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Episode 3 – Robert Leckey

Daniel welcomes his esteemed guest, Me Robert Leckey, dean of McGill's Faculty of Law. Daniel asks Robert what distinguishes McGill and why anyone should get a legal education in the first place when Google exists. Thorny questions about diversity, campus radicalism and anglophone-francophone relations are fielded. Daniel says "every law is a crime against liberty" and, well, Robert schools him. Together, they offer their views on community, the tension between intellect and emotion and the future of legal discourse in the age of social media.

Full Episode Transcript

Daniel: Hello. Welcome to this episode of Viva Voce. I'm your host, Daniel Goldwater. I'm greeted today by a very special guest, Me Robert Leckey, the dean of McGill University's Faculty of Law. Hello Me Leckey!

Robert: Hi.

Daniel: How are you?

Robert: Very good, yourself?

Daniel: I'm in a good place. Is it okay if I call you Robert?

Robert: Sure.

Daniel: I appreciate that. I'm very honored to have you today, not to sing your praises too much, but it's a very serious position you have, in my estimation, being the dean of a law faculty at an institution like McGill, which I think is very well respected. And how long have you been dean?

Robert: Since July 2016, so two and a half years.

Daniel: Two and a half years.

Robert: Yeah.

Daniel: You look young to me to be a dean.

Robert: We've had younger deans, so not so young.

Daniel: Okay, so how does one become a dean? I'm ignorant.

Robert: Well there's a selection process within the university. You apply for it. And, there's an interview process, reference check, all that. And eventually, the provost and the principal offered me the job.

Daniel: And you were a professor prior in family and constitutional law?

Robert: That's right. I'd been teaching at McGill since 2006.

Daniel: Okay. Sometimes I think because I practice family law and, well, I have a certain affection for the practice, though I had the impression it's not typical for a dean of a law faculty to have that sort of background. Am I misguided?

Robert: I think it's hard to say. I think deans have a range of different backgrounds and there's not a single field that qualifies one better than another. We've had a couple of previous deans with an interest in family law, and just as Nicolas Kasirer, I think about the Court of Appeal, of course, specialist in family property. So it can happen.

Daniel: It can happen, and it has happened. So my perception often is, look, I'm a practicing attorney. In fact, it was just my sixth anniversary at the bar, just the other day. And I was reflecting on this career and I'm very curious about what the kids are up to, if I may put it that way, at the faculties. And one of the things that I've seen at least when I'm taking stagiaires into my firm is, they're brilliant when it comes to the law. They have the reflexes. I see the training. One thing that concerns me as a practitioner is sometimes the lack of some tech abilities. I've noticed, for example, they don't necessarily know how to put together a spreadsheet. What does McGill do to prepare students for the future of law, which might be a bit more tech-focused, beyond a spreadsheet?

Robert: You raise a couple of things, the question of a technical training, and fundamentally, our university is not necessarily a place where the students should be getting, all of the technical skills they might even practice. We do continue to think that the l'École du Barreau and even the places where people do their stage have a role to play in the training. So I wouldn't claim that our students have the all the technical skills, or that we should be using decently paid full-time law professors to be teaching them how to do an Excel sheet, right? So you gotta ask what do we do best. But the way we teach is adapting, we are aware that the things people need as they leave the faculty are changing, and so that the core of a McGill legal education continues to be a focus on a deep understanding of the law, a focus on solving problems with law, thinking creatively, but we are trying to make sure that the students know what century they're going out to practice in. And so there have been additions of courses in things related to technology, cybersecurity, e-discovery. This year reaching outside the kind of fully legal field, we've brought in an accounting course as an elective into the faculty. So some of the students will at least have seen a balance sheet in the way that you're mentioning.

Daniel: That's actually encouraging. Though, speaking to the core product, as you define it, well, I'll mirror it back to you, tell me if I have it correct. The core product essentially of the faculty is teaching people how to think, how to reason, and to have a legal insight, a legal training. And to go too far afield in these rapidly changing times might be unwise. Is that fair?

Robert: Well, I think it's important to expose them to a degree to changing fields of law. But there are certainly some things changing so fast that, if you focus on today's law, is it even relevant when they're out there two years later? And so, we take very seriously that we are people's most sustained period of legal education at the beginning of a career that could take 50 years with life expectancies. It could be longer still, so when I come across alumni of ours who've been out working for decades, some of them tell me that they feel that they got tools and abilities to think that they carried through fields of law that didn't even exist when they were students, and I'd like to think we're doing the same thing for the current people.


Daniel: Have you noticed over your career and over your lifetime any particular changes in the way that the law is being instructed, that trends that might be changing in legal training beyond the things you've already mentioned?

Robert: Yeah, there's clearly been a shift from when I was a student to the way we're teaching now. There's less focus in the classroom on just delivery of content through magisterial lectures with someone at the front. And we reflect that, in a sense, in the physical space of the faculty. So a year ago, we completed renovations of classrooms, and we took two rooms that used to having sloping floors all focused down at the person lecturing at the front. And we flattened the floor and put in furniture that moves, so that people can be working in groups, they can be in a big circle, they can be doing a whole lot of different things because the teaching we're doing today much of the time is more active than the students just taking their notes. And if you think about how the technology has changed, the one thing that everybody can access right now is information. So I think there's less of a focus on just dumping reams and reams of information on the students and we're trying to focus on what they're able to do with it, how they're able to solve problems with it.

Daniel: I like to think I'm still young, and I'm an alumni of Université de Montréal, and I remember having to do our research methods class and actually going to the library and, god, I wish there was "control F" just to find the key word. So do you find that these tools are maybe taking away from the absorption of the legal information that these children, well, children, I shouldn't say children.

Robert: No you shouldn't.

Daniel: No, young people, are perhaps not necessarily involved with the journey and more of the result?

Robert: I worry, and there are moments where we'll try to make sure that people are actually learning how to understand the structure of something, and the control f has its limits. If there's a typo, if the word is spelled wrong, it's not going to show up in the "control F", so there are times when you need to be able to check to know where am I expecting to find something, and so there I times when it's still important I think to look at the Civil Code, hold it in your hands, to realize that there's a structure, to realize that there's a number of books. They follow a particular order, that something's placement in the code is not random. And I think we need to make sure that students are still thinking about those things. That it's not just one big warm bath of searchable data. That they understand that there's a structure to these things. So it's a mix. You look at the sea of laptop backs in front of you, and you do realize that it's certainly not the instinct of many of these people to reach for a book and look at the table of contents and look at the index and try to navigate it that way.

Daniel: Given that I'm a graduate of Université de Montréal, there was an attitude that I there detected that, at McGill, well, this is... obviously every faculty has their own sort of territoriality perhaps and it's only my experience of it, but it was often said that at McGill, it's a far more of a Socratic, intellectual process, it's more of a what does the law want, that the law is waiting to be discovered, as goes the Common Law saying. And that when we went to bar school, I was told by my colleagues there that the McGill students are not as practical in terms of what they will see in bar school and being a practitioner. They have big beautiful minds but... what would you say to that critique?

Robert: Well, practical, it depends what you mean by practical, and I think consciously we don't spend the lion's share of three and half years drilling students on the kinds of questions they might find on a bar exam because it strikes us that that's not our role. That's not the thing that we're best at, and it's not that thing that prepares them best for a long life either. There are times where some of the students will complain that a course feels, it strikes them as theoretical, more than Socratic, a word some of the students use in their complaining, they'll say something is too theoretical. And I've been very pleased to have experiences where students who left my class, report back to me that once they found themselves out working, they came to appreciate much more than they expected to, the intellectual engagement they got in the faculty. The ability to really think things through. To imagine how you would change things or to understand the reasons behind things. So yeah, there is a lot of questions, why are things the same, why are things this way, how could you imagine changing it, why is it different in the Common Law than Civil Law, why is it so different in indigenous tradition. There's a lot of that kind of thinking going on, but I think I would reject the sort of sharp distinction between that kind of engagement and things being practical.

Daniel: Well, I take your point and, I think has a different experience in their career and their education, though I also think a lot of people do have to consider the job market, and there's the reality of the commercialization of legal services. What do you feel McGill is doing under your tenure to prepare these students for the changes that they're gonna see right now and that are happening as we speak in the job market for lawyers?

"Everyone has a different experience in their career and their education, though I think a lot of people do have to consider the job market, and there's the reality of the commercialization of legal services."

Robert: One of our alumni told me recently, when she was speaking about the distinctive feeling she had as a McGill student, I said "Can you try to put it into words, what is it you see in our graduates?" She described it as students she felt were capable of navigating uncertainty, of working in circumstances where there was no clear answer to things. And so in a situation where the world is changing very rapidly, that strikes me as a big strength, and that I think comes from the way we've been teaching law for decades. In a very concrete immediate way though, one of the additions to our program that my predecessor started and we've been unrolling on my watch, we have these upper year electives courses called "focus weeks". It's a week long, it's a single credit, and to keep the stakes slow it's pass/fail. And, for these, we typically bring in instructors from outside. So it's someone exposing the students to things that the full-time people in the building are not able to share with them. And it compliments the core offerings in I think a very exciting way. We've got a negotiation workshop, we've had contract drafting. We had that really hands-on thing using the e-discovery technology, using litigation. And so those kinds of things I think diversify the experiences and the knowledge that students are getting while they're with us. And the vehicle's very flexible, so we can add. Next year's focus week courses have not been chosen yet. We can turn on a dime to bring in quite new things there, whereas the core courses, the three-credit courses the six-credit courses, that's a slower process to change those. So I like the idea that we keep the intellectual heart of the program, but that we're able to make adjustments on the sides.

Daniel: Speaking of flexibility and diversity, there's subject I would like to touch on, despite the fact that it can be touchy, is diversity in the law faculties and the professors who are helping these students along. I found in my educational career that sometimes, especially the student cohort, might be predominantly native-born, but this is just in my experience, it's my perception, I don't have the data. And I didn't necessarily see the student diversity or even the diversity of professors in terms of their cultural backgrounds and what their stories were or where they came from. It was difficult for me to articulate. I kept it to myself because I felt the knowledge is the knowledge and that's all there is. I shouldn't have to care so much about where the student body, what their origins are, or the origins of my teachers. Would you care to comment on that? The cultural diversity and origins of the professorial class and the students, how does that matter? Convince me.

Robert: It's important. You've got to be careful to avoid the facile assumptions that a person is going to represent a community or an ethnic group, but you pull back from an idea that a single individual can represent anything. And you say fundamentally, does the group of people teaching or does the group of people preparing to offer legal services, what's the alignment between this group and the diverse community that's outside our walls? And there has to be some kind of connection. We have to be exposed to different backgrounds and experiences and points of view in order to test your ideas, in order to think intelligently, to have a cultural intelligence, I think, to function and excel in our society. So it's been very much on my mind to make sure that our outreach for admissions to the undergraduate program is reaching beyond the traditional insider groups. We've been very careful in recruiting professors, to be sure that we are encouraging a broad range of candidacies. One of the ways we've done that, it doesn't make sense to post an ad saying "We're looking for a particular background." But we've invited people to indicate in their job materials, the extent to which they bring a critical perspective to their research and teaching. We've indicated in the job postings that we have a diverse student body, and so we're interested in if they can demonstrate a capacity to be teaching a diverse student population, to focus on the capacities and skills. And that's one way to invite people and to indicate that the offer is cast very widely. The other thing and we don't talk about that often and the faculty, but I've tried to, or in legal education in general, the kind of invisible diversity is also socioeconomic, so law school can tend to reproduce privilege for people whose parents were professionals or even lawyers. And so it's important to make sure that we're also aware of how this space feels to someone who doesn't perceive the university or the law faculty as a necessarily welcoming place or a familiar space. So I think we have to work on that too.

Daniel: I can say, just at least for myself, having now been in the practice for some years, that it is something that pains me. There's lawyer jokes and the perception that we are some privileged class and that we are alienated from the common struggle and the people we're supposed to serve. And it's something that can be poked fun at, but it's also something painful, and I do search sometimes for examples of lawyers who are not just the ones serving corporate interests at large enterprises, which need to have their interests put forward too, it's not to say it's a zero-sum game, but I did notice in the faculties that many want to join the large firms, which is a great training ground, a great place to learn, but maybe I was naïve. I thought lawyers were supposed to protect the vulnerable. How is McGill satisfying or alleviating this concern that I have that we're not geared towards that as much as maybe we should be?

Robert: There's a number of things. We are very cautious or careful in settings for example, the legal ethics and professionalism course was recently revamped, and there's a big focus on outside guests coming in. A lot of alumni, and we're very careful, the instructor and I who runs that. We speak and we try to make sure we're exposing students to a broad range of practice areas, so that ethics is not simply ethics in a big law firm. We're getting people from community organizations, people from solo practice, from a range of settings so that the students are seeing when they're being taught legal material, that takes place in a whole range of areas serving a range of clienteles. We have extremely vibrant student groups, the faculty supports and works with them. There's Rad Law for the radical lawyers. There's DALA, Droit Autrement Legal Alternative, and so they are constantly profiling people who are taking a legal education into a less traditional area of practice, and so we're trying to get that out there. The career development office has alternative career days, public interest career days, and so we're trying to make that very present. What you've got to be pushing against is that there is a weight from the traditional practices, which are from the first week of law school, they're handing out key chains and mugs and highlighters and post-it notes, and so to make sure that the students have a balanced sense of the ways that they can take their legal education and put their conception of justice to work in the world, you need to make extra efforts I think to show those other paths.

"We have to be exposed to different backgrounds and experiences and points of view in order to test ideas, in order to think intelligently, to have a cultural intelligence, to function and excel in our society."

Daniel: It's a careful balance. I'm starting to recognize you as the shepherd over there, if I may put it that way. I'm being a little metaphorical. It's a careful balance. First of all, this Rad Law thing sounds kind of awesome, I must say.

Robert: There's an annual Rad Law conference at Yale, which a big contention of our students go to every year.

Daniel: I'm gonna sign up for their newsletter. I think that's pretty cool. On the other side of it, speaking of balance, there is this discussion often in the public and in the media surrounding campus radicalization and campus politics. People have different stakes, different perspectives on this question. I recall, I was at the McGill faculty not that long ago, and I saw on a bench there was some graffiti that said "down with the patriarchy", which I found curious, I found it a brave comment to write. And I thought to myself, are the young people of today perhaps over-focused on disruption and lack of social welfare that they perceive? This discussion of microaggressions and identity politics can go too far field. It might not prepare them for how rough life might actually be in practice. What would you say to that?

Robert: You come to the university campus and there's a huge range of positions and some of the most radical people might be some of the people in the undergraduate student government, and McGill's undergraduate student government hits the headlines from time to time. Within our faculty there's a huge range of views and there's a whole lot of energies that are channeled I think often in very constructive ways. So, as I mentioned, a huge number of student groups. There's a women of colour collective. There's a black law students association, indigenous law students, Muslim law students, Jewish law students, groups doing a whole lot of things. And most of the time I think they're focusing on doing constructive things that they care about rather than getting too caught up I think in some of the debates you're mentioning. So they are taking responsibility for trying to change the faculty in ways they see and trying to change the community in ways that line up with their values. But I think fundamentally, the students have a lot of intelligence and a lot of commitment they bring to the things they care about.

Daniel: Yeah. I think that's fair. I've been challenged by some of these McGill students, in fact, and I've been helping out with the McGill pro bono legal clinic, and sometimes the things that they bring to the table make me question my own assumptions and that's all for the better. To pivot to something similar, McGill University is sometimes perceived as Anglo-centric perhaps by some, given that it has a certain institutional memory, a certain history, and we are within Quebec which has its own institutional memory and its own cultural particularities. What are you doing to help these students integrate and feel for the community that surrounds them, which is Quebecois?

Robert: The faculty of law is probably the most intensely bilingual unit within McGill University, and so English and French have coexisted and thrived and learned from one another since the faculty began in the mid 19th century, and so that's simply part of life in our faculty. And so I think there's always an experience of studying law in our faculty, whether you take advantage of the course we offer in French, the entire obligatory program is offered in French as well as English whether you don't or not, you are still in a building where people are switching between the two all the time. There's I think fundamentally an ongoing awareness of the richness of Montreal and of the Quebec environment we find ourselves in. So I think some of the abiding, old images of McGill as Anglo-centric, I think are out of date for the whole university, but particularly inapplicable in our faculty. The language balance is always a bit delicate. Some of the francophones who come to the faculty do so because they want to improve their English. And so at times the sections offered in French may have low enrollment and at times students will say they want more of them, but we have to keep an eye on how things go and different student leaders, for example, will have different sensitivities to it. So there are times when one will need to sort of reach out to the student government and say make sure that there's a francophone presence at skit night or things like that. So you have to keep an eye out because it's not regimented in a way like they are via Canada or Via Rail. It's more organic, it's more mutual respect and tacit practices. It's an ongoing practice, the vivre ensemble of the faculty, but most of the time it functions in a very beautiful, very special way. We hosted a panel on legal education with Thomson Reuters last January, and one of the reasons they wanted to do it at McGill was that they didn't think, I think rightly, that there was any other law faculty in the country where they could have a conversation that would talk about legal education in civil law schools in the Common Law schools and where the whole panel would move back and forth between English and French seamlessly across the evening, and that's what took place.

Daniel: You kind of make me reflect and feel proud of Montreal and Quebec because of the way you're articulating this. On the one hand, there is the bilingual element, there's the bi-juridical element. We are a mixed-law jurisdiction, of Common Law and Civil Law, and then you have the multicultural component.

Robert: And indigenous presence is increasingly prominent.

Daniel: So speak to that please a bit because, again, at University of Montreal, and I must give a shout out to Jean Leclair, a wonderful professor, and I took his class on indigenous rights and indigenous law, though what is McGill doing on that front?

Robert: Like every law school in the country, we had initiatives underway, and then the Truth and Reconciliation report came down and confirmed the need to keep working on this. In line with our basic commitment to the idea that we don't have legal traditions in separate boxes but rather integrated together, we are working to weave indigenous traditions into our other courses. So there's a first-year criminal justice class where indigenous perspectives around correction and retribution and reconciliation come in. We have a second-year property class, which integrates Common Law and Civil Law property and also indigenous approaches to property as well. So that's a sort of bold experiment that's now in its second or third year. And there's also indigenous content woven at other moments throughout the program. It's important to us that the first-year students sense from early on in their time in the faculty that that's an important part of the legal sources that we'll be looking at. And so I was very proud, we had a chief from Treaty Six with us in September speaking to the entire first-year class with a couple of elder colleagues in a very special session. And even the first or second day of orientation there's what we call an inter-tribal welcome where there's an indigenous band that comes with an elder, and so there's a smudging ceremony and a sort of welcome to students. We want to say from day one, this is part of your experience in the faculty, and our first indigenous professor started working at the faculty in August, and a second will join him a year from now.


Daniel: I've often said that there's a third solitude that we don't talk about often here, we talk about two solitudes. We think of Quebec as English and French communities though the indigenous one is often not part of the conversations we have, so I think that's a great initiative. I'm going to ask you a naïve question. Why would somebody want to get a legal education? What's the need for it? What does it actually give somebody? Can't you Google this stuff?

Robert: You can Google the answers to many legal questions, although at times you will get yourself into trouble if you rely on what you find on the website, but if you say to yourself, why are there hundreds and thousands of McGill law graduates and graduates from other law faculties, and in my travels at least, I meet many people who are not doing this kind of practice they might have imagined for themselves in law school or not doing legal practice at all strictly speaking. I really don't meet someone who says, "oh, I'm sorry I went to law school. That was a waste of my time. I wish I had not learned those things or learned to think that way or pushed my brain in that way?" So what are you getting, even if you don't intend to practice? You're getting an understanding of how society works, how power is exercised, how institutions operate, whether it's governments, whether it's municipalities, hospitals, schools, corporations, partnerships, the family, you're getting a sense of how power and resources are allocated, what fair processes are, and you acquire a certain authority. There's a certain responsibility I think with having it once you become a lawyer whether you pay your bar fees or not, you're always a lawyer to a degree, you always command a certain respect. The moments you're sitting on a board of a not-for-profit, sometimes people defer too much to the lawyer, even if it's not a legal question, their view is just as valuable as mine. There's a way of thinking, a way of expressing yourself that I think people continue to find extremely valuable. I have alumni who are in business and they feel that the legal training was superb preparation. They may have gone on to do a business degree afterwards but they still see that they are drawing on something from the legal education.

Daniel: Higher education is what it is. You can get an education in all sorts of other subjects. This is a broad question: In your view, what is the spirit of a jurist, what is the particularity there in that formation?

Robert: The particularity is I think knowing that there's always two or more sides to an issue. So there's an ability to look for and to anticipate multiple points of view, to take those into account, to respond to them, to listen with humility, to advance and advocate for people, to ensure that people are respected and treated with dignity, to plan processes. The whole system is set up with the idea that everybody makes mistakes until the Supreme Court has the final word, everything that you do is subject to correction and review. And I think there's an inbuilt humility despite all the lawyer jokes or the perceptions that might be otherwise. I think the humility, the listening, the attention to serving others, I see as fundamental.

Daniel: I'm paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson who said that every law is a crime against liberty, and there is sometimes a reflex that I can even cop to that, while these laws exist to help us get along, why can't we get along without them? Perhaps the rhythm and the purpose of civilization is to exit the law and to internalize civil behavior and reflex. Do you think that the commercialization of legal services is something that should continue and will continue evermore or if you had to become very prospective about this, where do you think ideally we should be heading beyond just the industry?

Robert: Well, lots of things are becoming available in a more accessible way, right? So you can get the software to help you make a standard will or a standard separation agreement and that's all fine, but people continue to need help or advice to plan their affairs. The whole idea that every law is a constraint on liberty, laws make things possible, right? Who can set up a corporation without a legal framework? Who can hand over property to someone without a framework? We need those things to allow us to pursue our projects and some of them can be automated and done very easily and others still continue to involve higher levels of advice and listening and reflection and response to human needs, and so there continues to be I think the balance. But I do resist quite strongly the idea that fundamentally the legal rules are liberty-constraining rather than action-enabling.

"I think other professional schools like medicine train not just technical competencies, but also emotional ones. I think we're less candid in recognizing that we also want to be training that. A sense of injustice is not a purely intellectual thing. There is an affective dimension.

Daniel: You talk about listening and human dignity and serving others. What about a handshake? There are clients who've told me this sometimes: "I don't need to sign this, we do it on a handshake". There is a certain elegance to that.

Robert: That's still an oral exchange, even things that aren't written down, it's still a legal contract, so there's always a mix between informal and formal modes of ordering. At times the reliance on legal things is more explicit than other times, but in a big complicated world with lots of people, there are advantages to having things formalized and written down. What's perverse though is where you feel how the technology is affecting people today, especially the young people, though it goes all the way up. People texting and emailing instead of talking at all, and I sense that in the faculty with students, I sense it with colleagues that we are losing the sense that you can actually understand some things better by talking and, particularly when there is a problem, when there is some kind of difficulty in the relationship, it's very unlikely you can email it out, right?

Daniel: You referred earlier to truth and reconciliation committees, alternate forms of dispute remedies, and I sometimes hope for that in my practice. We do have obviously mediation and des conférences de règelement à l'amiable, where an actual justice of the Superior Court sit with the parties to help resolve differences. And if there's something I've noticed myself it's "you guys just need to sit down and talk about it, say what the pain was and look the person in the eye and vice-versa".

Robert: In a context where the power imbalance is not too extreme or there's not a history of violence or something right?

Daniel: Yes, you obviously have to have someone there to mediate and to make sure that the power imbalance is mitigated, though perhaps I'm naïve, Me Leckey, that maybe that if we were to encourage our youth today to have more face-to-face interactions and to speak their neighbors, the people that pass them by on the streets, then we'd have less need for the formalization of law.

Robert: Yeah, it's hard to know, the impulse towards the writing is very powerful. Very powerful. In the next couple of weeks, the way I'll be able to be reached by students will be for them to call my phone and it's super counterintuitive for them to do that. You're laughing. I'm available. I will return their calls if they phone my office and leave a message, I will call them back and I will say what are your questions about. We will have a conversation, but I know that that is completely not the way that they would prefer to seek out to have access to their professor before an exam.

Daniel: Yeah, I've noticed the same with some of my clients and people I know in my life. I say "you can call me". Not to mention the evidence trail of texting and emailing. Sometimes I have to counsel my clients as to things that are better said face-to-face.

Robert: Crazy the stuff people write down.

Daniel: You have no idea. Well, you do have an idea, and particularly in family law where, obviously, these are intimate relationships.

Robert: Increasingly you read cases where text messages are increasingly a part of what is put in front of the judges. What was said, what was abusive, what was the intention.

Daniel: Or Facebook status updates. People shouting to their Facebook community things that you probably should be kept to yourself in general. This face-to-face, more human interaction is something I trust and hope that your openness to being phone called by your students might encourage.

Robert: It's an issue, in the faculty, Facebook at times is a sort of site where things go wrong among the students because they can be very polarized. There are a couple of extreme views with a whole lot of likes being counted on either side, and this, of course, takes places beyond our control, it takes place after hours although they may be doing it in class as well, but when they come back into the building, they bring with them something that went wrong on Facebook, and they can feel unsafe. They will tell us in class because of something that happened over Facebook. The biggest flare-up to my knowledge was the weekend right after the Jian Ghomeshi acquittal, you might remember it. A couple years ago, just before Easter weekend, he's acquitted and so the Facebook debate suddenly becomes whether this was a disastrous day for survivors of sexual assault or whether this was a vindication for the presumption of innocence and the good functioning of the criminal justice system, and those kind of two extreme views were expressed over Facebook. A lot of people in the middle sat silently saying "I'm not jumping into this one". But there were a number of students who felt injured or felt differently about one another when they came back into the classroom on the following Tuesday. And I think if you had an open debate you might at least have a better chance at looking at people and try to take into account their perspectives. We had some discussions in the university, about how do you make spaces for difficult conversations? And I proposed a couple of times to the administration perhaps to work with McGill debating union, a sort of formalized setting of the debate where you sort of know the people on each side are going to argue the position as vigorously as they can. But there's no assumption that they're representing their own personal views. I think it could be helpful to allow some of these discussions to take place where people might be afraid because of political correctness that they don't want to be tied to a particular position. But I think hearing both sides, given both sides their full due, I think can be very helpful.

Daniel: I'm sympathetic to that approach given that I'm in litigation, though one thing that I have learned from the times that we're in is that every argument is often an emotion in disguise. What we often pretend is an abstract intellectual debate is truly just a guise for some feeling or personal story that the person is dressing up with intellectualism. And I more hope that people would be able to, again, sit down in close enough quarters, within the context that's appropriate, and speak more eye-to-eye and face-to-face and use "I" statements. That's okay. Say "this happened to me and this is my reflection on it". And sometimes the academy, for good reasons, trains us to abstract our arguments which are truly just emotions.

Robert: We don't make a lot of space to deal only with emotions, but I have to say, one of the best moments in family law this past semester was when we were sort of two-thirds of the way through the course and I was starting to invite them to be thinking back about the course as a whole, and I said "let's take a couple of moments and think about the highest affect moments you've had in the course so far". I just gave them time to think. And then I started collecting their answers and writing them down on the paper I projected on the screen from the document camera. What did we read, what did we talk about that produced the strongest feeling in you? And it was interesting, they came at the material differently than the normal way you would necessarily come out the readings and the legislation and the cases.

Daniel: I think that's really compelling. I wish more teachers that I knew in my educational career took that approach. In the little lecturing I've done for certain students, I too try purposely to say "apply this to your life. Think about something that happened to you where what I'm teaching you has some relevance to you."

Robert: I think the more explicit, certain other professional schools like medicine, I think they're more explicit, in part, of what they're trying to train, they're not just technical competencies, but also emotional ones that you want the physician to feel a certain way when confronted with certain situations. You're actually developing an ethical and moral and affective set of instincts. I think we're less candid in recognizing that we also want to be training that. A sense of injustice is not a purely intellectual thing, but there is an affective dimension. We are to a degree feelings and bodies as well as the mind. I think legal education is often very disembodied. This fall, one of the upper year-one week electives was on emotional intelligence and students loved it. And it was clearly speaking to them about different things than we had been speaking to them about most of the time.

Daniel: I think that maybe this chat, this interview, is maybe a win for affect. I see the range of affect in your face and I think you see the same in mine. Hopefully this can be something that is illustrative of the importance of conversation.

Robert: It's been a great pleasure.

Daniel: Thank you Me Leckey.

Robert Leckey

Me Robert Leckey is the Dean of McGill University's Faculty of Law, Samuel Gale Chair and has taught family and constitutional law at McGill since 2006.