Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Prasanna Balasundaram

Lawyer Prasanna Balasundaram, director of Downtown Legal Services, the community legal clinic and clinical legal education program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law (photo by Nina Haikara)

Story by Elaine Smith

Although his career plan didn’t include becoming director of the University of Toronto's Downtown Legal Services (DLS), the Faculty of Law’s leading public interest clinic for low-income clients, two awards bestowed upon Prasanna Balasundaram demonstrate that the clinic’s ongoing commitment to excellence, service and growth are in good hands.

Balasundaram, who took the reins of DLS in 2021, is the 2024 recipient of two of U of T's most distinguished excellence awards: the Chancellor’s Leadership Award (Distinguished Leader) and the Joan E. Foley Quality of Student Experience Award.

Read: Director of Downtown Legal Services is Double Awardee

The Chancellor’s Leadership Award recognizes administrative staff and librarians who demonstrate demonstrate outstanding leadership and significantly advance the University’s mission to foster an academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish. The Foley award is presented annually to a student, faculty or administrative staff member who has made a distinctive and lasting contribution to enhancing the quality of the undergraduate or graduate student experience.

“The Quality of Student Experience Award is really a recognition of the work I’ve been doing at DLS since starting in 2013,” says Balasundaram, who originally joined the clinic as a supervising lawyer. “The student experience is so crucial for me. It’s a vital opportunity for law students to learn through doing the work, and as the years go by, it’s remarkable to see where the students end up and carry on the DLS experience. I feel privileged to be part of that.”

A recent letter from a U of T Law graduate underscored his success.

“You were an incredible supervisor and mentor and I want to thank you again for the experience I had at DLS and for your support for me and other students,” wrote Rebecca Barclay Nguinambaye (JD 2021), who works for Legal Aid BC.

As for the leadership award, he says, “I’ve been able to do quite a bit since I became director and I’m happy to have recognition for that.”

Balasundaram was thoroughly enjoying his work as a supervising lawyer at DLS when the director’s position came open.

“I dealt with fascinating cases and was teaching bright, engaged law students in pursuing something meaningful together, so I wasn’t immediately interested in the position,” he says. “However, people encouraged me, and I though I could provide leadership and make an impact on a broader scale.”

In assuming that position, Balasundaram continues striving to expand and improve its services to the community and the experiential education it offers to students at the U of T Faculty of Law.

“Three years into my position, there continue to be challenges, but it’s an exciting and fulfilling role I’ve stepped into and I’m grateful for the opportunity,” he says.

“One significant development is the addition of a new area of law to our roster of services: disability, health and income supports. Various community organizations say there is a need for greater service in this area and we’re happy to step up and serve an unmet need. It will also allow our students to take on a new, interesting, intersectional area of law. I’m proud that we’re able offer this, creating a new learning and service opportunity.”

Another development in which Balasundaram takes pride is the closer integration between the doctrinal learning in the legal classroom and the experiential education offered at DLS.

“There’s a very positive engagement starting to happen between the law faculty and the legal team at DLS,” he says. “We’ve tried starting to emphasize the expertise of the DLS supervising lawyers as something of value to the faculty members and to highlight the synergies between our expertise and what they want to achieve in the classroom.

“We’ve started a community of practice at DLS and invited both the law clinicians and educators to share best practices and work through problems. It’s an opportunity to tap into our expertise.”

Balasundaram also wants to continue leaning into the excellence of the DLS’ educational opportunities by strengthening it and hiring additional students each summer. In the past, the clinic supported 16 to 22 students each summer before they returned for credit in the fall. This coming summer, there will be 28 student caseworkers, and he’d like to see more.

“DLS can serve as a launching pad for legal careers, especially in fields underserved by Legal Aid,” he says. “I want to invest in these students and ensure they grow, and we’ll be looking to build on our success through fundraising and grants to ensure we can continue to do this important, rewarding work.”

Read: Donation to U of T's Downtown Legal Services to advance legal aid

Meanwhile, the clinic maintains a strong partnership with the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work to ensure that its clients have wraparound services, providing both legal assistance and support with housing, employment and healthcare as needed.

“I call these the social determinants of justice,” says Balasundaram. “Our clients can’t pursue complicated, arduous legal procedures without being secure in the other aspects of their lives. Now that we’re expanding into disability, health and income support, these social services will be more crucial than ever, so we’re eager to ensure best practices and increase our collaboration.”

Balasundaram says he doesn’t regret for a second choosing this career path and he wants the students who work at DLS to feel the same way.

“When you have a good day at the office, you have changed someone’s life and I can’t think of a better feeling than that.”

Pinnacle Awards Program — Awards of Excellence

The University of Toronto recognizes exceptional contributions made by its administrative staff, faculty members, and librarians through the Pinnacle Awards Program. These awards aim to highlight the significant role of these individuals in supporting the University’s mission to foster an academic community where every member’s learning and scholarship can flourish across the tri-campus.

The Pinnacle Awards Program comprises three distinct awards: the Chancellor’s Leadership Award, the President’s Excellence Award, and the Ludwik & Estelle Jus Memorial Human Rights Prize. The awards are aligned with the University’s broader Awards of Excellence Program through a partnership with the Division of University Advancement.