law, lawyers, police


When I was a tadpole, Trigger was simply the name of a famous horse, and not an inflammatory verb, but my, how things have changed!

Roy Rogers’ faithful steed Trigger died in 1965 and a scant few years later I stumbled through the doors of Osgoode Hall Law School to begin my legal education. Then, the highlight of any boring week of classes was the visit to our lecture hall of a real live flesh and blood lawyer, in the form  of a downtown practitioner moonlighting as a part-time prof. Unlike our full-time professors, academics who had never strayed far from their ivory tower, these lecturers spoke of the real world we would have to navigate after graduation, a world where fact patterns were murky, clients sometimes lied, and occasionally turned on their counsel. They spoke of cut-throat negotiations, and of snap decisions made on the fly while on their feet in court.

Sometimes they came straight to us from court, wearing the emotions of the day on their sleeves. Their language was often raw, as they described epic battles waged with opposing counsel, the police, and sometimes even the judge, while championing their clients cause, and we were enthralled.  This was the real world we knew so little of: this was why we wanted to become lawyers, to join the fray, and fight for justice, not to ponder the Rule against Perpetuities.

The tradition of inviting players from the real world to breathe life into law school lectures continues, but something seems to have changed over the years.

When the University of Alberta Law School invited Staff Sgt Bill Clark, a thirty year veteran of the Edmonton Police Force, to speak to a second year criminal law class, he obliged, with a plain spoken, politically incorrect talk. He referred to criminals as maggots, professed himself to be in favour of the death penalty, and of lowering the  adult court age limit to 14. I suspect he also had some thoughts about smarmy lawyers in expensive suits using technicalities to help their maggots wiggle off the hook.

It sounds like just the sort of raw ‘glimpse of the real world ‘ talk that would have had us rivetted to our seats 40 odd years ago, But in 2018 it ‘triggered’ Caitlin Dick, one of the attending students, who not only complained to the law school, but filed a complaint with the Police Commission, demanding the Staff Sergeant’s head on a pike, for saying inappropriate things.

To be fair, a solid majority of the attending students rallied to Clark’s defence, and it appears that common sense is still in fashion at the Police Commission, so it is unlikely that the officer will suffer any untoward professional consequences. But still, it is troubling that a would-be lawyer would react in such a fashion to a tiny exposure to the gritty world she will soon have to practice in.

If people didn’t lie, cheat, steal, kill or maim, we lawyers would soon find ourselves out of work. If a plain spoken cop can ‘trigger’ a law student, god help us when that student is confronted with the daily fare of the average law firm. I’m sorry Ms. Dick, but my world is inhabited by a lot of nasty, dysfunctional people- people who steal from their aged parents, beat their wives, defraud their employers and renege on their contracts and their marriage vows with great glee and astonishing frequency.

Even the ‘good guys’ like Staff Sgt Clark, can turn out to be a handful. I’ve met my fair share of hard-bitten cops; I think they get that way trying to maintain their professionalism while working daily in an insane system that seems to bend over backwards in favour of the maggots. And, if you want to be ‘triggered’, there are a few judges I need to introduce you to !

To engage in the practice of law is to be immersed in the grand, untidy tapestry of life, engaging with people from all walks of life in times of great personal crisis, and to be exposed to the best and worst of human nature. It is not a career for those with delicate sensibilities or those who are ‘triggered ‘ by rubbing shoulders with life in the raw.

I wish the UofA law school class of 2020 all the best upon their graduation and only hope the shock won’t be too great when they enter the real world!


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