Our Campus: For incoming dean Catherine Dauvergne, law is order

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.” This oft-quoted line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI is reflective of many people’s attitudes toward the legal profession. Despite the popularity of TV dramas such as Law & Order and Suits, the public perception of one of the world’s oldest professions is far from unanimously positive. UBC’s incoming Dean of Law, Catherine Dauvergne, hopes to change that perception.

Dauvergne is currently a professor of immigration law at UBC’s Allard School of Law, and, in July, will be taking over the role of dean.

Dauvergne grew up in Edmonton, and did her bachelor’s degree at Carleton University, studying French literature and political science, later pursuing a master’s degree in the latter subject at the same university instead of directly entering law school.

“The advice that I got at that time and that I would still give to people is, ‘do another degree before you consider law and do something that you really want, because you don’t know if you’ll like law school … so do something kind of fun,” said Dauvergne.

After five years of working as a civil servant and teaching English in Japan, Dauvergne enrolled in UBC Law.

“I had thought a little bit about law before then, but I’m not sure how hard I thought about it. I didn’t grow up in a family with any lawyers -- I didn’t know anyone who was a lawyer,” said Dauvergne.

Dauvergne wrote the LSAT during her undergrad and scored in the 99th percentile. When she enrolled at UBC she was still somewhat uncertain regarding whether or not law was a career that she wanted to pursue.

“I came to law school at the time when my LSAT was expiring. So either I had to go to law school that year, or I had to write the thing again -- so I thought, ‘oh well, I’ll try it for a year and see if I like it -- and I really loved it,” said Dauvergne. “And then I was hooked. That took probably six or eight weeks after starting law school to feel like, ‘wow -- I really, really like this.’”

Dauvergne graduated from UBC Law in 1995, and though she now focuses on immigration and refugee law, she stressed the fact that law is inherently a career where specialization isn’t required.

“The great thing about law school and the legal profession is that law is probably the last truly generalist profession … you don’t specialize!” Dauvergne said. “This is not to say that lawyers and their careers don’t become experts in particular areas and not knowledgeable in other areas, but specialization is an informal process in law.”

Dauvergne's decision to go into immigration law was influenced both by the fact that she received funding for her PhD in that field and that she has worked and is interested in government and the state.

Though she’s never had a legal practice, Dauvergne is a member of the Law Society of British Columbia and does pro bono work for the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Community Legal Assistance Society. She’s represented the former in multiple cases before the Supreme Court of Canada.

“There are serious access-to-justice problems in our legal system, and they are reflected in that sort of configuration of the profession -- that a lot of the profession is about managing significant transactional work and sort of in-house stuff and corporate structure and things like that,” said Dauvergne.

While Dauvergne acknowledges that some students do attend law school primarily or entirely for monetary reasons -- to get a high-paying job -- she believes that most are influenced by more altruistic or intellectual factors.

“I think that the majority of students come to law school because they want to make a difference in the world. I think our students have that in common more than anything else,” said Dauvergne. “Some people come to law school really thinking, ‘I’m coming to law school because I want to have a comfortable lifestyle’ -- but that’s not the majority of people.”

Dauvergne is entering her new role as dean in a transformative period for UBC’s Law program, with Peter Allard having made a major donation to the school this year.

“There are some goals on the horizon that are related to honouring the spirit of the new gift, like strengthening our presence in human rights and really fostering the kind of research that puts the school on the map internationally,” said Dauvergne.

Part of Dauvergne’s vision for the faculty includes improving the school’s experiential learning department. Though she stresses that experiential learning (in the form of clinical work) has been a foundational part of law curriculums since the 1960s, Dauvergne wants her faculty “to re-jump on the bandwagon of experiential learning.”

In regard to concerns that some students have about entering the legal profession due to an uncertain job market, Dauvergne had reassuring words -- so far, for this year’s graduating class, there is a 92 per cent placement rate in articling positions. Dauvergne also stressed that there’s much more to law than simply career options.

“I actually think that the value of studying law has very little to do with the fact that you might get a job as a lawyer,” said Dauvergne. “It’s just a very good liberal arts education. It’s very good for understanding how contemporary society is both organized and disorganized. I think that law is a very powerful ordering mechanism … I think that understanding the mechanics of the law is deeply revealing about how societies are structured.”