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A Life Well-Lived in Legal Education and Beyond: Ian Kerr (1965-2019)

On August 27, 2019, my friend and colleague at the uOttawa Faculty of Law Ian Kerr passed away due to complications arising from cancer. He was only 54 years old.

Ian was a giant in his field. A visionary in AI and Ethics who thought about the implications of autonomous vehicles before they even had a name. He was a teacher who deeply cared about his students. He was a researcher who supported, mentored and championed his colleagues. But most of all he was our friend and we miss him dearly.

When Ian left us, tributes flowed in from around the world and he was celebrated in obituaries. We memorialized him on our website and Ian’s close friend and colleague Michael Geist wrote a stirring tribute to Ian on his blog.

Ian’s short but impactful career successfully rebutted several well-worn assertions in the legal profession and the academy.

First, there are those both inside and outside the academy who think there is a tension between commitment to teaching and commitment to research. Ian’s career demonstrated the fallacy of this assertion. Ian was an internationally acclaimed research superstar. A Canada Research Chair, who attracted millions of dollars in research funding, Ian was first and foremost a teacher. His research informed his teaching, whether it was first-year Contracts, the Law of Robotics or Building Better Humans.

Ian discussed his approach to teaching on his blog. According to him, “one cannot teach effectively without possessing a facility to identify with students in a crucial way. To succeed as a teacher, one must be able to look at, think about, understand, feel, live, and breathe the subject matter under investigation in much the same way that one’s students do.” Ian’s devotion to his students was legendary. On his blog, he wrote that “[t]he most enjoyable and easily the most rewarding aspect of my job is working with highly talented students.”

Ian used the classroom to question, probe and challenge research. About his course “Building Better Humans”, Ian explained that the class would explore questions such as “[w]hat is the value of a research agenda that seeks ultimately to create new forms of intelligence that would one day exceed our own? What are the implications of generating machines that are able to self-assemble and ultimately self-replicate? Why develop a science that would alter the human body and function beyond recognition? What values underlie such programs of research? What public interests are at stake in their development?”

Second, Ian’s career demonstrated the folly of focussing exclusively on teaching so-called “practice-ready” skills. This complaint that law schools are not training lawyers who are sufficiently “practice-ready” is heard all too often in the profession. The reality is that law schools in Ontario are doing more practical skills training through experiential learning than they have at anytime in the past 40 years. Regretfully, the Law Society of Ontario has never done less over the past 50 years to prepare law graduates for practice than it is doing today. We all have a role to play in a lawyer’s education and training and Ian’s career nicely demonstrated both the breadth of what we can do and the narrowness of some perspectives.

Ian was hired in 1999. At that time, there were few practical applications for “ethics, law and technology” in 1999. Few in the bar were likely complaining that our graduates “weren’t ready” to “practice” in this field, because it barely existed. Simply put, Deans who viewed their mandate as simply training the lawyers of today do not hire the likes of Ian Kerr. And what a loss that would be, not just for the academy but also for students and for our profession.

The most exciting moments in law school occur when students are empowered to think not just of what the law is but of what it can be.[1]

If our focus in the academy is exclusively on training “practice-ready” lawyers, we will lose a lot: law reform, critical approaches to law and the opportunity to experiment in new subject areas (like environmental law and health law in the early 1990s). We are at our best in the legal academy when we are focussing not just on the here and now but also on the future.

Our goal in law school is not to prepare students to practice law on Day 1 but to prepare them for a profession and a career in a world that is changing in ways that few of us can predict.

Ian did in fact predict many of the changes that we have seen in recent years and probably some that we will see in future years. He inspired several thousand students as well as many colleagues not simply to think about future technological challenges but what the law’s role should be in addressing those challenges. In so doing, Ian left an indelible mark on everyone that he taught, worked with and collaborated. He also leaves an incredible legacy.

May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration.

___________

[1] Cf. Robert F. Kennedy, “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

 

Comments

  1. The Body Electric

    I had the privilege of being in Ian Kerr’s Law of Robotics course many years ago. Prof. Kerr’s deep knowledge (PhD in philosophy, lawyer and law prof, drummer!), enthusiasm for his topics, and very personable, easy-going nature made a course that was essentially about fundamental legal first-principles and philosophy both engaging, memorable, and as noted, topical today.

    He was a rock-star prof at uOttawa law school at a time when, frankly, course selections were limited, classes were over-crowded, and too often taught by part time lecturers with legal specialization but little teaching ability. I’m saddened that current and future students won’t have the in-person benefit of his insights and creative insights on how to re-conceive legal issues, problems, and move toward solutions.

    I do wish to nitpick a point with Dean Dodek, who seems to fall back on that old law school mantra that practical legal skills are not what law schools are about – they are meant to teach students to think like a lawyer to server justice. I disagree, and I think Prof. Kerr would too. I recall him discussing the importance of both, and the notion of ‘praxis’ to the extent that what was principle had little value unless it could be understood easily and put into practice for the benefit of real people with real problems.

    Kerr co-authored a great text-book for business students (ie. non-lawyers/law students) called “Managing the Law” that does that – it explains many important legal ideas/terms in practical terms and provides examples and cased of how they play out and why. Law schools need profs who can do both well – teach the principles, but also demonstrate in real world (or court) situations how that knowledge is applied, and how the procedural steps (even filling out forms!) work to support the aims of justice. I always thought Ian Kerr did that well because he knew that his teaching and research – on contracts or AI – would best enhance justice and society when his students could thing about what they’d learned and had a better idea how to try in the world. He is missed.

  2. Such a terrible loss, such a fine, smart, warm and lively man. Thanks for this tribute, Dean Dodek (and Michael Geist’s blog post is wonderful too.)

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