by Alex Denonville
The Lance- News Editor
The intersection between legal practice and the search for social justice was in sharp focus this week when University of Windsor law students, professors and other legal professionals came together.
With the theme of interdisciplinarity, the 7th Annual Justice at Work Career Conference Nov. 17 highlighted how social change and law converge with a number of other professions and academic disciplines.
Conference co-chair and second year student in the dual law and social work program, Mackenzie Falk, said the “new legal landscape isn’t just about zealous advocacy and a hierarchy between lawyers and clients.”
Falk said making social change requires meaningful contributions from law students and non-law students alike adding the conference highlighted themes of health, immigration, Aboriginal rights and child welfare.
Keynote speaker, Honourable Madam Justice Mary Jo Nolan, made for a perfect example of such intersection. She discussed her long and winding career which saw her employed in a number of social work positions throughout the 60s and 70s, then as a legal professional after she was called to the bar in 1981. Most recently, she was appointed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
Nolan described her “somewhat untraditional journey to the bench,” which was spurred on when her and a number of social work colleagues were fired for speaking out against a lack of resources at the Children’s Aid Society they worked for. She urged students to embrace changes in their career paths.
“But for being fired, I might never have made the step towards law school, a direction that changed my life,” said Nolan.
Luckily enough, her experiences as a social worker gave her a perspective not often seen in the legal field. In family court, for example, she pointed to a need for lawyers to represent families in their interactions with the state.
When asked about how law and social work may address the root causes of injustice and inequality, she said her work was, at the very least, a starting place.
“These things are cyclical, intergenerational and we have to stop it somewhere,” she said. “The law and society need to look at elements that are keeping people from achieving what they could be.”
For Fathima Cader, lecturer and the law faculty’s social justice career coordinator, the conference helped to contextualize the law within larger issues, an effort which she said is needed in the profession. Cader said legal education generally doesn’t think in such a way and it’s up to students and practitioners to bring a social justice perspective to the work they do.
Gemma Smyth, assistant professor and academic clinic director, said the practice of law is often seen as profit-driven, while not necessarily “meeting the needs of everyday people of people struggling.”
“That’s not the case,” she said. “I think [this event] speaks to Windsor’s commitment to social justice, not just at school but after, in terms of careers.”
While the school has carved out a space for students and faculty with a more activist edge, it still takes effort to push the boundaries of discussion and practice.
During the afternoon session, an informal mentoring social, students, professors and community legal professionals discussed the limitations of institutional change.
Assistant professor and international law scholar, Sujith Xavier, said that it’s up to students to “put their elbows out to make space.”
“Students have a responsibility to create a space that’s safe and to demand change,” said Xavier. “You can’t always look to the powers that be to make that change … Systemic change is hard.”
It was the depth and openness of the discussion that made for a successful day according to organizer Mackenzie Falk.
“[The leadership team] wanted to focus on unpacking some complicated issues in a meaningful and intimate way,” said Falk.