Friday, June 2, 2017

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo

It’s Convocation time at the University of Toronto, and the white tent and blue banners have gone up around King’s College Circle in preparation for the graduation season.  The Class of 2017 is looking forward to celebrating, after three or four long years at the Faculty of Law.

“When I was finishing up my last paper, I was already back in Edmonton, sitting in nearly the same place I had been when I received my LSAT results,” says Zachary Al-Khatib. That final exam brought him home full circle. “Handing in my last paper, while I hovered my computer cursor over the ‘send’ button, I took a minute to reflect and think about the entire time I had spent at U of T Law and what it had meant to me. I think the dominant feeling was just feeling a sense of gratitude for everything that had happened along the way—all the people, experiences, and so on. Then I went and gave everyone in my family a hug and celebrated a bit.” 

students who participated in 2016 Grand Moot, including Zachary Al-Khatib

 L-R: Grand Mooters Giorgio Traini, Sarah Bittman, Zacharia Al-Khatib, Victoria Hale (Photo by Holly Sherlock)

Al-Khatib, who grew up in Inuvik, Edmonton and Damascus, has a history and English degree from the University of Alberta, plus a degree in classical Arabic and Islamic law from Syria. He’ll be clerking at the Alberta Court of Appeal this year, and then at the Supreme Court of Canada next year for Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, LLB 1970. “That’s more long-term planning than I’ve done in a while, so we’ll see what happens after that.” 

Rona Ghanbari can hardly believe law school is over. “It certainly didn't feel like it was THE last exam. I don't think it's actually fully hit me yet that this September will be the first time in about 20 consecutive years that I won't be going back to school!” The Bowmanville native, with an undergraduate degree in political science and communications from University of Ottawa, will be articling at Stikeman Elliott LLP. “Hopefully I will also find opportunities to do public interest legal work, through the firm and other avenues,” says Ghanbari.

Rona Ghanbari with a group of students and one professor

Rona Ghanbari, second from the left, after final exams in her first year, with Sam Pivnick, Professor Douglas Sanderson and Ashley Major.  "Professor Sanderson brought 50 McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches to the records office for the final deadline!"

Gratitude, says Sinead Charbonneau, is what she was feeling during her last days as a U of T law student. She’s from the Territory of the WS'ANEC', Lkwungen, and Wyomilth peoples of the Coast Salish Nation, and completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria, in women’s studies and Indigenous studies.

“I felt compelled to bring sage and tobacco to the exam, something I had never done before. After the exam I walked straight to Queen's Park and laid down the tobacco in a prayer of gratitude. I was compelled to bring these medicines to give thanks to the family, community, faculty, friends, ancestors, and strangers who have shared with me beyond measure.” 

Sinead Charbonneau with her mother

At home after finals: Sinead Charbonneau with her mother, Susie Charbonneau, at the Ogden Point Breakwater in Victoria 

JD/MBA graduate David St. Bernard says finishing law school felt like “a long time coming.” Most of his classmates had already graduated with their JD. “It was also bittersweet because though a new chapter is being written, it was one of the first times I really accepted that this one, with all its great experiences, was complete.” After the bar exam, says St. Bernard, “I plan to take a much needed breather, then article at Bennett Jones LLP.” Breather sounds about right at this time in his life: this law grad from Scarborough already completed two undergraduate degrees from York University, first in kinesiology, then in psychology. He counts “Looking Ahead: Blurred Lines of Technology, Body and Mind” with Professor Ben Alarie and Adjunct Professor Dan Debow as a stand-out, favourite course. “Looking Ahead was a great mix of contemporary tech issues and legal principles that was like no other law course I encountered.” David St. Bernard

"A long-time coming": JD/MBA graduate, David St. Bernard, will be articling at Bennett Jones

Stikeman Elliott-bound Spencer Burger says he had a “double header” for his last exam, two exams in two days, and still ended on a good feeling. “I felt much better than I did after my first exam. Jokes aside, I was pretty wiped, but none of that mattered as soon as pencils were down and school was out.”

The honours history and political science graduate from McGill University (he started his BA at University of Chicago) says he most enjoyed First Year Contracts with Professor Brian Langille, Advanced Securities Regulation with Professor Anita Anand and Contested Corporate Transactions with Adjunct Professor Jeremy Fraiberg. “Those were my top three, in no particular order. I was very interested in the subject matter. They all had substantial practical application and most importantly, they were each taught by stellar professors.” 

Spencer Burger at Victoria College

"Work hard and have confidence in yourself": Spencer Burger at Victoria College

For St. Bernard and Burger, Law Follies was also a “hilarious and fun time.” Says Burger: “It is remarkable how much comedic, acting and musical talent there is within each Law School class.” After his first Law Follies, St. Bernard says that’s when he “realized how many extremely talented people we have at our school, who are so humble, that they'd never mention their secret abilities.”

For Ghanbari, Law Follies also was easily one of her favourite memories of law school. “Having the entire school come together to put together an elaborate production with laughing and singing and dancing was not only one of the best outlets but was genuinely some of the most fun I've ever had." But it was the International Human Rights Program clinic that truly made an impact on her.

“Having the chance to work directly on human rights issues to produce something tangible and useable was such a valuable and enjoyable experience for me, and I really learned a lot—even about myself as a person!”

Adds Ghanbari: “I think before I started law school I just hoped that I would learn about the law, make friends, and be given the tools to help people with what I've learned—I would say I checked all of those boxes through my time here!”  

I met people who really cared about the law not just as a matter of academic study, but as a tool to change the world for the better. All of those things made U of T law school a very special place. — Zachary Al-Khatib, Class of 2017

Charbonneau, who will be articling with the Office of the Children's Lawyer, says picking just one highlight of law school is tough. “It's a four-way tie between Anishinaabe Law Camp at Neyaashiinigmiing, the Kawaskimhon Moot, the many events organized with friends, and my time on exchange at the Central European University.” Charbonneau worked on a cross-disciplinary project which was another highpoint of law school. “I was privileged do a Fellowship with the Jackman Humanities Institute, where I was supervised by Professor Fernandez (law) and Professor Bohaker (history). Working in-depth on one paper was enriching, and engaging with scholars from across the University of Toronto challenged and surprised me.” 

 Al-Khatib has several law school favourite memories to share. 

“Mooting was a highlight of being here. I was extremely privileged to get to moot in front of some of Canada’s most distinguished jurists: Justices Abella, Brown, and Moldaver of the SCC in the Grand Moot, Justice Rowe of the SCC in the Gale Cup finals, and Justice Strathy, the Chief Justice of Ontario, in the Callaghan Moot. We had the chance to practice in front of many of the best litigators in the country. Traveling to Melbourne for the Commonwealth Moot was a wonderful way to round off 3L and I’m very grateful to everyone who made that possible. 

“Another highlight was an appeal I did at Downtown Legal Services, which helped a student receive a medical accommodation that allowed them to pursue graduate studies when they otherwise would not have been able to. That was a really uplifting experience. 

“And some of my fondest memories will be the time I spent just chatting about law and life with the amazing professors who were always exceedingly generous in giving me time: Arthur Ripstein, Brian Langille, Douglas Sanderson, Anthony Niblett, Bruce Chapman, Vincent Chiao, as well as my friends and colleagues.” 

Any advice for incoming law students? “Treat yourself and those around you with compassion, patience, and generosity,” says Charbonneau. 

“Work hard and have confidence in yourself,” says Burger. “Law school can be challenging, particularly in 1L, but as long as you went in for the right reasons you will be fine. Also, don't get stuck in the Law School bubble; it's a great place, but the groupthink can be fierce.” 

“Don't let yourself feel like an imposter!” shares Ghanbari. “It can be so hard not to feel average or below-average when the people you are surrounded with are so exceptional. But the reality is each person at the Faculty of Law is exceptional and you can choose to let all of the collective knowledge and life experience rub off on you in the best way, rather than let it make you feel inadequate!”

St. Bernard says look ahead. “I would really recommend getting in touch with upper year students and recent grads, as much as possible. The law school experience can be greatly improved with the benefit of the perspectives of those who have already completed the journey.”  

Ultimately, no matter where his career journey takes him, Al-Khatib says he made the right choice. “I met people who really cared about the law not just as a matter of academic study, but as a tool to change the world for the better. All of those things made U of T law school a very special place.”