Looking at a career in law with the Chief Justice of Canada

In this video, the Chief Justice looks back at his career and the discoveries that helped him succeed as a student in the Civil Law Section of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa. English closed captions available.

M-E: Good morning, Mr. Chief Justice.

RW: Good morning, Dean Sylvestre.

M-E: It’s a pleasure to welcome you, always a pleasure to see you again here at the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa.

RW: It’s always a pleasure when I come back here.

M-E: You’re a bit at home here.

RW: Absolutely, absolutely.

M-E: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for Jurivision today. Your personal and professional background is very impressive. Of course, it commands the respect and admiration of the entire legal community and it is particularly inspiring for our young law students not only here but also at law schools across the country. So, perhaps I will begin by asking you why you chose law as a discipline, and as a profession eventually, and what impact your legal education has had.

RW: I will tell you that the law has been like a natural evolution for me. I grew up in an environment… you know that my father was in politics, but he was above all a jurist, a lawyer, he was a judge, Minister of Justice. So, I lived in an environment where there was a lot of action that aroused my curiosity. And so, I learned very early on to be very ready to read a lot, to be curious about current events. And so that led me to debate as well and to like debates and argument a lot, so that naturally it led me to law. So, I didn’t ask myself many questions, and that was where I wanted to go. So, the decision was to go to law school eventually. So, obviously I came here to Ottawa because, for many reasons, obviously I was 18 at the time, it was time to leave the family nest and I had family here as well. My father was in Parliament, my sister was already a student at the University of Ottawa. In short, it was the perfect solution for me, and so I very much enjoyed every year I spent here. But I wanted to be a litigator. It was in line with the way I grew up, so… and I wanted to plead all over Quebec and I wanted to start my career as a litigation lawyer. And so, I chose to apply to a law firm that was at the time one of the most recognized firms in the field, Lavery. And so, from the time I started articling at the firm in 1980, I had the privilege of pleading on the merits of a case in Court, at the time it was called the Provincial Court before it became the Court of Quebec, and also a trial on the merits in the Superior Court in the district of Amos, personal injury and motor vehicle accidents… that shows you how far back it goes… and a hearing on the merits at the Court of Appeal. So, all that as an articling student… Very few of my contemporaries had the opportunity to do the same thing. So, I always thanked my associates at the time for trusting me. And so, that’s how I started my career as a litigator.

M-E: It’s certainly an exceptional training you had as an intern, to be able to plead like that. What are, I would say, the skills or abilities that you have acquired through your legal training, your role as an articling student, in your early years, that have served you throughout your career?

RW: I’ll tell you that it’s a piece of advice in fact that I was given and that I don’t hesitate to give to younger people as well today. It’s curiosity. So, curiosity has allowed me to take up certain challenges and has also allowed me to evolve in the profession in a broader way. So, being curious about the fields of work… I have always thought of myself as a litigation lawyer, and I have great respect for the other functions of a lawyer, but the litigation lawyer is called upon to become a specialist in several areas. Of course, I specialized in construction law and in commercial litigation and insurance, but we automatically become specialists when we want to, for example, defend rights or claim rights on behalf of these clients, these people who have special interests. We have to inform ourselves, we have to become experts in the field as well. So, it was extremely rewarding for me to learn new areas again because of my curiosity. So, I think that because of that, it allowed me to take several steps forward.

M-E: So, a curiosity, certainly also work, rigor, depth, studying the files as you said. Are these things that you learned in college? Did your training have a particular impact on your career afterwards?

RW: I was definitely… I was fortunate enough to be here at the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa. At the time, we finished… we were 92, I think, students. It’s a small community. The teachers were, I must say, I’m not being complacent, but they were excellent. There was also a family atmosphere among the students at the time, so there was an exchange, an open-mindedness. And that, open-mindedness, has all sorts of effects, perhaps not necessarily apparent at the beginning but eventually in the career, which are decisive. So, research, development… And this was made possible partly because of the competence of the professors, but also because of the environment that was very conducive to these discoveries. We were in Ottawa. Of course, the major government institutions are here, the Supreme Court is here, the embassies and diplomats. There’s a very rich environment of knowledge that comes from outside as well, and that’s very unique to Ottawa. We students here have been influenced by that. We had this environment that allowed us to learn more. And I always told myself that the reason for prejudice is ignorance. So, the more information you can get, starting at a very young age and continuing as an adult, the less prejudice and bias people will have. So, yes, my practice has been influenced by the fact that I studied here at the Faculty of Law with its very particular environment, an environment that has always been open to the world. And I continued that in practice as a lawyer as well. I have been part of international associations, for example. I have always been curious to see, to go and discover how things were done outside Quebec, outside Canada, and we can compare ourselves, we can console ourselves very often. But we still need to know. So, this curiosity towards the outside world led me, it allowed me to compare notes at a given time.

M-E: It’s interesting because we’re also having discussions with other graduates, with young students, and it’s coming back a lot, this idea of opening up here at the University of Ottawa. Contact with the world, contact with the outside world, getting out of… opening our borders, opening our horizons. So, it’s interesting as Dean to hear the parallels across generations of graduates.

RW: I also want to get the message across because… at a certain point in my career, I became the President of the Bar of Montreal, I was elected President of the Bar of Montreal, and there was the creation of an organization called the Forum of the Bar Presidents of the World’s Major Cities. So, it’s not the professional orders but the law societies of the cities. This forum met in New York in 2001, about a month after the events that we experienced, the collapse of the towers in New York, and it was still smoking there, the ruins… it was incredible. And there are about thirty Bar Presidents or the equivalent of the Bar Presidents of the big cities of the world… We met in New York for three or four days and there we compared our notes on our respective systems. So, the appointment of judges, legal aid, the time limits for initiating proceedings, etc., were discussed. And so, we compared our notes for three or four days, and after that meeting, several representatives of foreign law societies came to see me, including representatives who work in international organizations, and they told me, “You people in Quebec and Canada are privileged, young people are privileged,” because, first, there is bilingualism, bijuralism, and often there is even a third language that is learned by students, and young lawyers, those who go into litigation, among others, they are trained in contradictory evidence, the administration of contradictory evidence a little bit of British origin, where indeed one interrogates, where one questions the witnesses. And so, in international forums, this kind of profile is very much in demand. And this is almost unique to Canada, to Quebec. So, when I came back from that forum, when I met young people, even if only in law schools or during the swearing-in of new lawyers, I would tell them, “Listen. In my day, it was Quebec and Canada, but now it’s the world, and there’s a whole market out there for you. You have unique qualities in the world. You have to take advantage of them.” And that’s important.

M-E: But that’s very interesting, I think, for our law students, who often question themselves, wonder if they’re in the right place, what they should be doing to have the best career prospects. So, in that sense, I don’t know if you have any particular advice for students as they prepare to leave the faculty and start a career as you did years ago?

RW: It’s not going to be easy. It never has been, and it never will be. But we have to realize that we have great advantages over the competition, if we can talk about competition, so in similar fields of practice outside of Quebec and Canada, we have great advantages and we have to take advantage of them. For me, what I regret a little bit is that young people can perhaps lack self-confidence. And I say to them, “Listen. Trust yourself, 1. and 2. Be curious. Go and see!” It’s comfortable to be in our traditional ways, in our familiar little environment, but maybe that’s not necessarily the way we should act. We should see why, why not, and see other horizons. So, it requires curiosity, but it also requires self-confidence. And there will always be good souls on our path who will tell us “No, no, it takes specialists” or “No, that’s difficult. Maybe you couldn’t do it.” We should trust each other. And when you’re dealing with young people who are intelligent and hard-working, because nothing is free, chances are they’re going to be able to meet the challenge. So, that’s been my experience. It’s been my experience as a student, it’s been my experience as a lawyer. In the beginning, I was mostly in liability insurance litigation, but I wanted to do commercial litigation, injunctions for example, actions for damages, and a little bit of private litigation, and I was told, “Well, no, injunctions take specialists in injunctions.” I said, “We’re going to do whatever it takes.” So, I did whatever it took and I did a lot. When I became a judge at the Superior Court… I left the faculty here in ’79 and I was fascinated by criminal law, and that, you know, that’s before the Charter, but it was already interesting for me. But as a civil lawyer, I could not practice criminal law and also civil law rather than commercial law. It’s two different clients, it’s a different world, it’s a different environment. There are very few who can do it. So, I put that on hold for several years, and then when I became a Superior Court judge in 2004, I said, “This is my chance.” So, I was able to recapture my taste for criminal law by taking criminal law training across Canada to preside over jury trials. Because in Superior Court, of course, criminal law, apart from the practice chamber, is jury trials. And I was so happy in that. I ended my career at the Superior Court in the criminal division. At the time, when I became a Superior Court judge, I was told, “But no, criminal law is for specialists. You have to be a Crown prosecutor or a defence lawyer to be able to…” I said, “Okay, thank you very much.” So, I did what I had to do. It wasn’t unreasonable under the circumstances. I believed I could do it. You always have to ask yourself the question anyway. But you have to trust yourself and you have to put in the effort. That’s the advice I give to young students, and it has served me well.

M-E: But the story you’re telling is also a story of trusting life and seeing that there are turning points in our careers, that it doesn’t always go in a straight line, and at certain moments we can reinvent ourselves and leave one area, move on to another. Were there people or moments in your career that were really decisive and that changed the course of your career?

RW: You’re so right that careers can evolve depending on whether you go right a bit or rather you go left, you take one path over another, and there are positive things that can happen one way or another. But, in my case, it’s sure that when we look back and try to determine what are the perhaps pivotal moments, there have been several of them. There was one, when I became interested in the law societies. I was in a law office, you could call it a big firm at the time, and the big firms in Quebec are living, and I think they were living at the time as well, a different reality from the practice of law outside, in regions for example, or even in the small firms in Montreal. So, it’s a bit isolated. That was not the reality of the practice of law where I was practicing, and I was curious again, I was curious to know what was going on outside the big towers in Montreal. And I became interested in the law societies and I ran for election as a councillor, such as at the Bar of Montreal, and that brought me to the meetings of the General Council of the Quebec Bar where, for the first time, I sat and I met lawyers all over Quebec. Even though I was already pleading all over Quebec, to see their reality… what does it mean to be a lawyer in Baie-Comeau, or in Cowansville, or in other regions compared to me? So, there was a whole reality that I hadn’t faced before, and that helped me enormously to understand the practice of law, to understand the needs. And it came at a pivotal moment because we didn’t have access to information, and at the Bar of Montreal, we had a huge library, one of the largest in civil law in the Americas, but which was used by 10% of the lawyers. Why was that? Because each firm had its own library in its office, and no one came to the court, to the courthouse. On the other hand, in the regions, there was the code of civil procedure which was amended by the secretary of the local judge, and that’s all they had. So, there was a need on the part of the regions, and there was an under-use, if I can use the term, on the part of the large centers like Montreal and Quebec City. And that’s when the CAIJ was founded. And when we talk about access to information, access to justice, it is access to information to begin with. That was a pivotal moment in my career that opened my eyes to another reality, to all the needs related to access to justice as well, and that has accompanied me to this day. Perhaps the other pivotal moment that brings us together here in Ottawa today is when I was appointed to the Quebec Court of Appeal, which I had never considered before. At one time, as a lawyer, I was obviously thinking of eventually wanting to become a judge in a common law court, but never at the Court of Appeal. And when we look at the situation, we realize that, without my appointment to the Court of Appeal, of course, I would never have been appointed, or most probably never, to the Supreme Court and therefore never as Chief Justice of Canada. But simply because of the very special circumstances, there was an open position, I applied, it was now the turn of a Quebec civil law judge to succeed Justice McLachlin as Chief Justice of Canada. In short, a series of circumstances arising from the fact that I became a judge of the Court of Appeal at some point in time. We can also go back, perhaps if I had not been appointed to the Superior Court, I would not have been appointed to the Court of Appeal either. But there are some moments in life that are more pivotal than others, and that’s two of them.

M-E: So, curiosity, openness, a bit of contingency, but a lot of work and talent certainly, I think it takes.

RW: In any case, I did my best with what I had as talent. But a lot of willpower and above all the will to do things well, and one thing at a time, but do them well.

Curiosity is an asset that any law student should strive to cultivate. This wise advice is offered by the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, in a discussion with Dean Marie-Eve Sylvestre. In this video, the Chief Justice looks back at his career and the discoveries that helped him succeed as a student in the Civil Law Section of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa.

It was a natural sense of curiosity that led the Chief Justice to choose a career in law, to explore new perspectives and to continually pursue new experiences throughout his career. Here, he looks back at several pivotal moments in his career and explains how a jurist must persistently be ready for change and always be willing to try new things. He points to the value of learning to step out of one’s comfort zone, noting that a willingness to expose oneself to new experiences is highly beneficial in a career in law.

Law students across Canada should be proud and confident in their legal education. According to the Chief Justice, the skills acquired by Canadian jurists are valued around the world, particularly because of Canada’s bijuridical legal system. When equipped with self-confidence, curiosity and a willingness to put in the effort, law students in Canada have everything they need to engage with the ever-evolving possibilities of a career in law – the world becomes their playground.

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