//Using law to change the world

Using law to change the world

Students eager to make a difference are altering the look of legal education

MICHAEL VALPY, From Friday’s Globe and Mail

Dylan Smith, 25, has come to law school at the University of Toronto via the Dalits — the "untouchables" — in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Mr. Smith, from the village of Carleton Place outside Ottawa, went to India in 2003 with an undergraduate degree in political science and no interest in becoming a lawyer. He worked as a volunteer for People’s Watch-Tamil Nadu, an organization directed by Henri Tiphagne, one of India’s outstanding human-rights activists.
For a year, he learned from Mr. Tiphagne and other lawyers how to use the law to protect the Dalits — the "broken people" at the bottom of the caste system who make up 21 per cent of the state’s population — from abuse, mainly by police.

"I met lawyers who were angry, deeply angered by the injustices they saw," Mr. Smith said. "They channelled that anger into effective action through their ability to shape the law and use the law for good. I saw law practised in its purest form. It was a big shift for me. I hadn’t explored that before. And that’s why I came to law school."

The study of law offers him a tool, he said, "the best tool that I can use to have the most positive effect in the world."

Thus, tonight, he will participate in a fundraising event for the law students’ Legal Initiatives for Tomorrow (LIFT) project. He hopes it will financially underwrite a trip that he will take to Namibia this summer with U of T medical student Janice Wong to identify small, grassroots HIV/AIDS projects that could benefit from resources the law school has to offer.

Mr. Smith’s story illustrates what, increasingly, the new face of law-school admissions looks like. It also shows how a school like U of T is adapting to reflect its students’ political and social interests.

Surveys of Canada’s youngest cohort of adults show a generation with a strong interest in social engagement, at home and particularly abroad.

Bonnie Goldberg, dean of students at U of T law school, said more and more applicants want to study law, not for professional careers as lawyers, but as an asset for other careers they have chosen, for example, in environmental or overseas developmental work. She noted that a quarter of this fall’s applicants have postgraduate degrees in other fields.

It seems at first blush paradoxical that they are applying to a law school with a reputation of being the most elitist in the country — it is by far the most expensive, with fees at $16,000 a year — and an incubator for Bay Street corporate law firms.

Mr. Smith said the school’s reputation is a misnomer. He said he applied to the school simply because it has the country’s best academic resources and because of its array of social-activist programs.

The array is dazzling, what associate dean Lorne Sossin calls the school’s mission of "blossoming outward."

He says: "If you drill down into our students, what you hear from them is that they want the faculty to facilitate their interests."

The LIFT program is a student initiative started last year after the South Asian tsunami.

Three law students went to Sri Lanka and established a program to bring humanitarian and legal assistance to a small foundation working to improve the lives of women in impoverished fishing communities.

Ten years ago, the law school established a pro bono program to place students with international, national and local public-interest groups. The program is now a national organization called Pro Bono Students of Canada, placing more than 1,000 law students each year with 300 partner organizations.

In what the school calls its Capstone program, about 30 students for the second year in a row have done legal research on AIDS-related issues for the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

Other students have worked on developing programs to litigate for indigenous peoples’ rights in Belize, to analyze and propose reforms to democracy models abroad and in Canada, to develop a new legislative blueprint for Toronto with Mayor David Miller, and to develop a framework for the proposed residential schools reconciliation commission. About 100 law students are involved in tutoring and mentoring at two Toronto high schools.

"This is a really exciting time to be a law student," Ms. Goldberg said.