Slice of life: A front row view when the gavel comes down

Slice of life: A front row view when the gavel comes down McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 4, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 16
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > May 4, 2000 > Slice of life: A front row view when the gavel comes down

Slice of life:
A front row view when the gavel comes down

| Fourth-year law student Nanci Ship got a dose of reality about the practice of law and the justice system during her year-long clerkship with judge Claude Parent of the Quebec Court's criminal division.


"It's certainly not as smooth a process as on paper or on television," she says. Ship discovered that more people plead guilty than she had thought and consequently trials are held far less frequently.

Fellow law student Alan Suen also had to adjust his perception of the legal pro-cess after his own clerking experience.

"What surprised me the most was how chaotic and noisy a courtroom could be," Suen says. "On TV, the courtroom is always very pristine and nobody makes any noise."

Offered by the Faculty of Law, the Court and Administrative Tribunals clerkship offers about 40 third- and fourth-year students the opportunity to get some hands-on experience working for a judge at the Quebec Court of Appeal, Quebec Superior Court, Quebec Court or an administrative tribunal. Worth six credits, the year-long course requires students to work eight to 14 hours a week with the judge to whom they have been assigned.

Each student's experience depends on which court they're working with. Some may be asked to research and prepare memos on a specific aspect of a case, legal precedents and a recommendation on a decision.

Others sit through court proceedings to get a front-row view of the legal system in action and then spend time discussing the case in chambers with their judge.

While students explore different facets of the law in a theoretical sense in most of their classes, the clerkship offers them an opportunity to witness the legal system in action.

"It's a very important complement to what we do in the faculty," says law professor Pierre-Gabriel Jobin who runs the course. "This kind of experience gives them a good idea of how the law works or doesn't work."

One lesson students learn while sitting through a trial is the impact witnesses can have on a case and the extent to which cases hinge on testimony, Jobin says.

Ship got a taste of courtroom dynamics during her clerkship. "I didn't have to write legal memos because my judge thought it would be more useful to have me in court than in the library," she explains. She was impressed by the fact her judge didn't limit himself to what each side told him about a case. "He tried to find out what was really going on," she says. "I was more influenced by how lawyers presented their cases, whereas he could see through that."

He also arranged for her to spend time learning about other parts of the legal system, be it meeting with a crown attorney, sitting in youth court, going out on patrol with police officers or spending time with legal aid lawyers.

"Legal aid is very fast. They have so many cases that it's almost pro forma, let's get this over with," ship says, snapping her fingers.

Her evening on the beat with officers from Station 25 in Côte des Neiges was spent looking for a suspect who was walking down Victoria Avenue randomly hitting other pedestrians. "We never found him, but it was fun sitting in the back of the [police] car, sirens going and the car flying down the street," Ship grins.

The placement most coveted by students is with the Quebec Court of Appeal where many of the most interesting cases are heard.

Jeffery Commission was one of a few to get picked. "I learned more there than in three years of law school," he says of his clerkship with Joseph R. Nuss.

Commission found himself wading through as many as 500 pages of documents to prepare 10-page memorandums that included a summary of the facts of a case and the legal issues involved. He enjoyed the intellectual challenge of issues at the appellate level, but admits the workload was heavy.

Initially, memos could take 30-40 hours to write, but by the end he'd managed to whittle that down to about 10. The importance of writing well and carefully choosing his words was one of the biggest lessons of his clerkship. "Every word I would put down on a memo had to mean something, especially at the appellate court. Every word counts."

Working for an appeal court judge with a reputation for making his clerks work hard was a bit unnerving at first. "I was a little wary going into it," he admits. "There were sleepless nights but I am glad I did it."

So is Suen. The third year student, who put criminal law at the top of his wish list when he applied, clerked with Judge François Doyon of the Quebec Court's criminal division. One of the few trials he was able to observe offered a moment of drama that most law students could only dream about. He attended a preliminary inquiry to determine whether the accused were part of the Rock Machine biker gang.

"There was high security and I got frisked right down to taking apart my wallet and clipboard," he recalls with a tinge of excitement in his voice. "I actually had to get my judge to let me into the courtroom."

While hanging out with judges isn't part of the law school experience, it's the most valuable aspect of the clerkship, Suen says. "The best part was being able to talk to the judge about a case afterwards and ask questions the textbook couldn't answer."

It's a feeling echoed by many students, Jobin says. "A judge is a rather powerful person in our society and when they take time to explain their approach to the student, it's a privilege for the student," he says.

Nathalie Weizmann was in the unusual position of working with two judges simultaneously. The fourth year law student clerked for Superior Court judges Yves Mayrand and Pierrette Sevigny, who often like to share students. "It was good because I got to see two different styles," Weizmann says.

"It made me realize they each have their own personality, their strengths and weaknesses. You don't realize they're human because you look up to them and only read up about them in class. You learn that they ponder for months, they have trouble falling asleep because they're worried about what they should decide ultimately on a case. And they love what they do."

While Mayrand would have her research specific issues of a case, Sévigny would discuss the case with her and then have her write a draft judgement with a particular outcome in mind. "It was very educational, but scary at first," she says. "It's one of the most enriching experiences I've had so far."

Weizmann enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Sevigny, one which surprised her. "She really included me," she says. "She took me to court, had me in her chambers, would take me for lunch with her friends and would drive me home. She was like an aunt. She was very friendly and warm. It made it very easy to talk to her and work with her."

For his part, Jobin urges law students to try to take advantage of the clerkships. "Otherwise you get a nice vision of law but you don't know how the law works," he says. "The nature of law isn't to be the subject of legal education."

Weizmann agrees. "It was a breath of fresh air compared with sitting in class, taking notes," she says. "The best way of learning is hands-on."

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