Out of the classroom, into the trenches

Claire Littleton doesn’t begrudge the long hours she has spent poring over books and case law while studying at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, reported The Globe and Mail Feb. 28 in a supplement on Canadian law schools. But for the third-year law student, it is the work she did at a legal aid clinic in one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods that has been the most rewarding part of her studies.  

The 26-year-old worked at Osgoode Hall’s Parkdale Community Legal Services for four months last year as part of her second-year curriculum. The agency, which was the first community-based legal aid clinic in Ontario when it began in 1971, provides free legal services to individuals and groups who need help in areas such as social assistance, mental health, domestic violence, immigration, landlord-and-tenant issues and workers’ rights.  

"I think a lot of the education we get at law school is somewhat removed from real-life experience," she says. "In class, we study cases from England in 1855. It can sometimes be hard to see how it applies to the real world."  

Littleton, who expects to be called to the bar next year, adds: "The work at [the clinic] gives context to our studies and helps us understand the case law and legislation that we study in class as it relates to real people struggling for justice. It reminds us of why we wanted to be lawyers in the first place."  

Professors and administrators at several law schools including Osgoode Hall, which offers 11 clinical education programs, say the hands-on training supervised by experienced lawyers gives students the chance to develop a variety of skills – interviewing, research, communications and analysis, and advocacy work.  

"It used to be that students would focus on analyzing cases by reading and learning the legal doctrine but legal educators have recognized that you can’t understand the doctrine without understanding the context," says Janet Mosher, director, clinical education and intensive programs at Osgoode. "A whole range of other skills make for a good lawyer – negotiating, counselling and, increasingly, mediation. One of the things a clinical program does is expose students to a range of different kinds of lawyering skills," she says. 

Osgoode was also mentioned in other stories in the Globe’s special report on law schools:  

  • About a dozen Canadian universities – including York – offer programs that combine a bachelor of laws degree (LLB) with a master’s degree in business administration (MBA).  
  • This generation of law students may be saddled with debt but they are blessed with opportunity. Chantal Morton is director of career services at Osgoode, which costs $14,000 a year for tuition and fees. She says debt has "multiple impacts" on students. "Some will apply to Bay Street because of debt load, but some will still go to other choices. It depends on how students perceive debt."  

York gets millions to renovate, expand

York University is among the latest institutions to receive provincial money for expansion projects, part of a series of year-end announcements by the government to support campus building projects, reported The Globe and Mail Feb. 28. The provincial government yesterday made the Glendon campus of York University a centre of excellence for French-language and bilingual education with a $20-million grant to help expand and renovate its site.  

Glendon, a bilingual liberal arts Faculty at York, has seen its enrolment rise to 2,500 students from 1,700 since 2001. The university said the money will be used to refurbish and update existing facilities and will allow Glendon to offer a broader range of programs.  

Glendon has plans to expand its school of public affairs, which will be the country’s first fully bilingual graduate school in this area. It also has plans for a bachelor of education program to train French immersion teachers and a bilingual international BA.  

More independent directors not the answer to governance problems

It is generally agreed that unrealistic expectations are imposed on the concept of corporate board independence, wrote Edward Waitzer, who holds the Jarislowsky Dimma Mooney Chair in Corporate Governance at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, in the National Post Feb. 28. The Wall Street Journal recently noted the fact that 85 per cent of corporate members of the US Business Roundtable have boards with 80 per cent or more independent directors – implying that independence was a sufficient safeguard for shareholders. The fact that Enron and WorldCom had super-majority independent boards seems to have escaped the editorialists’ notice, as have the recent scandals over options backdating, which show that independent directors were as culpable as their insider counterparts, continued Waitzer, who is also a partner in Stikeman Elliott LLP and a former chairman of the Ontario Securities Commission.  

The ideal board member is intelligent, committed and willing to ask tough questions, but also able to work collegially with management. She should bring to the boardroom business expertise and the capability to focus, in a single-minded manner, on the shareholders’ best interest. Attempts to objectively define "independence" do a disservice to the goal being sought. The term "independence" should go beyond measuring financial ties to a company or its management (or controlling shareholders) and extend to one’s state of mind and conduct – the willingness to bring a high degree of rigour and sceptical objectivity to the evaluation of management and its plans, wrote Waitzer.  

Student studies effect of climate change on Arctic wetlands

The Toronto Star profiled York student Anna Abnizova in its Deep Thoughts column Feb. 28:

Program: PhD candidate in geography at York University.

Thesis: Ecohydrology of High Arctic wetlands

The work: "Our research focuses on improvement of knowledge of ecohydrology and conservation of wetlands in the High Arctic," Abnizova says.

Background: The Arctic environment is very sensitive to climate change and acts like a barometer for the rest of the world. In addition, "Arctic wetlands are important niches where northern forms of fauna thrive," Abnizova says. For example, the Polar Bear Pass, on Bathurst Island in Nunavut, is home to more than 30 species of birds as well as muskox, caribou and of course polar bears.

Drying up: Recent studies show ponds are disappearing in Russia and Alaska, owing largely to the direct and indirect effects of climate change. The loss is devastating to the wetlands and animals in the region, and makes it harder for researchers to figure out what, if anything, can be done to prevent more wetlands from drying up.

Inputs and outputs: Abnizova measures what goes into the pond, such as melting snow and rain, and what goes out via evaporation, drainage into other bodies of water, and seepage into cracks formed by thermal contractions in the semi-frozen ground. She can see how the pond will react to differences in any of those inputs and outputs owing to climate change. The impacts of climate change take decades to fully assess, but she hopes her study will at least provide a hint of what is happening at the Polar Bear Pass.  

On air

  • Peter Victor, economist and professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, said people have difficulty seeing how to make changes that make a global difference, in a discussion on BC’s carbon tax, on CBC Radio’s “Ontario Today” Feb. 27.