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Dean Nicholas Kasirer's address to the Law Class of 2009

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Published: 13 Jun 2009

Madam Principal, join me in celebrating this class with a resounding “Bravo” – it’s a superbly transsystemic word that works in the civil law and the common law, and that sends the right message in English or in French – bravo à la promotion 2009!  Bravo à vous, mes chers diplômés, et bravo à vos familles et vos amis qui participent pleinement à votre succès de ce matin. Bravo from your professors at the Faculty of Law who are as proud as punch of your achievements and for every one of those new legal letters -- BCL, LLB, LLM, DCL -- that you can, with the blessing of the Chancellor and the Provost, proudly string after your name as you leave this great and happy ceremony.

We all know that the McGill scroll that you deservedly clutch in your hands this morning didn’t come easily: it represents years of the nobility of learning, to be sure, but hundreds of frayed casebooks and inkless high-lighters as well, several years of hiking up Peel Street in a sweat, and hours in patient explanation to your grandmother, who just wanted you to become a lawyer, about what “transsystemic” means. And our McGill degree stands as well for 150 new friends-for-life in the Class of 2009, as your valedictorian Lilly Lo Manto, has just made so wonderfully plain.  And for your professors and me, it is your personal stake in the fortunes of Old Chancellor Day Hall, in its storied past and its bright future.

Vous et moi, nous savons fort bien, à partir de ces quelques années que nous venons de passer ensemble, toute la valeur – patrimoniale et, oui, extrapatrimoniale – que ce bout de papier incarne. But the fullest promise of your degree is, I think, best explained to your parents and friends gathered today with you by reference to two qualities that characterize this class so perfectly, and which partake of the highest aspirations of a McGill legal education.  Every class is extraordinary, but my colleagues and I cannot help but observe a special public virtue in the Class of 2009, as well as a sort of nomadic caste of mind evinced by students at this particular convocation.  And these personal qualities of public generosity and free-spiritedness are wonderfully embodied by two of our graduates who share today’s stage with you on this glorious day.  Our newest honorary doctorant, Professor Richard Buxbaum, is a nomadic comparative lawyer in a fine McGill tradition even if he has never studied in Chancellor Day Hall.  And no-one stands for McGill generosity better than the profoundly pro-bono Richard Pound, B.C.L. 1967 who, after ten years in office as our Chancellor presides over his last Law convocation this morning.  Allow me to say a few words celebrating them in celebration of you.  Les hommages que j’offre à MM. Buxbaum et Pound sont aussi, donc, des hommages offerts à la promotion 2009.

Richard Buxbaum has carved out a remarkable scholarly career – something of a model McGill career – by defying the ordinary territorial constraints that jurists sometimes impose on themselves when they take too narrow a view of the law they study and practice.  His pioneer teaching in the law of the European Union, his interests in corporations law that took him to Germany and beyond, and his taste for international economic law have all challenged the national categories and ideas that dominate American legal culture and show us that Professor Buxbaum was a trans-systemic legal scholar long before that expression was coined at McGill.  During a career of 40 years of teaching law at U.C. Berkeley, Professor Buxbaum embraced an approach to legal scholarship predicated on what might be called an epistemology of encounter – that is to say a way of knowing the law that places difference and comparison at centre stage.  Richard Buxbaum’s nomadic life in the law has been lived, comparatively speaking, in the same way that McGill students place the encounter of the civil law and the common law at the core of the trans-systemic mission, and the dialogue between French and English at the centre of our not-so-passively bilingual life on Peel Street.  Allow us this vanity, Professor Buxbaum, in seeing in your work at the head of the American comparative legal academy, something that resonates specially at McGill.  Like you, McGill graduates have, throughout their studies, thrown over the ordinary boundaries of jurisdictional geography, and aspired to understand a pluralistic, transcendent, non-parochial dimension in the law.  The McGill degree is of course a passport of sorts to an international career like the one pursued with such success by Richard Buxbaum.  But as importantly, it is an invitation to think expansively about legal ideas, to defy exclusively state-made perspectives on law in pursuit of a nomadic jurisprudence that one might just as well explore in Montreal as in Singapore, in Woodstock, Ontario or San Francisco.  Et peut-être mieux à Montréal que partout ailleurs …

Et si on la juge sur la base de son immense engagement dans la vie parascolaire de l’Université McGill, la promotion 2009 estime que sa formation juridique déborde non seulement les frontières nationales mais aussi celles des salles de cours locales.  Je tiens à souligner, à côté de la pensée juridique nomade qui habite nos diplômés, un esprit d’entraide qui justifie un mot de reconnaissance de la part de tous vos professeurs pour vos riches contributions à la vie intellectuelle de la Faculté de droit.  Il y a une culture de don qui anime cette belle promotion et qui se vérifie dans la communauté tricotée-serrée que vous avez créé à 3644 Peel dans ces trois ou quatre dernières années. This sense of public virtue is part of the McGill degree too, and is the source of special pride for us as university professors and, thinking of your futures, of profound optimism for us as citizens. 

Je me permets de me tourner vers notre chancelier Richard Pound – comme vous un fier diplômé de la Faculté de droit de l’Université McGill – qui offre, par sa carrière hors norme, une piste d’explication pour la générosité exemplaire de la promotion 2009.  Certes, M. Pound a connu un succès sans commune mesure dans le secteur privé en tant qu’avocat fiscaliste respecté.  Mais de concert avec cette activité professionnelle, il a toujours mené une pratique parallèle, exercée « pro bono », pour le bien public.  Un athlète hors pair dans son sport préféré de natation, M. Pound s’est impliqué, dès la fin de ses exploits dans la piscine olympique, dans la promotion du sport amateur au Canada et à l’international.  Dans ses moments de loisirs, il s’est donné une réputation internationale comme bénévole au service du mouvement olympique et, plus récemment, par son travail inlassable au soutien de l’intégrité dans le sport en militant contre le dopage.  Mais c’est à l’Université McGill que Me Pound a fait preuve d’une générosité qui, pour les diplômés de notre université, ne peut que servir de modèle.  Actif aux plus hauts niveaux dans l’Association des anciens de McGill depuis 40 ans, il a été successivement gouverneur, président du Conseil de l’université avant de devenir, en 1999, le Chancelier de McGill.  Par cette activité olympienne, dans tous les sens du terme, Richard Pound semble nous signaler que notre pleine satisfaction comme juriste exige, à côté de l’activité centrée sur soi-même, une forte action civique posée, en vue d’aider son prochain.

Mr Chancellor, let me give you a taste of how members of the class of 2009 have championed the public good in their moments of leisure. These are the students that have lit up the McGill Legal Information Clinic; set young scholarly journals on health law and sustainable development law on firm financial and intellectual footing; published 12 numbers of the venerable McGill Law Journal, the oldest student-founded law review in this country; they have laboured long hours on Innocence McGill; gone to press as Quid Novi and on the McGill airwaves with Legal Ease; they turned to the theatre with Actus Reus; they have ensured that the Human Rights Working Group and the Black Law Students Association remain going concerns. The class of 2009 reached out to high school students and to aboriginal communities in bold student initiatives to improve accessibility to legal education and access to justice. They consolidated a vibrant Graduates Law Student Association; they enlivened the life of the Faculty with dozens of clubs and associations, from Disabilities and the Law to the Association of McGill Arab Law Students, from OUTLAW McGill to Pro Bono McGill, from intra-mural hockey to the Jewish Law Students Association. They have Women Caucus-ed, Skit-Nite-d and Coffee House-d beyond the call of duty. All of this energy makes the course aux stages seem to be a sleepy affair, but my spies tell me that this class excelled there as elsewhere.

The history of the Faculty is replete with graduates who led public-spirited lives like Dick Pound while maintaining active law practices in the private sector.  One of the first graduates, Alexander Morris, B.C.L. 1850, whose law office was a veritable social service agency for Quebec, helping establish the province’s first schools and hospitals; Samuel W. Jacobs, B.C.L. 1893, spearheaded an effort to help women enter the legal professions from his law office and founded the Canadian Jewish Congress in his spare time.  Florence Seymour Bell, B.C.L. 1920, was refused the right to appear before the Quebec courts, and then devoted her life, after hours, to the National Association of Women Lawyers. There are even graduates who set the bar high for Dick Pound – think of Charles Peers Davidson, B.C.L. 1863, an avid sportsman who was knighted for his public service.  Mr Chancellor, a knighthood would suit you just fine.  Or Warren Chipman, B.C.L. 1904, founder of the League of Nations Society and, like Richard Pound, an accomplished author.  Mr Chipman published a translation of Dante’s Inferno with Oxford University Press when he was 81 years old.  Un défi, même pour vous, M. le chancelier!

Graduates of this great Faculty with whom I have had the delight to work over recent months are equally engaged trying to make the legal community better serve the public.  Take the example of Brian Pel, LL.B. 1985 – an accomplished Toronto tax lawyer who received the James Robb Award for Volunteer Work at McGill for his many years of service on the Board of the McGill Law Journal.  Or McGill Governor Emeritus Gordon Echenberg who has founded a conference series and a Young Leaders Forum on international human rights that has helped the Faculty assert one of its key strategic priorities.  J’ajouterai les noms de tous ces diplômés récents qui ont généreusement conseillé les équipes de McGill à des grandes victoires dans le tribunal-école Mignault et le concours Charles Rousseau en droit international public. Elsewhere our graduates are not only bâtonniers and law society benchers, but chairs of hospital boards, libraries, charitable foundations, and volunteers at the YMCA, pressing the organizational skills they acquired as lawyers to advocate for the public good.  This work speaks to a life of sharing the gift of one’s legal education – financed as it was in part by the whole community – in the public square.  And this fine McGill tradition reminds us that the great dignity of a legal education could become a burden unless we somehow give back to the community that helped us become jurists. 

Please allow me to make special mention this morning of emeritus professors Jane Mathews Glenn and Pierre Gabriel Jobin – two of this University’s nomadic, public-spirited, community builders.  Jane Glenn joined the Faculty in 1971 as its first woman career law professor.  Professor Glenn retired last summer after thirty-seven years of accomplished service to others at McGill University during which time, in a thousand different ways, she quietly helped so many community members with their careers.  Pierre Jobin est venu à McGill de l’Université Laval au milieu des années 1970s, et il a adopté notre Faculté et son culte comparatiste comme les siens avec empressement et intelligence.  Je tiens à applaudir l’exceptionnelle contribution à la communauté de chercheurs en droit au pays faite par le professeur Jobin, président et gentil animateur, depuis de longues années, de l’Association québécoise de droit comparé. Part of the identity of Jane Glenn and Pierre-Gabriel Jobin as law teachers, like that of Dick Pound the law graduate and that evinced by you during your stay here as law students, is wrapped up in an ideal of engaged citizenship, pursued in the public good.  

Nomadisme et générosité : je vois une communauté de diplômés de McGill qui cherche à vivre dans la cité, guidée par un souci constant de l’altérité – c’est bien le message que je retiens de l’esprit qui anime la promotion de 2009, et qui trouve son reflet dans les parcours de Richard Buxbaum et Richard Pound. Beyond the training you now have in the common law and the civil law or the expertise you have acquired through intense graduate study, the true worth of a McGill degree is reflected in the values of encounter with difference and generosity towards others that are somehow bred into a McGill law student.  All of this partakes of an ethical aspiration to respect and honour others that is part of McGill’s deep culture.  F.R. Scott, who began his fabled teaching career 80 years ago exactly, said that the “function of law is to teach tolerance”.  With that great lesson in mind, and with Richard Buxbaum and Richard Pound as role models, it occurs to me that one way for this superbly public-spirited and nomadic class of 2009 to stay close in the coming years is to remain engaged, together, through your lifetime membership in the community of graduates at McGill University. 

In closing, allow me to express the hope that the nomadic cast of mind doesn’t take you away from us permanently, and you can be sure that Principal Munroe-Blum and I have an idea or two about where you might direct your generosity of spirit.  In any event, this superb class has marked the ten years of the transsystemic program, and the five years of my own happy deanship, in very high style.  For that, and for much more, I offer profound thanks to each of you.

Longue vie à la promotion 2009.

Nicholas Kasirer
Dean of Law

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