Chris Samuel: The New Legal Research and Writing Program Director in his Own Words
Joe Sellman (3L)
Legal Research and Writing (LRW) are two of the most important skills that a lawyer can have. The LRW program is the first year class that takes us all from seriously confused and lost individuals, to some varying degree of less confused and less lost- at least in relation to LRW. With a new program director, Canons took the opportunity to meet with him and ask the tough questions, as well as a handful of questions about himself and the LRW program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What should we call you? Professor, Director? THE DIRECTOR?
You are starting with a hard hitting question, I’m still figuring that out myself! I’m not a tenure-track professor, but I am part of the faculty. Let’s err on the side of formality and use Professor Samuel when students have to communicate with me in an official capacity. One of the things I’ll be covering in LRW is how to behave in a professional setting, and my advice will be to always use formal titles where appropriate. If you see me outside of the classroom, like at the market or something, Chris is also fine. Just not Mr. Samuel, because that sounds like my Dad. Long answer for a short question!
So, what I hear is THE Director is fine?
Uhhh… sure, you can feel free to call me the Director, Joe.” (sounds unsure)
What is your primary area of expertise in the law?
Before coming here [the University of Alberta] I have spent my entire career as a Criminal Prosecutor with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, that is the Federal Crown. The vast majority of my caseload was drug files: drug trafficking, drug possession, that type of file. I’m pretty well versed in the criminal law. What I’ve also done on the side though, for the last two years, is I’ve coached the Wilson Moot, which is a non-criminal constitutional moot. And I’m just kind of a legal nerd, I’ll read up about cases even though they don’t have anything to do with my area.
I think a lot of us are legal nerds.
Yeah, that is a good quality to have in law school.
What brought you to first study and then later teach law?
I have to think back now to my law school application essay, because I think that was a question there too. What I wrote then, and I think it still applies is that … So I’m a big video game nerd. I was always the guy among my group of friends who would read through the rule book, trying to figure out what the rules of the game were and why things worked the way they worked. I think that gives you an insight into why the law was a good fit for me, because the law is all about why things work the way they do, how things work and what rules do we need to follow.
As for teaching, I was a sessional instructor three years ago, in the LRW program before the writing fellow model, so I have some background with the course. After that I coached the Clinton J Ford Moot for a year and then the Wilson Moot for two years, so I’ve developed a little background and expertise for the competitive moot program. When the [LRW] position came open, it seemed like a natural fit for me because I’ve had that background and I’ve had that experience to slide into the role. It felt like the right time in my career to try something new, to try something different.
What can students expect from you and your classroom, because legal and writing research is one of the most important skills in law?
Right, yes it is. What can they expect, let’s start from there. I think they can expect me to bring a practical view of legal research and writing to the classroom. I think that stems both from my recent experience as a practicing barrister and also from my general approach to teaching. I prefer putting the learning in the hands of the students, so giving them hands-on activities and hands-on experiences because I think those are the best ways to learn. Particularly this kind of technical material. I think they can also expect me to bring a good sense of humor into the classroom, as I don’t take myself too seriously. The law is obviously a serious business, but hopefully I can still lighten the mood with memes and funny cat pictures.
What do you have planned for the LRW and moot programs?
I don’t have any major changes for how the program is run. I know that the moot problem itself hasn’t been a criminal problem for the last few years, so students [i.e. 1Ls] can expect the moot to be a criminal problem this year. But I think the program as it is currently constructed is pretty effective. I think it certainly could probably use some fine tuning in certain areas but overall I think the structure is sound. I don’t anticipate making any major changes. We have a very solid group of writing fellows this year, so I expect big things from them and the first years are hopefully going to learn a lot and maybe enjoy themselves. But that might be too much to ask.
What was the last interesting legal topic you researched (that you can tell us about)?
I’ve had so many in my career, it’s hard to think of just one. The case I’m thinking of is one that I dealt with in the last month or so before I left the office. It is an interesting intersection between how the law works in theory and how the law works in practice. I had a case where someone missed their court date nine years ago and somewhere in the system the actual physical file where it was recorded that they missed their court date got lost. The interesting legal issue was whether that nine years, is that time that should be counted against the person because they missed the court date or should it be counted against the Crown because it was the system that lost the file? It was a unique case, I couldn’t find any exact analogous cases where the exact same thing had occurred. And that isn’t surprising because the legal principles have to apply to all sorts of novel and wacky facts.
Tell us something about yourself completely unrelated to law
Ok, I’ve got lots. Did we cover the fact I’m a huge nerd? I guess so, we’ll leave that because I think your readers get the point.
In a previous life as an undergraduate at the university, I was a performer with Rapid Fire Theatre, which is a local improv group in Edmonton, improv theatre. I later served on the board of directors, but I was a performer with them for a couple of years and had a great time doing it.
What is your one best piece of advice for law students?
Get involved with as many things at the law school as possible. To the point where you say to yourself I’m a little too busy for my comfort. These three years go by so quickly, and once these opportunities that are unique to law school are gone they are gone for good. I’ve never met a lawyer who regretted being involved in a moot, a law review, pro bono services, or Student Legal Services. I have spoken to lots of lawyers who have regretted not getting involved.