‘There’s never been a more important time for law and legal education,’ says Osgoode’s incoming dean

By Amanda Jerome

Law360 Canada (July 31, 2023, 4:11 PM EDT) -- As the world deals with a rapidly changing climate and the implications of artificial intelligence (AI), Osgoode Hall Law School’s incoming dean believes “there’s never been a more important time for law and legal education.”

“If we look around the world, about two-thirds of the world’s population lives without meaningful access to justice,” Trevor Farrow said in an interview with Law360 Canada.   

Farrow noted that with “climate change, homelessness, cost of living, barriers to inclusion, and challenges around decolonization, a lot of people are facing real challenges and major issues in their lives and in their communities. The law has a big part to play in terms of helping people achieve their goals and get to a better place.”

Trevor Farrow, Osgoode Hall’s incoming dean

Trevor Farrow, Osgoode Hall’s incoming dean

“None of us can take law for granted. If we look south of the border to what’s happening there and we look around the world at challenges to the rule of law, it’s never been a more important time for law and for legal education in terms of how we’re going to respond, help and support, and move forward in what I think are really important times,” he added.

A well-respected legal scholar, Farrow was appointed as dean on July 24, with his term commencing Sept. 1.

“Dr. Farrow has significantly contributed to the legal profession, research and policy communities in Canada and globally by serving on many advisory boards and initiatives” and is a “highly respected educator,” Rhonda Lenton, president and vice-chancellor, York University said in an announcement issued July 26.

“I look forward to working with Dr. Farrow as he continues to bring leadership to this important role,” she added.

Farrow spoke to Law360 Canada about his goals for the school and the future of law in a time of immense change. Although climate change and AI are top of mind, the changing labour market is also of importance.

As the government of Ontario introduces more programs to get students involved in the trades, the future of law school may be altered. However, Farrow views “huge social changes, changes in the workforce, and different dynamics in the labour market” as a “good thing.”

“A more educated, well-rounded society is a better society, as far as I’m concerned. Providing as many people with a wide range of academic and intellectual opportunities is really important for the well-being of all communities. And so, to the extent that we’re expanding the job market, to me, that’s a good thing,” he said, noting that it “puts an extra onus on all programs and offerings to make sure they’re relevant and make sense.”

When it comes to law, Farrow believes there’s a “lack of understanding, generally, about the importance of law in people’s lives.”

“Everyone talks about health. Everyone talks about education. Everyone talks about safety. And of course, those things are important, and we want those for ourselves and our kids. I think what people fail to realize is, at the core of all those things, is a strong legal society, strong legal well-being for everyone, and a robust sense of the rule of law and justice across the board,” he explained, noting that until recently, “people have undervalued law in their daily lives.”

“We’re only starting to realize the importance of law across everyone’s lives through more careful research,” he said, emphasizing that a lack of access to justice can be devastating.

“I think we’re starting to see the importance of that and, to me, that’s why law and law schools are never more important than they are now because of the importance law plays in the daily citizenry,” Farrow added, noting that “the simple relevance of law schools is to help train and educate professionals for the future of society.”

Farrow sees that future as one in which society is fair and there’s “open access to everyone.” A society in which “more and more people can achieve some notion of the good life in an equitable way.”

The incoming dean is “not worried about the relevance of law school,” but he is worried about the “accessibility of law school.”

“One of the things that I think every law school in the country is working towards, and certainly we are at Osgoode, is increasing accessibility to our programs for as many people as possible,” he said, noting law schools and the legal profession are better when they’re diverse and reflective “of the communities we serve.”

One of his most important goals during his term will be to “double down on our accessibility program, so that we can really welcome and attract as diverse and strong a student body as we can.”

“In addition, the other thing that is not lost on anyone, is the dramatic shift in and around technology and innovation,” he added, noting that it’s an “exciting and challenging opportunity to sort out how to innovate in ethical, efficient and fair ways, and to use these modern tools to everyone’s advantage as opposed to trying to shy away from them.”

Farrow stressed that Osgoode is deeply engaging in “innovation around technology and AI, and the directions of the modern practice of law.”

He reflected that “over the generations, when new technologies and services come in, people are in amazement, in wonder, in awe. We’re nervous.” But, he noted, that’s how humans adapt and respond to innovation.

Farrow can see AI and technology “playing a huge, transformative force in the practice of law” and “that's a good thing.”

“What I don’t think AI is replacing,” he added, is “the need for ethical and professional judgment.”

“People need help with their lives,” he said, noting research shows that, while access to technology and legal information can help, “huge amounts of issues require the engagement of human judgment, the engagement of human ethical choices.”

“The role of lawyers to help guide their clients, guide communities, and guide society is going to be critically important. AI can be used as a tool to help streamline certain tasks, but what I see as the critical value add, in the context of law school, is that exercise of ethical, and critical, and engaged judgment, which is what’s so fascinating about the practice of law,” he explained, noting that “using AI and technology in service of that goal, as opposed to seeing it as a threat,” is where he sees Osgoode’s efforts placed in training future legal professionals.

He noted that there are “a number of existential challenges that society is facing at the moment and law schools need to be directly engaged in these conversations,” so they can be part of the path forward.

These challenges include “climate change and climate crises, and the way that we’re engaging with our planet, and resources,” Farrow said, noting that this issue “comes up in all sorts of ways around community well-being, sustainable development, advising clients in terms of extractive industries, and all sorts of areas where I think lawyers have a huge role to play.”

Climate change also touches on other challenges law schools need to be tackling, such as “all forms of barriers and systemic racism and challenges around decolonization and reconciliation,” he said, noting that while there’s been progress in these areas, “there’s still a long road to go.”

There are “a number of big ticket files that Canadian law schools are, and should be, directly engaging with and certainly those are some of them,” he added, noting that one of the things he’s proud of at Osgoode is its approach to “legal education and legal scholarship.”

“Osgoode has a long history of really sophisticated legal theory scholarship. It’s also got one of the best clinical education programs in the world,” he said, noting that the school “brings those two elements of our program together in the context of helping our students to critically engage and reflect on what it is to be a modern professional.”

“It’s that combination of theory, practice, and critical reflection, that I think Osgoode really does well, combined with a world-class professional development program that also is part of how we experiment and innovate and think of new programs, almost weekly, to try to help shape where law’s going in the future,” he explained.

Farrow, who holds a “PhD from the University of Alberta and has degrees from Princeton, Oxford, Harvard and Dalhousie universities,” has also practised as a lawyer. According to the announcement of his appointment, “his areas of research include access to justice, legal process and advocacy, professional ethics, legal education and political theory.”

“A prolific researcher and scholar,” Farrow has been a member of the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters (founded by former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Beverley McLachlin); academic adviser to the Rules Committee of the Federal Court of Canada; as a research policy expert for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; and expert adviser to various foreign governments and many others.”

When asked how his vast experience will inform his role as dean, Farrow noted that all of this is about the “people we serve; the public.”

“I feel incredibly blessed with the opportunities that I’ve been given over the course of my career,” he said, noting that he started off as a lawyer at Torys LLP where he received a “wonderful introduction to what it means to practise ethically and professionally in a really sophisticated environment.”

He continues to “reflect and build on those experiences all the time” in the context of the practice of law.

“At the same time,” he noted, he’s also “been fortunate to have really interesting research experiences, as well as working with policymakers and governments, and different communities in Canada and around the world.”

This work has provided him with the opportunity to learn about, “what is the value of law? Why is it so important that we strive to provide access to justice to more people? How do we better see the communities we are entrusted to serve and the members of those communities such that we can somehow make a difference in those lives?”

His ability to live and work in different communities around the world is “a big part” of what he brings to his job “every day, so that we remember that it’s not just about us and those within the legal community. It’s actually about the people we serve; the public.”

“I hope through our programs, our students come out of law school really being energized and excited to serve the communities that they are going back into and moving to. And that’s what’s so exciting about law,” he added.

Farrow is a “full professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, where he is currently an associate dean of research and institutional relations.”

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for Law360 Canada, please contact Amanda Jerome at Amanda.Jerome@lexisnexis.ca or 416-524-2152.