In the GPLLM, learning occurs on both sides of the podium

By Karen Gross / Illustration by John W. Tomac

From the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Nexus

Illustration for G-ForceWhen Sabrina A. Bandali, JD 2011, joined forces with Mariana Mota Prado, neither really knew what to expect from the collaboration. Prado, an associate professor and associate dean, graduate studies, at the Faculty of Law, had invited Bandali, a trade and anti-corruption lawyer with Bennett Jones, to teach a class with her in the relatively new Global Professional Master of Laws program. This would be Bandali’s first experience as an adjunct, and she wanted to be prepared. “The GPLLM class is very much a class comprised of people with significant business experience,” she said. “We wanted to weave together academic and practical dimensions. We wanted to stimulate a lot of discussion, and give students opportunities to test their ideas and challenge each other on different things.” Together, Bandali and Prado designed a class freely drawing on real-life corruption cases “ripped from the headlines,” drawing on real-life corruption cases including Brazil’s Petrobras scandal and Canada’s own SNC Lavalin. “We had Amee Sandhu, SNC Lavalin’s chief compliance officer, come to speak to the class about what compliance looks like. We had investigators and defense lawyers,” Bandali said. “I found it joyful, to be honest, to teach and learn from this cohort of students who have lived business experience, and to address very practically driven questions about challenges that their companies may really face.”

The GPLLM has come a long way in its short life. Launched in 2011, the program initially enrolled just 17 students and featured Business Law as its sole concentration. Now, three additional streams are on offer, with a projected enrollment of more than 80 students this fall. These students learn from the law school’s leading scholars, adjunct faculty and distinguished visiting faculty, all of whom lend their world class experiences to the various concentrations.

“The response we received from applicants and students has been very positive,” Prado said. “It confirmed our intuition that a more diverse set of courses and streams would improve their academic experience and allow them to tailor their degrees to their particular interests and needs.” 

Adds Dean Edward Iacobucci: “The new concentrations in the GPLLM allow expansion of the program, and a welcome increase in the Faculty’s intellectual footprint both within and outside the legal profession, while maintaining small cohorts of students and enhancing academic focus.  They have been very successful.”

In addition to Business Law, students are now able to choose among three other focused concentrations: Canadian Law in a Global Context; Innovation, Law and Technology; and the Law of Leadership. And while the program does draw a sizable business-based cohort, Assistant Dean Emily Orchard, JD 2005, says practicing lawyers see the merits as well. “There’s incredible value in executive legal education,” she said. “The courses we cover are very of the moment. Innovation Law, for one, is a perfect example of how we are wrestling with changes in technology and the impact of those changes on the practice of law.”

Exhibit A: Charles von Simson, whose long and successful legal career was literally transformed while he attended the program. “It sort of had a nice fit with my professional life at the time,” said von Simson, who, as a partner at Barclay Damon in Buffalo, was spending a lot of time in the firm’s Toronto office. Technology and software licensing formed a big part of his practice, and he enrolled in the GPLLM in part to develop stronger Canadian business connections. “I saw the Innovation, Law and Technology stream as a big opportunity.” That opportunity led to another, truly unexpected one. He noticed an ad on LinkedIn, seeking an American lawyer at ROSS Intelligence, an AI company founded at U of T that makes software for legal research. “I up and quit my firm,” he said, still sounding a bit surprised, and linking his bold leap with the GPLLM. “For one thing, I really did gain a level of fluency in technology issues that put me in a position to be more useful at Ross. And these guys were in Toronto, but wanted an American lawyer. So I think the fact that I was at U of T gave them a sense that I had some knowledge and comfort with Canada. I’m not even acting as a lawyer. I’m what’s called a subject matter expert.”

And von Simson isn’t done with the GPLLM either. He’ll be teaching a class in software commercialization next fall, in the very stream he attended as a student. “I’ll be dealing with people who are really motivated. They don’t have to do it. Many of them are paying for it themselves,” he said. “It’s also cool for your own professional development to really dig in. I’m looking at a lot of cases. It really deepens your own understanding.”

It may well be the lively interplay between the professionals at the front of the room and those behind the desks that sets this program apart. There’s something in it for everyone. The students learn from the teachers, and the faculty definitely learn from the students. “When you’re teaching people who come to the material with a great deal of life experience, they bring a lot of added value to it,” said Emma Phillips, JD 2005, a respected Toronto labour lawyer who is enthusiastic about teaching in the Law of Leadership concentration from its inception. “In the first class I taught, I had a student who was a pediatric surgeon, somebody from the PMO’s office, a retired MP and someone who’d been the chair of an administrative tribunal. I had a whole variety of students from interesting backgrounds, which they brought to the legal questions we were discussing. That allowed us to apply legal principles to real life scenarios.”

That was happening in Brian Cheng’s classes as well. As vice-president and senior client services manager at the Bank of New York Mellon Corporation, much of Cheng’s work involves the review and execution of complex financial transactions. His quest to bolster his scant legal knowledge logically drew him to the Faculty of Law. “As a law school, U of T is the best in the country and definitely one of the best in the world. It was quite an easy decision from the get-go,” he said. “Reviewing legal contracts such as credit agreements or bond indentures, you have to really understand the nomenclature in order to fully interpret the four corners of a contract. Prior to this program I was looking at everything through a business lens.”

The program’s appeal is evident not only through the consistent growth in student enrollment year to year, but also by the number of faculty who choose to come back, despite having busy legal practices and bustling personal lives. “Any teaching engagement is a lot of work,” Bandali admitted. “But it’s a tremendous opportunity to engage with your practice in a different way. The advantage for lawyers in this environment is you’re engaging with the subject matter in a roomful of businesspeople. It’s about being able to have meaningful, rigorous conversations about the law, outside of the comfort zone of lawyer to lawyer. Outside the club.”

As part of their final class evaluation, Bandali and Prado drew on real-life files to create fictitious case studies for their students. Each group had to give advice to a hypothetical board of directors— played by the rest of the class—based on scenarios that included delayed shipments, mysterious payments, questionable moves at the border and other potential bribery and corruption red flags. Students considered issues including liability, potential law enforcement activity and compliance changes they might recommend. “It’s exactly the work that is on my desk on a day-to-day basis,” Bandali said. “It’s real, and it’s a great test of what the students learned and their ability to translate that into practical applications in their business.”

And it’s a great example of the challenging and intellectually charged atmosphere that exists in pretty much every class and every stream of the program, according to Emily Orchard. “Although we have incredibly senior and seasoned professionals in the classrooms, people with multiple degrees and certificates to their name, law is new to them,” she said. “You see that spark of passion that comes with looking at issues through a very different lens.”

Presented in this way, law is even new to the lawyers who sign up. Just ask Charles von Simson, freshly embarked on an entirely unforeseen career path. “I’d be surprised if anybody did the GPLLM and it didn’t turn out to be one of the greatest educational experiences they had, just because of where everybody is in their lives,” he said. “I would suspect that most of the people you talk to would say the same thing.”

Want to find out more about teaching in the Global Professional LLM program? Contact Assistant Dean Emily Orchard, emily.orchard@utoronto.ca, 416-978-6702