After the Law Degree illustration

Faculty of Law launches co-curricular workshops on leadership and ‘cool’ careers—as students weigh new options

By Karen Gross / Illustration by Andrea Ucini

From the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Nexus.

It’s been more than half a century since Cecil “Caesar” Wright arrived at U of T, determined to revolutionize Canadian legal education, establishing the Faculty of Law as an academic powerhouse where students learn how to think critically about the law. Since then, the Faculty of Law has established itself as an international leader—with scholars, students, and alumni known around the world for their intellectual strength and educational rigour. But beyond the legions of outstanding alumni in all areas of private practice and justices who rank among its graduates, the law school’s alumni are branching out—carving new and sometimes unconventional paths. And current students are getting to hear from them first-hand through a series of co-curricular workshops that expose them to different ways of thinking about their future careers and the skills they’ll need to succeed personally and professionally.

“I remember when I was in law school there was certainly a sense for a number of my colleagues that if they weren’t interested in firm life, they weren’t entirely sure what else they could do with a degree,” said Yousuf Aftab, JD 2006, founder of the New York-based consulting firm Enodo Rights, which counsels businesses on their human rights strategies. Aftab led a lunchtime workshop this past winter as part of the program Lawyers Doing Cool Things, which featured talks by him and several other pretty cool alumni.

Francisco Woo, JD 2017, signed up for as many workshops as he could fit into his schedule, and said Aftab’s talk really stood out among those he’d attended. “I went to these presentations to see how different lawyers use their degrees creatively. I thought his was really fascinating. Most people think you can either go into public interest or corporate law. Not many people say there’s a way to bridge those two.”

Woo came away from Aftab’s talk with some new ideas about practicing law that might incorporate his philosophy background. “For example, I could try to become a corporate ethicist,” he said. “I might be advising corporations on how to conduct their businesses more ethically. I see that now as a possibility.”

Animal rights lawyer Camille Labchuk, JD 2012, headlined another workshop, discussing her career advocating for animals as executive director of Animal Justice. “We’re Canada’s only animal law organization. We’re lawyers who fight for animals,” she said. “I went to law school because I wanted to be an animal lawyer, and more and more students are doing the same now. I really wanted to shed some light on what that path might look like.”

Like most of the others, Labchuk’s lunchtime talk was filled to capacity, which confirmed what she already knew: students are hungry for interaction with professionals, and they are increasingly open to considering less common career paths. “I’m really pleased that U of T is thinking seriously about alternative practice areas and giving students a chance to learn about them,” she said.

The series, along with another distinct workshop series focused on leadership skills, was devised by a collaborative team of law school staff, after hearing from employers and students that bolstering their excellent academic training with some intimate professional advice and exposure would be beneficial for everyone.

“What we’re looking for is learning opportunities in addition to the doctrinal law they do in class that will help prepare them for careers in sophisticated, complex work environments,” said Assistant Dean Alexis Archbold, who oversees the JD program. “Employers are always impressed by how smart our students are, but they also want students to come in with skills that are more workplace centered.” 

Dean Edward Iacobucci noted “our law school has in its DNA an academic approach to a legal education, in part because of our belief that teaching students how to think is the best way to prepare them for success whatever their future path turns out to be.  But this does not deny that there are great, practical problems which deserve academic attention, nor that there are professional skills that also support the flourishing of our graduates.  The Leadership Skills Program and Lawyers Doing Cool Things series both offer terrific co-curricular opportunities that complement the academic program.”

“I saw it as a lot of business skills, for those of us who didn’t have that background,” said Taha Hassan, JD 2017, who attended most of the Leadership Skills workshops. “They included marketing yourself, how to market the product you’re providing to individuals, how to manage a leadership role, how to be more innovative.” He also attended a talk on how to use social media for marketing, and another that matched personality profiles with different leadership and management styles. “The leadership skills workshops gave us a set of opportunities that we could then take advantage of in the workplace. That was really cool.”

“For example, I could try to become a corporate ethicist,” he said. “I might be advising corporations on how to conduct their businesses more ethically. I see that now as a possibility.”

Among employers who have been advocating strongly for this kind of programming is Lisa Borsook, LLB 1982, executive partner at WeirFoulds LLP. “One thing I’ve learned is that practicing law is very different from studying law,” she said. “The qualities you think are going to be important, like your prodigious memory or your analytical skills, they’re not nearly as important as your ability to keep six balls in the air at the same time, to prioritize your responsibilities, and to give strategic advice. And that’s what your clients are looking for.”

For years, Borsook has been a leader in the effort to retain more women in the legal profession. She believes initiatives like the one at U of T will help address that challenge as well, by better preparing all students for the realities ahead and also by exposing them to a wider variety of career options. “When I graduated you either went to work for the government or you went to work for a private law firm,” she said. “Now there are many more options for people graduating that may in fact be more suitable to their personalities, or how they want their careers to progress.”

“It was nice to see women who have very successful careers and were able to tailor them to their preferred lifestyles,” said Katrina Kairys, JD 2019, who attended several of the Lawyers Doing Cool Things workshops led by women. “It brings the practical side in earlier on. It sets you up to be more interested in learning a specific area of the law when you hear from a successful practitioner who works in that area.”

And if, ultimately, that interest takes you outside of the traditional bounds of the practice of law, that’s fine too, says Gloria Epstein, LLB 1977, supernumerary justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal and a frequent Justice in Residence at the Faculty of Law.  “Law school gives you a very solid foundation for any career,” she said. “There’s an increasing number of students who graduate from law school and never practise law. Or they might practise law for a few years and then stop and do something else. The way I think of it is, you graduate with a law degree. You don’t graduate as a lawyer. What are you going to do with that law degree?”

It’s a central question with a growing array of answers, and that’s precisely what both workshop series aim to illuminate. A law degree today can lead to very different places than it did 40 years ago, or even 11 years ago, when Yousuf Aftab earned his.

“Business and human rights is a real emerging discipline. It didn’t exist when I was in law school, not even three years ago,” he said. “At the career level, what I tried to tell the students is, you don’t know the answers now. You’re not expected to have them. There are many paths that your career can take.”

That’s the lesson Alykhan Kurji, JD 2009, learned when he graduated, all set with a corporate job at a prestigious law firm in New York. After the firm deferred his employment for a year because of the recession, Kurji ended up working at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Back in New York, one job led to another which led to an offer at Google, where he currently works as corporate counsel.

“What I told the students was, you’re at U of T law, but you could end up in the Bay Area. You could end up in London. You just don’t know where things are going to lead,” he said. “I know as lawyers and Type A personalities we’re pretty rigid and like to have things planned out. But I find that those of us who have really interesting jobs now, they were just by chance and hard work.”

Archbold says the two programs were so successful in their first year, she hopes to expand them in the coming year and ideally offer a different speaker every week for the Lawyers Doing Cool Things workshops.

“We saw many more students than expected coming out for these workshops, and afterwards when we surveyed them, they rated their experiences quite highly,” she said. “I think it’s a great indication of the willingness and eagerness on the part of the law school to be innovative, to listen carefully to what our students, alumni and partners in the profession are telling us, and to try new things that are fresh and different.”

That fresh and open approach is what most of the speakers urged upon the students as well. View your law degree as an insurance policy, Yousuf Aftab told them. And don’t be afraid to take risks. “Having worked as hard as you have to get here should give you freedom. If you want to follow some other path, whatever it is, you have the freedom to do that precisely because you’ve put in the time.”