, who specializes in commercial and corporate litigation. "I don't foresee a day where we can check the box and say we're done."
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