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Taking the circuitous route

Michael Rosenberg’s journey into law has been anything but direct
|Written By Patric Senson
Taking the circuitous route
Michael Rosenberg

How do you become the clerk for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin? An undergraduate degree from Harvard University, a graduate degree from the University of Cambridge in the U.K., and coming top in your class after first year at the University of Toronto law school, certainly help. Add to that a mother who is a law professor and winning the 2009 Harvey Strosberg prize for an essay on class action lawsuits, and you would probably be a shoo-in. 

But for Michael Rosenberg, who has all these qualifications, clerking at the Supreme Court is not something he has always dreamed of. In fact, becoming a lawyer has only in the last few years become part of his plan.

Rosenberg’s first passion was politics. While at Harvard University, he edited the Harvard Political Review, where he had the chance to meet many of the top political figures of the time. As part of his studies, he developed an interest in international development, particularly the economics of exporting textiles from the developing world. This proved interesting enough that he wrote his graduate thesis at Cambridge on the subject, but along the way, he started to hear a strong message. “People kept saying,” says Rosenberg, “that if you care about this business, you have to think about it in terms of trade . . . and by the way, wouldn’t it be nice if you had a law degree.”

Not wanting to trust others’ judgment, Rosenberg had to see this for himself, and spent “a lot of time in the field,” he says, “studying blue jeans in Mexico.” There he saw that it was trade agreements, negotiated by lawyers that meant the difference between success and failure for factories, and so it was back to Canada to study law.

It might have been an interest in international trade that brought Rosenberg to law school, but once he got there, he quickly realized “that the trade law thing was less and less realistic,” he says. After first year, Rosenberg received a Borden Ladner Gervais LLP fellowship to study international trade, but found that for lawyers in Canada “there is less on the policy side and more on the mechanical side.”

The move away from politics and towards the Supreme Court of Canada was largely solidified through two very different legal experiences, one public, the other much less visible.

The public experience was Rosenberg’s involvement with Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr’s appeal at the Supreme Court. During his second year, Rosenberg was hired by professor Sujit Choudhry as a researcher and was invited to sit at the counsel table during the appeal hearing. “It was a wonderful hands-on experience,” he says. “We were staying at the Chateau Laurier and sitting at a restaurant the night before. Joe [Arvay, counsel representing the B.C. Civil Liberties Association] said, ‘What are they going to ask me? You be the judge, we’re going to think of the questions.’” Rosenberg felt a full part of the team, but still somewhat awed. “It was almost unthinkable,” he says, “that they would ask me my opinion.”

Equally fundamental to Rosenberg has been his involvement with Downtown Legal Services, the University of Toronto’s student-run legal clinic. During his three years as a student, Rosenberg has worked in the criminal division helping those who cannot afford legal assistance to survive the legal system. “I feel like I’m playing an important role,” he says. True to form, he also sees this work as a way of learning more about law. “I can spend the extra time to go the extra mile . . . researching the legal underpinnings is a lot of fun,” he says.

It is these two highlights of law school that led Rosenberg away from trade to consider following a career in litigation. He is particularly interested in class action lawsuits. He sees this field as a perfect fit for his combined interest in practice and scholarship. “Because of the amounts at stake in class action,” he says, “there’s a real opportunity to get into cutting-edge law.” He has already made inroads in this direction. His award-winning essay, written as part of his third-year studies at U of T, looks at emerging issues in class actions, issues that have yet to be resolved in any cases.

A clerkship at the Supreme Court of Canada seems a logical next step for a student who likes to combine scholarship with hands-on practical experience. “Given my ambition to be an advocate,” he says, “I’m curious to see what pulls a judge one way or another. What is determinative?” He’s hoping to get some insight into how to become a good representative in court. That and “I like the idea of doing some public service work,” he says.

He might find himself with functions that are not typical of a Supreme Court clerk though. During his interview with the chief justice, they discussed his study of legal issues, but then also one of his hobbies: watchmaking. Rosenberg does not think the chief justice will take him up on his offer to keep her watch running but he is prepared just in case she does. Either way, he’s excited about the opportunity and plans to apply the same passion to learning he’s taken through school into this new challenge. In fact, he says he believes a key part in securing his position was to “go in with enthusiasm and a willingness to participate.”

What does the future hold for him? Like everyone in the current climate, he is concerned about the number of jobs available out there now. But he knows where he wants to be. “I want to get into court and test these ideas [about class action law],” he says, “I want to put them to a judge, I want to see if my research holds up, and practise very practical advocacy that has a real impact on people’s lives.”

From international trade to defending accused in the Ontario court system to writing facta for the Supreme Court to clerking, Michael Rosenberg has taken a circuitous path through law school. And as a clerk for the chief justice in the highest court of the land, this is only the beginning of his legal career.


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