Peter A Allard School of Law

Q&A with Catherine Dauvergne

Aug 5, 2020

After five years serving as Dean of the Allard School of Law, Professor Catherine Dauvergne is stepping down to join Simon Fraser University as Vice-President, Academic and Provost (read the full announcement). The Allard Law community has been fortunate to have had Professor Dauvergne’s leadership and guidance during this period; she will be missed by all. Long-time faculty member, award-winning instructor and alumna Janine Benedet will serve as Dean Pro Tem, until the new Dean is appointed. Stay tuned for an interview with Professor Benedet this Fall. In the meantime, Professor Dauvergne recently took some time to chat with us about her time as Dean and share her thoughts and reflections from the past five years. 

Catherine Dauvergne
Catherine Dauvergne 

What have you enjoyed most about being dean? 

It’s really the people, and I mean that in a whole number different ways. There is a phenomenal group of staff and faculty who work at the law school, and they are just a fabulous team to work with. But I also really enjoy working with people in another, slightly different way, in that it’s a real privilege and an interesting part of the job to be able to create opportunities for people which are a good fit for them as an individual—to be able to offer work to people that is challenging and meaningful and what they’re good at, and to create circumstances where people really thrive. That’s enormously satisfying! And there’s an enormous capacity for it in the dean’s role. You’re not always able to get it right, but sometimes you can and when it works, it really works well. 

What gets you through the most difficult days in the job?

In the daylight hours, coffee! I’m not really kidding, I do drink a lot of coffee, enough that for me it has to be nice espresso, and happily the quest for a nice espresso both ensures that I’m not drinking coffee all the time and it gets me out of my office and walking out in the fresh air—and that is actually a very lovely thing to do on a difficult day. Also, one of the things that I did in this job about two-and-a-half years ago was become much more of a fanatic about exercise than I ever was before, so almost every day I’m in the pool or in the spin studio, and particularly on the difficult days. I’m really quite reliant on that. And now I have bikes from my spin studio in my basement to get me through the pandemic.

How have your views on leadership been shaped by your term as dean? 

This is something that I spend quite a lot of time thinking about—I guess fairly obviously because I’m moving from the dean’s job into another leadership role, and the process of deciding to do that really does involve reflecting on questions like this pretty seriously. I think my views about leadership are in some ways linked to what I have most enjoyed about being dean. I really think that leadership is about people. It’s about getting to know people well and understand them, and to really think about the team that you work with in terms of how you can try to help that team and the very different individuals who make it up. Thinking hard about that and trying to understand that deeply is a really important part of leadership. I also found—and I was surprised by this—that the experience of leadership is quite an emotional terrain. I guess when you invest deeply in people and their individual differences that shouldn’t be surprising, but it was.  

I think that I really value transparent leadership, and I’ve tried to work hard on transparency. I’ve also realized that there are dangers there and that there are that transparency for its own sake can easily be self-serving. My learning curve around this probably went in the opposite direction. I started out thinking that radical transparency is probably the right answer for everything and what I realized is that there’s no point in simply being seen to be a transparent leader—there has to be a value in what you’re doing. 

Finally, one of the other things that I learned about during my time—which has very little to do with leadership but is about the experience of being in the dean’s role with a group of about a hundred faculty and staff—is just how much loss there is for people and their families. I was surprised—saddened and surprised—by how many people lost someone, and by how many people we lost as a community during the five year term. I think that’s probably ordinary, but I had not been so close to it before. I learned a lot about people grieving and about trying to figure out how to support people grieving as part of this job. It’s fair to say this was something to which I didn’t give even ten seconds of thought before starting as dean, but it was compelling and important. 

I really think that leadership is about people. It’s about getting to know people well and understand them, and to really think about the team that you work with in terms of how you can try to help that team and the very different individuals who make it up. 

You’re moving into a senior administrative role at an institution that doesn’t have a law school, so in a way this is the end of a big chapter in your career. What do you look back on most fondly from your time as a law professor? 

One of the scariest things about going to SFU is that it really felt like I might not be a law professor anymore! I just had to work my way through that, but I am joining a unit at SFU on international studies and it’s quite likely that I will do some teaching and some graduate supervision in that unit and it will all be about law. So in some ways I’m just leaving a law school, and being a law professor is a bit deeper than that. 

There are all sorts of things I love about being a law professor. I have really loved working with graduate students and I really, really love writing-- even a nice, crisp email can be satisfying but I really have for many years felt that writing was a big part of my job and I am glad of that. And I do like the social justice pursuit of immigration and refugee law. Training people and helping them harness their passion to go out and change the world in those areas has really been a thrill. I hope that there are ways that I continue to stay in touch with that. 

What advice would you have for our students launching or getting ready to launch into their careers? 

I think a lot about this because I have in my family somebody who just left law school! It’s a frequent dinner time conversation and it goes something like this: it’s pretty normal in the early years of your career to change jobs a few times, so don’t be afraid to do that. Don’t feel that some choice you made about articling when you were at the start of your second year of law school ought to determine anything in particular about your future. The legal profession is an enormously broad and diverse place, and you will find a place in it that is a good fit for you. But you have to be willing to change and to move in order to make that happen. 

What, in your view, are the greatest challenges facing legal education? 

Canadian legal education is the only legal education system left in the English-speaking world that has a lock-step relationship between law school and the profession. By that I mean that it’s only in Canada that the vast majority of people who graduate from law school go on to article and then get admitted to practice. This is not what happens in the United States, where articling doesn’t exist, and it’s not what happens in Australia or the UK, where many people get a legal education who are not aiming at all at the profession. One of the things it means is that we have a very small number of law schools relative to other English-speaking countries. It also shapes the content of our curriculum in particular ways and it shapes far more about the atmosphere in which we work than one might imagine. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing or a good thing but I think it’s an under-examined fact about how Canadian legal education works. 

Certainly around the table of the Council of Canadian Law Deans we spend a lot of time talking about the relationship with the profession, which is mediated primarily through articling, and I think we are getting to a real crunch point for this model. Legal education, like all higher education, is getting increasingly expensive, and governments are backing out of funding higher education particularly professional higher education. There are only two ways to increase the number of dollars coming in to law school. It’s just basic math—you ramp up tuition or you ramp up the number of students. But, on the other hand, articling positions are harder and harder to come by, and professionalization within the field also contributes to this—in other words, the very appropriate pressure to make articling positions of higher quality and better value. So as long as we’re expecting everyone to article we’ll never ramp up the number of students and therefore it creates tremendous upward pressure on tuition. But we could address the inevitable financial pressures in very different ways if we were thinking about legal education differently and weren’t trying to hold down the number of students to make sure that we had a very good articling placement rate, for example. 

All of these pressures are building on a system that has basically not looked hard at this lynchpin piece for a very long time, if ever. It’s a challenge created by the core assumptions of our model, which are largely under-examined. And we know there are ways to reimagine legal education because in fact almost everywhere else it is imagined differently.  

What makes a great law school?

Another law dean once told me: you have great students, you have great faculty, anything else that you do is just kind of an accident—and I think he’s right. Just having great faculty and trying to treat them well flows on to so many other things. If most faculty members are happy and most faculty members are highly motivated, then fabulous things happen for students. And when we recruit really good students just having a whole bunch of them in the place together improves the experience for all of them. 

You’re taking time off between your jobs to enjoy a well-deserved holiday break. What’s on your summer reading list?

I have done a lot of re-reading in COVID times. I really like Kate Atkinson and I’ve been rereading When will there be good news (which worked its way into one of my emails today). I’m also rereading Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I have had the project, at the time when much of the shopping was closed, of rereading all of Louise Penny’s mysteries in order to try to figure out the metanarrative. I think that I’ve read all of these books but over a period of about 15 years, and then you just can’t remember any of the back characters. My family always says that I just read trash. They’re all out reading award winning fiction and I am reading, well, reading with the populace. 

If you could choose only one, what is the most formative non-academic book you’ve read? 

Wow, that is a hard question. I read a lot of fiction— maybe forty things a year (and thirty of them are possibly trash, at least not literary fiction). There are a lot of things that I’ve read that I really like a lot.  I think the book I’ve returned to most often is Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant. Like all of Grenville’s fiction it is a quintessentially Australian story.  And it is also a story that tells of the colonial encounter in a very profound way that travels far beyond Australia. One summer I bought it in the Pearson airport, and I could not put it down. I have given it to every member of my family. All my kids have read it, because every Australian should. Perhaps I’ll read it again during this lovely period of leave. 

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