The Faculty of Law’s Dean Cecil ‘Caesar’ Wright had a transformative vision for law school that still reverberates today

By Peter Boisseau / Illustration by Peter Strain

From the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Nexus.

Cecil Wright illustrationHis nickname was meant simply as a mark of respect, but it also revealed the kind of leader he was. Cecil “Caesar” Wright transformed legal education in Ontario, and in the process, started the modern University of Toronto law school on its path to becoming one of the finest in the world.

In the early 1940s, all roads to becoming a lawyer in Ontario led to the Law Society of Upper Canada, the province’s governing body for the legal profession. “Caesar” Wright was the dean of the society’s Osgoode Hall, the only recognized law school in Ontario at the time. But in 1949, when the Society moved to reduce academic instruction in its curriculum in favour of more apprenticeship training, Wright resigned in protest and took most of his faculty with him to U of T, where he become dean of a new kind of law school, similar to Harvard and Yale, which was based on a three-year Bachelor of Laws degree (LLB).

“What was he risking? In a sense, everything,” says Lionel Schipper, Class of 1956, aformer partner of Goodmans LLP and now independent director of Clairvest Group Inc., a Toronto-based investment firm.  

“He was standing up to a very powerful, inflexible establishment, and with few exceptions, he was vilified and seen as an enemy of the Law Society, and the men running it.”

A rising star in legal education, who in the late 1920s became the first Canadian to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) from Harvard Law School, Wright had lobbied for more academic education for law students throughout the 1930s and ’40s. By the time he was appointed dean of Osgoode Hall in 1948, he was considered one of Canada’s leading legal scholars and teachers.

But when he became dean of the U of T Faculty of Law and started to campaign to establish his university-based law degree program as the standard in Ontario, Wright not only became persona non grata with many of the society’s governing members, known as “benchers,” he also sparked a debate that resonates to this day.

Should legal education be a vocational exercise controlled by lawyers, devoted to grooming students to be “practice-ready,” or a university program based on academic pedagogy such as the Socratic method, designed to teach law students how to think and reason?

For almost a decade, Wright waged a very public war of words with the law society, which required U of T law school graduates to spend an extra year at Osgoode Hall before admission to the bar.

“Being at the law school in those early days when I was there, you sort of felt that you were involved in a battle for justice,” says Jack Major, Class of 1957, who was a Supreme Court of Canada justice from 1992 to 2005.

“He was a man of strong opinions, and I don’t think the benchers or the politicians found him very easy to get along with. But as far as the students were concerned, we were all pretty fond of him, and he was leading the fight,” adds Major, counsel to international law firm Bennett Jones LLP.

“From what we could see, his sole ambition was to make that law school exactly what it turned out to be.” Major might never have graduated from U of T’s law school if not for Wright. Forced to leave part way through his first year when his father fell ill, Major considered going straight to Osgoode Hall to save the expense of starting over at U of T law school.

“Paying for an extra year of university was going to be a bit of a problem, and I didn’t ask for this, but I was explaining to Wright why I might not be back, and he asked if a bursary would help,” recalls Major.

“I went back and the bursary paid my tuition. That was the human side of Wright.”

Major is one of 14 Supreme Court justices produced by U of T’s law school, which this year had nine students selected as SCC clerks. It is ranked in the top 20 globally by widely respected higher education data specialists QS, ahead of all other Canadian law schools.

Wright and his all-star faculty—including future Supreme Court Chief Justice Bora Laskin—set the bar high from the very beginning.

Wright was demanding and inflexible about the standards he expected, and students came to his tort class with a mixture of nervousness and excitement.

“We used to say we needed to take a shower after his classes, because they were so exhausting,” recalls Henry (Hal) Jackman, Class of 1956, who served as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1991 to 1997, and, as a financier philanthropist, donated millions of dollars to the Faculty of Law’s new home.

“He would throw out hypotheticals and ask questions, and his mind was moving so fast, you had to race to keep up.”

Norm Schipper, Class of 1954, a retired partner at Goodmans LLP law firm, says Wright was determined to make his students prove their worth.

“You’d go to class never knowing when he’d ask a question out of the blue and put you on the spot.”

A task-master inside the classroom, Wright often showed a heart of gold outside of it.

He was known for taking a personal interest in every student—in no small measure because he recognized they were as invested as he was in his new model of legal education. Jackman’s classmate, Ann Cooling-Stuart, was one of the few women enrolled in U of T law at the time, who gladly braved the extra-year penalty so she wouldn’t end up in “some blasted lawyer factory” at Osgoode Hall. “I was accepted and treated well by my classmates. The small size of the whole student body made for a special closeness,” says Cooling-Stuart.

Cooling-Stuart remembers when she informed Wright she’d have to leave before writing her final exams because her baby was due.

She was granted aegrotat standing [credit] and never had to write the exams. “The single thing that really stuck in my mind was when he said they were there not to teach us the law, they were there to teach us how to find the law.”

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The law school has been remarkable not only for the number of alumni who have achieved success in legal practice, but also for those who have made their mark across a wide range of fields, from business and politics to public service and community leadership.

That diversity of success may be the greatest validation of Wright’s vision. He not only believed the university law graduate better served the interests of society than Osgoode Hall’s trade school version, but argued passionately that an academic setting was the only place where students could access a fair and equal education, regardless of gender, religion, race or social background.

“He was demanding of us students, as he should have been, making sure we understood that we had to earn our legal education and not be handed it,” says Maureen Sabia, who graduated in 1965 and is board chair of Canadian Tire Corporation.

“I remember his saying to us on almost the first day: ‘Look to the right and look to the left—only one of you will be here next year.’ And while there were only three girls in the Law School at the time, we were treated in exactly the same manner as the boys, and were never made to feel there was any difference between us. His expectations were the same for every student at the law school.”

In his 18 years at the Faculty of Law, Wright’s intellect, vision and humanity inspired loyalty and reverence among every wave of students. With his booming voice and three-piece suits—complete with watch fob—“the father of Canadian tort law” was a distinct and imposing figure who dominated every aspect of the school, recalls Arnie Cader, a member of the class of 1965 and president of a small privateToronto investment firm, The Delphi Corporation.

“He was seen as very powerful.People were in awe of him and in fear of him at the same time.”

When the Law Society had finally recognized Wright’s school in 1958 after almost a decade of bitter fighting, the man who was legendary for the ferocity of his convictions was moved to tears.

Caesar Wright “had the greatest guts and vision I ever saw,” Herb Solway, Class of 1955, recently told a gathering at U of T law, where he was honored with a 2017 Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Wright’s model became the template for other university law schools that followed, and eventually for the Law Society itself when it merged Osgoode Hall with York University, noted Solway, founding member of Goodmans, who during his career also helped establish the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and bring major league baseball to Toronto.

“All U of T graduates, and indeed all Ontario law school graduates, have been andare the beneficiaries of Caesar’s foresight,” Solway said. “We owe him a great debt.”

So complete was Wright’s vindication, by the mid-1960s his former adversaries at the society were proposing Osgoode Hall amalgamate with U of T law. Wright and his faculty rejected the offer, saying they “could not contemplate anything that would interfere with their existing relationship with U of T,” according to the book The Fiercest Debate: Cecil A. Wright, the Benchers, and Legal Education in Ontario 1923-1957.

Wright died suddenly in April 1967, shortly after being informed he would receive an honorary doctor of laws degree from Osgoode Hall in recognition of his contribution to legal education. It was granted posthumously.

Each U of T Faculty of Law dean since then has continued to build on Wright’s legacy, mindful of the need to evolve and grow legal education along the path he envisioned, even as the debate he sparked so many years ago still echoes in pockets of the legal profession who want academic institutions to take on more practical training.

Wright’s legacy is in fact essential to the innovations in experiential learning and inter-disciplinary law degrees that have enriched U of T’s curriculum, says Mayo Moran, SJD 1999, who in 2006 became U of T’s first female law dean.

“Our graduates go all over the world and do every single thing you can imagine, and having a rigorous legal education that has a lot of breadth is critical to that,” says Moran, now provost of Trinity College.

While there is still some tension with the profession, most accept the importance of having bigger picture goals for legal education, adds Dean Ed Iacobucci.

“The vision that Wright brought was this idea that we are preparing students for a lifetime of success, and I think that vision is in our DNA,” says Iacobucci.

“It is who we are as an institution. It’s been the key to our success over the years, and that vision is still incredibly important today.”