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Interview with Dr. Jennifer Raso

Alec McIlwraith-Black (2L)

Can you tell us a bit about your background in law before you came to the U of A?

I studied law at McGill and the University of Victoria. After graduating from law school, I practiced with the City of Toronto legal services division, doing a number of different things, including human rights litigation and social welfare law. There was a lot of administrative law involved, things like licensing and bylaw challenges as well. So overall I had a really broad range of practice in litigation there. After five years of practice, I went back to school to do my doctorate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

What did you study during your doctorate?

During my time with the City of Toronto I was exposed to a lot of “front-line” workers in administrative systems – those people actually responsible for interacting with the public and carrying out the mandates of government and quasi-governmental bodies. In my thesis, I wanted to explore how those workers used discretion in their decision-making, especially in situations where it seemed like they were doing nothing but following hundreds of rules imposed by statute, regulation, and policy.

For the folks at home, what is discretion in the context of administrative law?

Essentially, discretion is the space within legislation that provides some flexibility to those government officials who interpret it. There are constraints, of course, and a decision-maker can’t make a decision completely contrary to the statutory authority, but there is a lot of flexibility in decisions even in what may seem to be a very rule-bound environment. One of the programs I looked at for my doctorate seemed to have every possible decision narrowed down in its rules, but many of these rules used words like “may” or “reasonable”, and would reference other rules. The whole situation was like a series of nesting dolls with chances for discretion embedded throughout the rules.

Thanks. Definitely not using this interview to study for my Admin assignment. So now that you’re here at U of A, will you be working on similar research?

Right before I came to the University of Alberta, I did a post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, looking at the ways administrative decision-makers use technology. Something I’m really interested in is the effect of algorithms on due process and procedural fairness, and what changes administrative law might need to see as those technologies become more widely adopted. We don’t really have much exploration by the courts as to how we might rethink these areas of law, and it’s unclear how or when that kind of hearing might happen. So, my research will focus on re-imagining existing administrative law principles in this new technological context.

That sounds really fascinating. A penny for your thoughts on the technology-driven future of the legal profession?

I think we need to pay close attention to the risks that technologies like sentencing algorithms are creating because there are real consequences for real people – and for the justice system. I’ll be speaking on this in the Faculty’s Legal Innovation Conference next January, which I’m really excited to be a part of. Overall, though, I am really excited to see what sort of developments happen in the legal industry over the coming years, especially from an access to justice perspective, which I think is a huge opportunity for emerging technologies to make a real impact.

So how have you found your time at the U of A so far?

It’s been really great. I love the sense I get from the faculty: everyone is really engaged with their research, and with teaching. There are some great opportunities here for professors and students, and I love the community here in the faculty. Starting with a cohort of new professors has made us all feel this sort of energy – we’re all really happy to be here.

We’re happy to have you here! Since we’ve covered a lot of heavy law stuff so far, can you tell us about something you’ve done in the past completely unrelated to law?

Sure! When I was an undergraduate at Montreal’s Concordia University, I helped found a collective, community-based cafeteria called the People’s Potato. The idea was to organize free lunch every day for students and other community members. We worked to find food that was going unused elsewhere in the city, to try to create a sustainable option for students, and we ran classes to teach students how to cook and manage their food- things like that. I loved baking so I always made sure there was a dessert option! I found out recently that it’s still around and now has full-time staff, so it’s awesome to see something you helped launch take off like that.

One final question before I let you go: one piece of advice for all of us law students?

Go where your interests take you. Listen to your own curiosities, because following something you’re interested in is the best way to make a career out of something you really enjoy. There are so many opportunities here in law school – not just in terms of your studies, but in terms of where your paths will lead after law – that you should explore anything you want to while you’re here. Trust your gut on that, and things tend to work out in your favour.

Sounds good to me. Thanks so much for your time!