April 7, 2014

'Judge shadowing' initiative brings study of law to life

Q&A with three first-year Faculty of Law students enrolled in innovative Calgary Courts Centre program
The golden doors of the old Calgary Courthouse now stand outside the Calgary Courts Centre, the largest court facility in Canada and the second largest in North America.

The golden doors of the old Calgary Courthouse now stand outside the Calgary Courts Centre.

Popular culture often portrays a judge as someone who is stern, unsmiling, and who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. A unique program in the Faculty of Law gives first-year students a behind-the-scenes look at a typical day for a superior court trial judge at the Calgary Courts Centre, and an opportunity to learn what the judiciary is really all about – and how reality doesn’t always match the media’s image.

The annual judge shadowing program originated in 2006 out of the law school’s Judge-in-Residence program, through collaboration between visiting Manitoba Justice Kenneth Hannson and the judges of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench.

“The benefit to students is the opportunity to see the internal workings of the court and to meet, discuss and have lunch with the judges,” said Queens’ Bench Judge Bryan Mahoney, the Judge-in-Residence for the 2013/14 academic year. “The program is one of several initiatives between the Faculty of Law and the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench to better know each other, share in the training of law students and improve our justice system.”

UToday spoke to three students in the program to learn more about their day at the Calgary Courts Centre. Each of the three students were paired with a judge: Trevor Gair with Justice Yamauchi, Krista Isbert with Justice Tilleman, and Caroline Law with Justice Hughes. 

Q: What made you want to participate in the judge shadowing program?

Krista: I’d been on the courthouse tour with Student Legal Assistance and I was interested in having an opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes. It also seemed like an excellent opportunity to hear about life working as a judge.

Trevor: People’s personal stories and journeys fascinate me. I was curious to learn about one person’s life and career both before and while sitting on the Bench.

Caroline: What we study in law school are the decisions made by judges on a piece of paper, which are pretty two-dimensional. I thought it would be interesting to see how they are in action.

Q: Why do you think this program is important for first-year law students?

Caroline: It’s important to get out from the readings to see some actions. You never get to read about when a judge talked to a prosecutor in a sarcastic manner because the latter mishandled the evidence, or to see how a lawyer handled a witness who was skillfully digressing.

Krista: It was a great opportunity to meet the judges and hear what they have to say about the counsel they encounter in court. Justice Tilleman shared his views about different advocacy styles and reinforced how important it is to be well-prepared and appropriately attired.

Q: Are you interested in becoming a judge one day?

Krista: I think being a judge would be incredibly fascinating work. I don’t know if my career will lead in that direction, but it’s certainly something to aspire to.

Caroline: I’m not sure I have the patience or compassion, as described by Justice Hughes as the key qualities of being a judge, but I would certainly try.

Trevor: If there is a west-facing office on the 24th floor up for grabs, then definitely!

Q: Did you find the experience beneficial?

Krista: Spending a day in court is, I think, a generally beneficial thing for law students. The bonus was actually getting to chat with the judges about their experiences in the courtroom that day. The behind-the-scenes perspective from the Bench has the simultaneous effect of reinforcing the importance of being professional and prepared, while also humanizing the judges; knowing that will be valuable when I actually have to be an advocate for a client in court.

Caroline: The program is an excellent opportunity for students to get out of the classroom and see practitioners in action. It’s inspiring and motivating to see how exciting work could be after graduation.

Q: What advice would you give to other students who are thinking of participating in the program?

Trevor: Don’t hesitate. When selecting a date for your judge shadowing experience, see if any matters you are interested in seeing are scheduled to be before a judge.

Krista: I would encourage every student to get involved in this program. It is an excellent opportunity to meet the judges and to hear about the cases after you’ve seen them being considered in court.