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10 questions for Paul Paton

|Written By Mallory Hendry
10 questions for Paul Paton

Assistant editor Mallory Hendry caught up with the University of Alberta’s new law dean Paul Paton soon after he officially assumed his new position to get his thoughts on the profession, legal education, and how his previous experiences will influence him in his new role.

What is your view of the state of the legal profession in Canada?

The legal profession in Canada is strong but facing an increasingly challenging time as we shift into new understandings of what it means to provide client service and how the services are going to be provided and by whom. I think lawyers moving forward into a legal profession have to understand that the constant is change and transformation.

How do you feel about legal education in Canada?

I think we are looking at a time where legal education is very strong, built on a very strong foundation across the country, but what we’re looking at, at a time when the paradigm shift is happening in the way in which legal services are being delivered and the way in which our understanding of what it means to be a lawyer is changing . . . legal education has to be flexible, adaptable, and changing in order to respond, to make sure the lawyers of the future are ready for those new challenges. It is a very exciting time.

How do you think Ontario’s new law practice program will change the landscape?

I think the jury is still out on that. I think what the Law Society of Upper Canada was facing was increasing pressure from graduates who couldn’t come through traditional conduits for entry into the legal profession and they are trying to make sure those portals or entry ways remain open. I think it does beg the question of the expectations around legal education in Canada and how much experiential learning needs to be part of it. The law society’s very detailed and extensive review of articling suggested many of the things I’ve been looking at with the way in which law firms are actually transforming how lawyers get to practise. What I’m concerned about is how we ensure that ethics and professionalism and those values of community are communicated at the same time as skills training is done and I don’t know that I’ve seen yet how that’s going to play out in practise as opposed to in concept.

What changes do you think the profession and law schools must make to keep up?

I’ve always argued the profession has to be laser-focused on the public interest and the public interest in my mind also equates with the consumer interest. Access to justice is an incredibly difficult problem not only for those who are indigent or without resources but increasingly for those in the middle class who can’t afford legal services in order to meet their basic needs or find them difficult to access. As the profession comes up with new and creative ways to deliver legal services, they have to be focused on the ways in which cost, value, and excellent quality can all be integrated in part of that service. . . . There’s a lot of work we have to do as a profession to make sure people can both know there’s a system of justice there and available for them and indeed truly have it available.

What are your plans to make sure U of A rises to these challenges?

We’ve got a wonderful foundation on which to build. The faculty is singularly impressive in terms of their research, their scholarship, their recognition across Canada and internationally for what they’re doing. The other thing that is quite marvelous about the opportunity is the ways in which the University of Alberta Faculty of Law is so deeply integrated into the profession in Alberta, and in Western Canada,  and indeed nationally. And so through a very dedicated and loyal alumni network I want to have further discussions about what experiential learning needs to be, the ways in which our students can continue to access opportunities that have traditionally been available to them, and to build on what is an excellent foundation. It doesn’t mean any drop in standards at all — if anything I want to push things in the other direction to have everybody rise to a new and better level. And I think there’s a great chance to do that there but it’s going to take some work.

How do you think your time at the University of the Pacific in California influences your view of law school in Canada?

From the time I arrived at Pacific to the time that I left, the entering class size shrunk 40 per cent and so wanting to make sure that we’re in a position — and the Canadian market is very different — but recognizing that legal education is very closely tied to the economic pressures of the day, not just in the legal profession but more broadly, is something I’ll be bringing forward. One of the issues I think faces all Canadian law schools and will face me in Alberta is how to more robustly develop outside funding for activities. Second, to make sure that people know there’s a value proposition to investing in your own legal education. I also will be looking very directly at the model from UoP as well as elsewhere for what we called externship placements. Because Sacramento is the state capital of California we had a very robust and well-thought-through field placement program where students would have the opportunity to extern in either state government or regulatory agencies or otherwise in what I call the hub-and-spoke model where they would go out into their field placement, come back into a hub, discuss, process, analyze under supervision either the ethical issues they were facing in those environments or other practice issues, and I think that helps prepare them for the transition into life beyond law school as well as allowing them to create the opportunities to meet people in those working environments, understand what it meant beyond the law school to be in that working environment, beyond just a kind of summer type of experience. I’m hoping to find out more about what Alberta is already doing as well as ensuring we are able to support and encourage that even more.

You’ve been a litigator, teacher, administrator — which has been your favourite role?

I have really been so fortunate to have done things I set out to do early in my career. I knew I wanted to combine practice, policy, and teaching and where and in what order or what combination was what remained to be determined. The common feature has been the opportunity to work on policy and strategy in any one of these environments and to bring those ideas into the classroom in a very integrated way. I’ve been very fortunate to combine things I really liked doing and now being in a position to help others and to lead on an administrative side some of that change moving forward.

What do you see as the strongest qualities you bring to your new role as dean of the University of Alberta?

I’ll let others judge that. I’m trying to bring forward the best of what I’ve had in terms of all of these experiences and I think the one thing that really stands out from my experience is I’ve been deeply engaged in both the profession and the academy and often there’s been this sense or sensibility that the two are existing miles apart. My own experience is that doesn’t have to be the case.

One of our researchers in our health law institute was just awarded a very large grant to try and help look at ways in which law or legal policy might be changed to encourage organ donation. That’s a live example of how research in the academy at the intersection of law and policy will be of direct benefit not only to legal academics studying the problem, to the students working with people on those issues while they’re in law school, but to policymakers and to the general public. That is one example of many I could go through where I think the UoA researchers have been doing that, and if I can help communicate the heck out of it, I will.

What advice do you have for law students looking to start their careers?

Be a sponge. Learn. Experience. Try and take as much in as you can early on. You will not know necessarily what the path will be for you, but if you prepare yourself with an excellent foundation, and you give excellence and quality in everything that you’re doing, you will find doors open when you least expect them and the kind of path you were hoping to find may not necessarily be the one you walk but it’ll be a wonderful journey. [R]emember that you are actually enormously privileged and have a wonderful opportunity to train and to be a lawyer and to serve others in that capacity. If you keep that front and centre — sure you’re going . . . to worry about grades, you’re going to worry about getting a job, you’re going to be worried about all this change and transformation — but if you’re a sponge and you prepare yourself, things will work well for you.

Do you have anything else to add?

I think one of the things people need to be prepared to do is invest in themselves, invest in their education, and invest in their own future. I think so much of the focus tends to be on the numbers, the dollars, the cents. It’s interesting to me that in the U.S. where the opportunities were less, people were, given the opportunity, prepared to make the investment. But it also requires investment from, in the Canadian context, from government, it requires an investment from private philanthropy, and from alumni and students. Quite rightly people ask the question, “What’s the value for my investment?” I am more than prepared to demonstrate the value but we have to be prepared to ask the question first. ¦

This is an edited version of the interview with Paul Paton.

  • Lawyer

    Alastair Clarke
    As a former student and former Research Assistant to Prof. (now Dean) Paton, I can say that the UofA is extremely fortunate to have him as their new Dean of Law. Prof. Paton is one of those rare individuals who offers his practical experience from private practise and his intellectual acumen to students and faculty alike. I greatly appreciated his demand for quality and his high expectations. He pushes himself hard and he expects similar rigor from those around him. In particular, he deserves significant recognition for his work in legal ethics and professionalism – topics whose importance cannot be understated at law school.

    I wish Dean Paton all the best at guiding UofA law through these transformative times.

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