Justice Alice Woolley on Leaving for the Bench and Advice for Students
Updated: Aug 28
BY: Scott Carriere
This past November, then-Professor Alice Woolley was appointed to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. For a great many of us, Woolley was our first instructor in law school, and mentor to many more. Her lectures were always challenging and thought-provoking, and more often than not laced with her characteristic “frankness”. To students and faculty alike, her appointment to the bench is bittersweet. She will be deeply missed for her teaching, scholarship, and of course, opinions, but I believe I can safely say we are exceedingly happy for her as she takes this next step, and great honour, in her career.
This past month, I spoke with now-Justice Woolley for an interview reflecting on her experiences, career, and transition from academic to judge.
What was it that drove you to go into law in the first place and did you see yourself as either an academic or a judge from the outset?
I went to law school for no good reason at all. I had an arts degree, and I didn’t want to do grad school. At first I had no ambition to be an academic or a judge. To be honest, I really just wanted to pass, which at the time didn’t seem like something that was necessarily going to happen. I sort of thought that law school was going to be this overwhelmingly difficult thing and I may not even get through it, and my goal was just to pass and become a lawyer.
Once I got there, the idea of becoming either an academic or a judge became much more appealing, but certainly not when I walked in the door. I didn’t know many lawyers, really only one, and I had none in my family. I didn’t have the kind of background that would give me any familiarity with those things.
Were there any particular courses that you took that influenced those choices?
When I went to law school I was randomly assigned to Ernie Weinrib’s class, and he became an enormously integral mentor to me. I took every class he offered, I took his legal theory class, I took his restitution class, Jewish Law…every class that he offered. He is an extraordinary mind and an incredibly kind person. He was the person who really first got me excited about thinking about law seriously as an academic interest. Then, when I went to grad school, I was lucky enough to be at Yale when David Luban was there as a visiting professor, and he became my second academic mentor.
It was those two people that had the biggest influence on me in that sense.
So it was more people, than any particular subject then?
I just like all of the law. I’ve always had some courses and disciplines that were more interesting to me. And of course, some profs were more inspiring to me than others. But having said that, I like the study of law both as a normative system and the human element of it. But in terms of becoming an academic and thinking about that path, the mentors I had were certainly what drove me in that direction.
What made you want to become a judge? I understand it’s more of an application process?
Yes, it’s a long, long application. I believe after I filed mine it was 26 pages or so. It will be made public eventually and everyone will be welcome to read it then.
The decision to apply was based on a number of factors. Since law school I’ve hoped I could one day be a judge, and the changes that were made to the process made me feel like I had a chance. I loved my academic career, and I felt like I could continue to do things in that role. But I also felt like I had done a lot and that I could say ‘I did this’. I didn’t feel like I hadn’t done enough as an academic in terms of my scholarship, and teaching, so I didn’t feel like I was leaving anything yet undone. Having said that, I know I also would not have been unhappy if this appointment did not happen. There was no question I could have continued to have an exciting and rewarding career with the university.
There were also personal reasons. My daughter has gone away to university and my son is in a very good place in his life. My priority has always been my family; 100% my job at the university was in part a very good job for me because it allowed my family to be my primary concern. I could do the work in such a way as to be done quickly enough to spend time with my kids. And now with my daughter being away, I can be in a job that is less flexible and more demanding in a different way. So timing was really good.
It just felt like the time was right, and I felt ready for a new challenge.
With your scholarship, I know there are several judges who continue to publish in some manner, are you planning to continue with any of those pursuits?
At this time I plan to continue to do the casebook Lawyers’ Ethics and Professional Regulation and I plan on continuing to do my textbook Understanding Lawyers’ Ethics in Canada, though I am bringing in Amy Salyzyn as a co-author to do that. Anything beyond that we will have to wait and see. Anything I do will be subject to my clear and overarching duties as a judge.
Certainly I will not be writing in the same way I was before just by the nature of role.
What do you think you’ll miss most about being a professor?
In no particular order…
I will absolutely miss the students. I have really, really, really enjoyed the students I have had over the years, and I have had some that have become friends, and many that have gone on to do great things, and I love that.
I will especially miss the Foundations course. I loved teaching that course, along with my theory course in legal ethics. I also have some really good friends among the faculty at the university. While I will still see them of course, I will certainly miss working with them.
…And I will miss blogging the way I did. I just found blogging really, really fun, and I will miss that kind of opportunity to weigh in on issues in that way. And obviously I will be writing, but it’s different.
What will you miss the least?
If students don’t already know I wouldn’t be missing this, they haven’t been paying attention.
Especially because it gave me no pleasure to ever give someone a bad grade, and I will be happy to never do it again.
Is that going to be the case with submissions to you then?
That’s an interesting consideration. Because here’s the thing, as a judge, I don’t read the submissions to judge their quality, I read the submissions to decide what ought to be done given the law and facts of a case. Those are the only questions I ask of a submission: what information does it provide me that I need to know? Whether or not it’s elegantly written is just not a question that I have. Whereas when I’m grading, it’s to see the quality of the work provided to me. As a submission, it may be helpful to me, but I’m not assessing the writer; it’s a very different thing.
Are you able to continue any sort of association with the law school? Should we expect you to be back in some form?
I think I will make appearances. I’m right now scheduled to judge the Court of Appeal Moot. I will be back from time to time as permitted, and hopefully I’ll be on a panel for the Foundations course so students know what to expect.
I don’t anticipate teaching, because I won’t be able to teach the way I used to teach. I think it would be very hard for me. I mean, if you’ve been in my class you know how frank I am. I don’t know how I could find my voice in that respect. Maybe after a long cooling down period…
I also think that in not being able to devote my entire attention to it, that I would be less good at it as when I was there.
Academics make up a reasonable cohort of the judiciary. As an academic and a specialist, what sort of perspective do you bring to the judiciary?
There are some academics who become judges, though it’s not the most common career path to the bench. Those who do often have had a practice component, for example, both Justices Rowbotham and Martin [both former Professors and Deans of the law school] practiced for quite a while.
In terms of the perspective, I think everyone who goes to the bench brings with them a wide range of experiences professionally and personally that help give them legal knowledge and social context for understanding the work that judges do.
From my perspective, being a parent of a child with a significant cognitive disability is probably as useful for informing my role as a judge as having been an academic.
That being said, here are some competencies in this job I have from being an academic. Number one, I have written a lot, and I know how to explain ideas in writing clearly. Number two, and this I hadn’t appreciated until I started having to do it, as a law teacher you learn how to explain concepts in plain language. When going into a courtroom and dealing with people who don’t know the law, having explained the law to a class of first year law students is helpful . Number three, when you have been at the front of a classroom, you have a sense of how to manage a room, and how to be in charge of the room, which is certainly helpful when that room is a courtroom.
You do learn that there are huge gaps in the law that you don’t know, and this applies to everyone appointed to the bench in Alberta, where we do criminal, civil, and family law. So for everyone who is appointed, no matter what they’ve done, there are going to be things they know, and some things they do not. Someone who was a criminal prosecutor is going to know criminal law, but very little when they’re doing say health work, and they’re not going to have the competency right away. So I have strong competency in some areas and others not, and I’m working hard to fill in the gaps.
But ultimately, I’m like every other person appointed to the bench. I have areas where I know a lot, and areas where I have a lot to learn.
It likely won’t be long until students, or former students of yours appear before you. What sort of expectations do you have of that new relationship? (Should we preface all submission with, “notwithstanding my performance on my 2L paper?”)
In sitting as a judge, it is my goal to reach the appropriate outcome on the law and the facts of a case. What I am hoping for from any counsel is that they’ll help me do that, and that’s true whether they are my former students or not. As a judge, the other people in the courtroom will usually know far more about the case, and I’m looking for them to help me use the law and the facts in the case to advise me. That’s what I’m hoping for of my students.
You’re appointment resulted in a somewhat ‘expedited’ departure. Was there any advice or wisdom you wanted to share with your last class?
Don’t drink at firm events!!
Being serious - always try to do your best at any given task. There will be some parts of it that you will do better and others less so, but all that you or anyone else can ask of you is that you give it your best shot.
AND don’t drink at firm events!