From small school to big city: UNB Law alumni forge strong network in Canada's biggest legal market

As a UNB graduate, I have seen the power of small-school camaraderie and support

From small school to big city: UNB Law alumni forge strong network in Canada's biggest legal market
The University of New Brunswick is in Fredericton
Ted Flett

As a University of New Brunswick Law graduate practising in Toronto, Canada’s largest legal market, I admit to having mild “small school syndrome.” It flares up when I see peers tapping into a broad network of fellow alumni for referral sources or a rare rule interpretation or when I scroll through LinkedIn and stumble upon law school reunion posts showcasing hordes of smiling guests.

UNB’s small size, remoteness and unfamiliarity first became evident when I entered the Bay Street recruit in 2L. On-campus interviews were hosted at Dalhousie University, a five-hour drive from Fredericton. Chatting with other applicants at in-firm interviews, mostly from Ontario’s large law schools, their knowledge of the recruitment process was next level, likely aided by the strong ties between their schools and Bay Street.

Months later, I watched with envy as my peers at BLG, where I landed, formed immediate connections with lawyers based solely on shared alma maters: Osgoode, Queen’s, and Western. Conversations sparked quickly over exclusive topics like quirky professors, challenging courses and watering holes.

Earlier this month, my occasional inferiority complex was sidelined as I stepped off the elevator onto the sixtieth floor of First Canadian Place into DLA Piper’s office, my ears popping from the altitude. Alongside my classmate Erika Anschuetz of Norton Rose Fulbright, we were amazed by the buzz of dozens of conversations emanating from the firm’s lounge. The May 7 reception of Toronto-based UNB alumni was hosted by one of UNB’s most impressive alumnus: Vaughn MacLellan, managing partner of DLA Piper’s Toronto office since 2022. Attended by over fifty alumni from various generations and practice areas and featuring former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna (class of 1974) and Michael Marin, UNB Law’s dean, the Toronto turnout was likely record-breaking, and organizers say it surpassed a small similar gathering pre-COVID.

It is comforting to know that even McLellan had a bumpy entrance into the Toronto market without a local network since he went to UNB. “It was a little bit scary because you don’t know a lot of people when you're coming here,” he says, reflecting on his 1999 move from Halifax, where he had been an associate at Stewart McKelvey. The move was precipitated by McLellan’s desire to pursue securities since “Toronto was really the place to be for that.

“I had a couple of cousins here,” McLellan laughs. “So that helped a little bit. But from a business networking perspective, I didn't really have much. It wasn't like I had gone to Western or Queen’s, and I was coming into the market here where I knew a lot of people. So, I did have that disadvantage a little bit. This is a market, obviously, that's very heavily weighted in Ontario university graduates.”

As he began his practice and networked in those early days, McLellan recalls a reaction of fascination when peers learned of his law school. “I think they thought, in some ways, ‘Okay, you know, why are you here?’”

Upon becoming a partner, McLellan was motivated “to build up the alumni network here.” After calling for an occasional reception, a group quickly crystallized. “The alumni network here was very supportive, but it wasn't big.”

Frank McKenna was unsurprised when the small but mighty Toronto alumni network formed and grew. He says the camaraderie fostered between UNB students transfers to alumni engagement. “We were lucky to go to a very accomplished law school, but a small law school that was in an intimate setting,” he said. “A small city where everybody knew everybody. And not just everybody in your class. You knew everybody that was in the building. And we created really intimate relationships that have been lifelong for many of us.”

Given his TD Securities Deputy Chair role, McKenna jokingly identifies as a “dual citizen” with homes in New Brunswick and Toronto. He says he activated his Maritimes and alumni connections when he began working in Toronto following his premiership in 1997.

During his cross-Canada alumni-meet-and-greet tour, including stops in Calgary and Vancouver, Dean Marin prioritized making connections to help UNB students find articles and jobs outside Atlantic Canada and communicating the school’s new initiatives. And there are plenty. A “Leaders Are Made Here” marketing campaign. A new school in downtown Fredericton in the city’s old Justice Building. A pro bono legal clinic. A graduate program. But, in his fourth year as dean, Marin is not distracted by shiny new things.

“We have to work to maintain the foundational legal education and personal touch at UNB,” he says. “We've had to be vigilant not to lose that with all of this new activity. We have to strike the right balance there.”

Marin jokes that the alumni network has recently become so mobilized that passion flares when the school taps into the group to help place an unsuccessful student. “Sometimes, I have to kind of hold them back,” he said with a tone that conveyed part concern but part pride. “People get a little intense about it.”

Case in point: when a recent graduate was not hired in Ontario after leaning on local alumni to help put his best foot forward, Marin says some of the alumni helping insisted they would call and lecture the employer who passed up the student. “I had to say ‘Whoa, let’s calm down and regroup and just try to find the student another opportunity.’ And we did. It was quite moving.”

Marin advises alumni from UNB or any small school who feel isolated in a remote market to tap into their local alumni network and fellow class members. “These groups are critically, critically important as sources of opportunity and to turn that feeling of isolation.”

Marin offers an important quality-over-quantity message to small law school grads like me, who may sometimes succumb to feeling “less than” in a large legal market like Toronto, in which local schools dominate. “It’s distinctive. It’s unfamiliar to others. But it’s also special.”

His words are timely and not lost on me.

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