Iain Scott says he knows that the University of Western Ontario’s move to appoint him as the new dean of its law faculty, announced last week, is “outside of the box.” Such posts in Canada are usually reserved for career academics, not the former chairman and chief executive officer of McCarthy Tétrault LLP.
Mr. Scott, 59, did plan to keep working after he retired from McCarthys at the beginning of the year. But when the university’s search committee came calling a few months ago, he was out of the country. That gave him a few days to get his head around the idea, he says.
Outsiders might wonder why hiring a top Bay Street lawyer to head a law school that churns out top Bay Street lawyers is seen as such a departure. While London, Ont.-based Western has recruited former corporate executives to lead its well-regarded Richard Ivey School of Business, neither it nor other major law schools have looked outside the halls of academia for law-school deans.
The move comes during interesting times. The law profession in Canada is facing the challenges of globalization and an increasing pace of change, as large foreign law firms look to move into the Bay Street market, following Ogilvy Renault’s merger with Britain’s Norton Rose. Mr. Scott’s term, which begins in September, will also be a time of change for Western, with a new set of eyes from outside the academy leading the way, and an ambitious agenda.
The expectations of the university’s leadership are high. Janice Deakin, Western’s provost and academic vice-president, said the university’s overall goal was simple: a leader who could propel the school into the top-three law schools in the country. At the moment, Western is often overshadowed by McGill and the University of Toronto.
“The search committee … was committed to finding someone who would be in some sense transformative for the law school,” Ms. Deakin said.
Mr. Scott, who graduated from Yale and Queen’s universities, says he wants to attract the best students from Canada and around the world, and lure new faculty talent. But Mr. Scott must find a way to do that as government funding promises to be tight.
His successor at McCarthys, Marc-André Blanchard, says Mr. Scott’s leadership transformed the firm from a segmented operation into a truly integrated, national unit. Mr. Scott, he said, was also a driving force behind McCarthy Tétrault’s “project management system” designed to better manage legal costs.
Mr. Scott, who says running Western won’t be much different than running McCarthys, will no doubt be watched closely as he takes the reins. He spoke with The Globe shortly after his new job was announced.
Why is it so uncommon to go from a senior position at one of the big firms to dean of law, even at a school like Western, which feeds so many graduates to Bay Street?
I’m not aware of anybody in the law field doing it. … It’s a pretty interesting time for the profession generally, to be aware of what’s going on outside the ivory towers. I’ve got a lot of experience globally, seeing what firms are doing and how Canadian lawyers are trying to play on the global stage.
Do these changes mean the way that we train lawyers, teach lawyers, has got to be different?
That’s what, actually, I think probably tipped it for me. Western appointed a new president two years ago, Amit Chakma, and he is committed to raising the international profile of Western, and being a destination choice for top students around the world. … And he believes, and I’ve had a number of chats with him about this, that there’s an opportunity for the law school to do the same thing.
A big part of the job will surely be to use your networks, shake hands and raise money to make the changes you want to see happen.
Absolutely. I believe it’ll be easy for me to do with the right message, going out to the right people who actually are committed to what some would call ‘God’s work,’ education. In fact, just yesterday, I’ve had two alumni who called to say that they’re committed to supporting Western and want to support it, including with funding, if they see it making the right steps going forward. So there’s money out there, but donors don’t just give money because people need money. There’s got to be a message and there’s got to be a reason, and there’s got to be measurable outputs. And that’s where my business experience, you know, I get that. That’s no different than running a business. You’ve got to watch the bottom line.
What needs to be done about the shortage of articling positions at law firms, which is creating what some call a ‘crisis’ in Ontario?
That is something that I have dealt with the Law Society on when I was at McCarthys. Law firms, at the end of the day, we’re in the service business. Law firms are not going to hire more people than they need, ultimately. And so I think there will be an issue if the Law Society continues to stipulate the current requirements for articling. There may be graduates that can’t article, and can’t get called to the bar, even though they have a law degree. I think that would be a crime. And so I think what will happen over time is there will continue to be a morphing of the articling experience with maybe the law school experience and the ultimate approval to practise may have to, over time, change.
So if the articling process changes, do students need more practical experience in law school?
Somewhat more, I think. People are pushing for that. It’s something I can tell you, and this may surprise you … I’m a bit wary of. The reality is, your university experience is meant to be different than work. It’s meant to test you in a different way. … Law schools are not trade schools, and it’d be a crime, in my view, if that’s what they became.
This interview has been edited and condensed.