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Train for the future
Canadian, Eh? The Value of a Joint U.S.-Canadian Law Degree
By Rob Blackstein and Bernadette Corpuz
In 2009, it may be trite to say that we live in a global economy. One could make the case that elements of a global economy have existed since the first century A.D., though it is arguably a paradigm that really took hold in the latter part of the twentieth century. If one needs further convincing, the rippling effects of the U.S. credit crunch that have been with us for the past 18 months or so ought to provide such confirmation.

But this is not an article about the global economy. Rather, it is a story about two law students, each deciding whether to obtain a law degree, one student in the latter part of the 1990s and the other approximately a decade later. Both chose to enroll in the joint JD/LLB program at the University of Windsor and the University of Detroit Mercy.

Let's start with the most recent story of Rob Blackstein, now a practicing lawyer in the business law department of one of the largest law firms in Canada.

Rob's Story
During the summer of my third year in university, I had the good fortune of landing an internship at the International Joint Commission in Washington, D.C. The ICJ is a bilateral organization that, among other things, assists the Canadian and U.S. governments in cleaning up transborder waterways. I loved my time in Washington, and my experience inspired me to seek out a way to study both legal systems. I found that opportunity in the JD/LLB program at the University of Windsor and the University of Detroit Mercy.

Life after law school led me back to my hometown of Toronto and into private practice in the heart of Canada's financial district, where I decided to specialize in business law. My legal practice today is transactions-based, with a particular focus on mergers and acquisitions, private equity, and cross-border finance between Canada and the United States, including project finance and fund formation. I have had the opportunity to work on a number of cross-border projects, including port, road, and other infrastructure acquisitions and financings.

Through my joint studies I developed an understanding of the highly nuanced nature of U.S. corporate law, and especially the Uniform Commercial Code. As a Canadian I can remember being fascinated by the jurisdictional divide between the states and the federal government, and while Canada's federal/provincial bifurcation is somewhat similar, it is not nearly as complex as it is in the United States.

My education is an asset in my current practice, especially in advising U.S. and Canadian clients on cross-border deals. Clients appreciate receiving advanced notice that transactions may need to be structured to accommodate the nuances of both legal systems. Because of my familiarity with both systems, I can provide U.S. clients with parallels to equivalent U.S. legislation when explaining Canadian rules, especially when liaising with U.S. general counsel for large entities with Canadian and American business operations. On the Canadian side, many M&A practitioners frequently look to the Delaware laws for guidance when identifying potential issues and developing transaction documentation. It's certainly easier to parse Delaware case law after spending so much quality time with those decisions in law school.

I continue to build upon the foundation of my legal training from the JD/LLB program in practice, and I'm always looking forward to assisting clients through their cross-border business endeavors.

Bernadette's Story
Ultimately, I made the same decision as Rob, but my path to get there was slightly different.

First, I had theoretically completed all of my post-secondary education, having previously obtained an MBA. And second, I was gainfully employed in a government finance department and had been involved in some fairly interesting key policy issues and programs. But clearly that was not quite enough. While I found the landscape of government policy quite fascinating, I came to realize that each new initiative in government involved significant policy considerations and number-crunching exercises to inform a "go/no-go" decision. Once that go decision was made, the law was often a key instrument to implementation. And I saw that that side of the project looked surprisingly more interesting to me than the pieces in which I was involved. Hence, my first pull to the law.

As a government policy analyst, it seemed logical to think that my modus operandi had swayed from business motives to social policy matters. I had not yet discovered that the two were not mutually exclusive. I figured that I would go to law school, and then return to the land of public policy and be a government lawyer. But was I sure about this? Recall, I had already expended the time and expense for two degrees and I already had a job. I had to justify the decision to quit working and go back to school for a law degree. In other words, I had to be certain that I wanted to be a lawyer. All of the other rigmarole about the value of a law degree and how it could be used to do other things besides be a lawyer was useless to me. I already had one of those alternative careers to law.

The next layer in the analysis was what kind of lawyer I wanted to be. That forms the backbone of the key route and theme in this long and winding story to why the joint degrees. Now, if the reader is following along, this is where one interjects, "You already decided to be a government lawyer." But the more I peeled this layer of the onion, the more I became concerned with not limiting my options too early. I had already changed my mind about a career path once. What if I wanted to do that again?

Although I first sought law schools that had a strong element of public policy in their curriculum, I became focused on ensuring I did not inadvertently sign on to something too narrow and limited, either in substantive focus or jurisdiction. At the time, it seemed to me that the law schools were divided between the streams of social policy and capitalism. In hindsight, I do not think the lines were all that black and white.

I began branching out in my considerations, and to keep options open, strongly considered going to school in the United States. With this backdrop, the Windsor/Detroit Mercy option was absolutely perfect. Windsor has a strong focus on public policy and a heavy emphasis on business. The law school also has a joint LLB/MBA program. The joint JD/LLB program seemed to have it all—public policy and business, not just from an international commerce perspective, but from each perspective of Canada and the United States.

Today, I practice in business law almost exclusively in the energy sector. Although I work with clients whose business will never leave the province of Ontario, I also often work on projects having multinational reach. I quite regularly find myself negotiating with American counsel, for example, in energy trading arrangements. Having taken U.S. business corporations and commercial law courses has had very practical benefits in this regard.

However, the soft benefits of a joint degree have been as valuable as the strictly academic readings of Delaware case law. For one thing, clients like it, especially when they have U.S. operations or are dealing with U.S. counterparties. If they do business in the United States or other jurisdictions, it makes complete sense to them that their lawyers also ought to be versed in multiple jurisdictions.

I just returned from international negotiations on a power project in the Caribbean. Sitting across the table, acting on behalf of the Caribbean government, was an American lawyer from Washington (I was on for the project developer). Neither U.S. nor Canadian law had anything to do with the matter of the day. But he was an American energy lawyer and I immediately felt some understanding of where his vantage point might lie. I could not say the same, however, of local counsel—all because I sat in a law school classroom in Detroit 10 years ago. You see, physically attending law school in the United States afforded all of the intangible benefits that any immersion experience brings—the opportunity to engage in the discourse of law on a daily basis with American law students and obtain a broadened perspective by living it (a handy tool in negotiations). This is vastly different from simply reading American law and being called to a state bar.

As it turns out, it is quite important for a lawyer in the energy sector to have an understanding of energy policy (and hence regulatory frameworks) in multiple jurisdictions. So today, I follow American energy policy as closely as I follow that of Canada. Consequent with that, I follow the accompanying laws at least with broad brushstrokes. The unanticipated benefit of this is a diverse perspective on energy regulatory frameworks, which has become exceedingly valuable when it comes to advising on energy regulation and commercial arrangements.

My final rumination is this: the value of the joint degree is not assessed by whether I could still do what I'm doing now, and do it as easily, had I not obtained the U.S. degree. Of course I could and I have many colleagues who do not have U.S. law degrees who ably advise on cross-border and multinational matters. And it is no secret that I could also have chosen to practice in New York or Washington or some other state (though perhaps not all) without having obtained a U.S. law school degree. The value is this: it was an opportunity for immersion in a different knowledge and life perspective. There are many different ways to obtain this experience and knowledge. The joint degree was one path that I chose to take, and to this day, an experience I continue to value.

Joint American/Canadian Law Degree Programs

Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto and New York University School of Law provide students with an opportunity to earn, through a combined program of study, a JD degree from NYU and an LLB degree from Osgoode.

» www.osgoode.yorku.ca/llb/jd_llb.html
» www.law.nyu.edu/admissions/jdadmissions/dualdegreeprograms/osgoodehalllawschool/ECM_DLV_006615

The University of Alberta Faculty of Law in Edmonton and the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder have created a dual-degree program. Students will be able to earn a JD and its Canadian equivalent, an LLB, in this four-year program, spending two years at each school.

» www.law.ualberta.ca
» www.colorado.edu/law

The University of Ottawa Faculty of Law offers a four-year combined program that allows participants to obtain both the Canadian and the American law degrees. This program is offered jointly by the University of Ottawa and its partner schools in the United States. Participants spend two years at Ottawa and two years at one of two U.S. law schools: Michigan State University College of Law in East Lansing, Michigan, or American University (Washington College of Law) in Washington, D.C.

» www.commonlaw.uottawa.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=516&Itemid=133
» www.law.msu.edu/academics/ac-multi-llb-msulaw.html
» www.wcl.american.edu/dualdegree/ottawa

The University of Windsor Faculty of Law and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law have collaborated to create a unique joint American/Canadian law degree program. Students complete 104 credits in three years and successful graduates receive both their JD and LLB degrees.

» www.uwindsor.ca/jdllb
» www.law.udmercy.edu/prospective/jointdegrees/index.php
Blackstein and Corpuz are associates at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Toronto. Their respective e-mails are rob.blackstein@gowlings.com and bernadette.corpuz@gowlings.com.

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