Focus On

U of T’s experiential program makes learning about the law ‘come alive’

Tuesday, January 28, 2020 @ 12:56 PM | By Maxwell Binks-Collier

Emma Weiss, a second-year law student at the University of Toronto, recalls feeling shocked as she sat in startup advisory board meetings in the fall of 2019. 

“I’m used to being a student and having no answers,” she said. But the startup teams “expected me to have answers to things. ... It was a learning moment for me that when I’m out of law school, all of the sudden I’m going to be in this trusted adviser position.”

Emma Weiss, student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law

Exposing students to what a professional law practice will be like is one reason why the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law is offering the new course that Weiss is taking, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Externship, in which law students help lawyers advise startups on their legal issues. The course is part of a larger shift within the Faculty of Law towards embracing experiential learning, in which students learn by getting hands-on, practical experience.

“What recent years have revealed is how we can enhance the academic experience by including some of these experiential opportunities,” said Edward Iacobucci, dean of the Faculty of Law.

An expert in corporate and competition law, Iacobucci co-teaches a seminar that is part of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Externship. His co-teacher is Jamie Shulman, a successful entrepreneur and former lawyer who specialized in advising tech companies on corporate, commercial and other legal matters. The idea behind the seminar is for Iacobucci’s academic background and Shulman’s professional experience to complement one another.

Iacobucci’s academic bent is meant to give students the conceptual foundation necessary for properly understanding real-world legal situations. For example, he began the course by discussing a seminal corporate finance article that laid out the different kinds of conflicts of interest that can occur among different sorts of investors. “These are abstract problems,” Iacobucci said, but then he and Shulman presented students with model deal documents from real venture capital associations. The class analyzed how the provisions of the documents address problems mentioned in the corporate finance article.

Edward Iacobucci, dean of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law

Iacobucci thinks that studying legal documents by placing them within the relevant theoretical framework has numerous benefits. One of them is that it helps students learn better, since they understand the underlying order and purposes of the various provisions of the documents. And in general, this type of deeper understanding will enable students to develop legal strategies with more creative acumen, since they will better navigate the particularities of specific legal situations when they know why those particularities are there.

“You can learn a bunch of legal rules, but if you don’t understand the frameworks that underlie them, you can lose the forest for the trees,” he said.

Shulman illustrated how these frameworks play out in real life by drawing on his past experience as an entrepreneur and lawyer. When Iacobucci explained the different kinds of conflicts of interest among investors, “I would bring up the practical cases,” Shulman said. “When startups raise money, they need to consider the interests of their various stakeholders including investors because over time, as startups evolve and raise multiple rounds of financing, the different stakeholders' interests can easily become misaligned,” he said. “These types of conflicts occur naturally all the time.”

Shulman and Iacobucci “add to and complement each other really well,” Weiss said.

It is because the academic and practical perspectives “can be complementary” that the Faculty of Law has been recently increasing the amount of experiential learning opportunities, Iacobucci said.

Kim Snell, manager of experiential education, University of Toronto Faculty of Law

In 2017, the Faculty of Law created a new position, manager of experiential education. Kim Snell currently holds that position. “The dean certainly set experiential learning as a priority because it was a way to enrich the education that we were offering,” Snell said. “It was a way to deepen and make what you were learning in the classroom about the law come alive.” 

There are now about 107 experiential learning opportunities in the Faculty of Law, not all of them for credit. Eighteen of them are “externships,” in which students split their time between working with an external partner in the legal community and participating in a seminar at the Faculty of Law. There are about 108 externship spots for students.

The Faculty of Law has plans to increase the number of experiential learning programs. It plans on opening a fourth in-house legal clinic in 2020 called the Investor Rights Protection Clinic. “It will serve low-income and vulnerable populations,” Snell said. “It is an access to justice centred clinic.”

There are also plans to create a program called the Future of Law, which will include courses, summer internships and possibly hackathons, workshops and guest speakers. It will focus on the topics of tech, innovation and entrepreneurship, Snell said

In the meantime, the law students already helping tech entrepreneurs at the University of Toronto have been “instrumental,” said Joseph Orozco, executive director of the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, an institute within the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering that helps create startups.

“In the past, we were just guessing what would be the legal frameworks that we would be bound to,” Orozco said. “Now, as we have this legal information and legal advice, we feel more comfortable about how much we can push the limits and boundaries of the scope of the startup companies.”

Nikola Kostic is the design lead at the Entrepreneurship Hatchery-based startup Aeroflux, and he has found the help of Weiss to be “fantastic.” Aeroflux has prototyped aircraft brakes that don’t use friction to operate, unlike traditional brakes, potentially saving airlines millions of dollars in maintenance costs each year. The invention has attracted the attention of people from the aerospace and transportation industries, and now has two patents pending.

Weiss “was able to provide the guidance necessary to really solidify that IP strategy,” Kostic said.

“We don’t really consider Emma as this external adviser or consultant, we really consider her as part of the team itself.”