Interview with McGill Law Professor Shauna Van Praagh

by Jillian Ohayon, McGill University

shutterstock_67783021Professor Shauna Van Praagh’s engaging teaching style and friendly personality have made her very popular amongst McGill students, and I felt that many could benefit from her insight and advice. Professor Van Praagh teaches a first-year integrated Torts course and a second-year Advanced Common Law Obligations course, as well as a legal education graduate seminar. She received both her undergraduate degree in Physiology and her Law degree from the University of Toronto, clerked for Chief Justice Dickson, obtained her Masters and Doctorate degrees from Columbia University, and has taught at McGill since 1993. I sat down with Professor Van Praagh to ask her a few questions about her law school experience and her career.

I began by asking if she had a favorite law school memory. She replied that, for her, the most significant aspect of law school was the connections made with other students. She commented on the excitement of meeting a diversity of people with so many different ways of looking at the world. “When you’re in it, it’s a very intense time – in terms of social relations, figuring out what you care about, and thinking about all the possibilities in front of you. While you’re a law student, you are developing in a very personal way that will stick with you forever.” I continued by asking her what she would say if she could have given her younger self one piece of advice. She said that she would have told herself to be careful about judging others. “Everyone’s learning how to articulate what they believe in.” In her early twenties, she was convinced that she knew everything. “With maturity comes the understanding that what others have to say might be surprising or convincing.”

While you’re a law student, you are developing in a very personal way that will stick with you forever.

I went on to ask her if she could have dinner with any Supreme Court Justice who has ever lived, whom she would choose and why. To her own surprise, this question made her feel very emotional. She teared up as she told me that she would choose to meet with and thank Chief Justice Dickson for his mentorship. “This is funny. I don’t usually get emotional thinking about Chief Justice Dickson. He wasn’t exactly a cuddly person. You respected him, you did your work, and you delivered.” She mentioned that she was also mentored by Justice Iacobucci, and has enjoyed conversations with Justices Abella, L’Heureux-Dubé, and Lord Goff. What I personally appreciated most about her response was what she went on to say next: “Supreme Court justices are just people. That’s something to keep in mind. There are plenty of important people in your lives from whom you will learn a lot.”

Next, we spoke about every student’s favorite subject: grades. I asked if she remembered her worst grade in law school. She told me about receiving a grade she was not happy with in a first year course. That course was Torts, a subject about which Professor Van Praagh now knows a thing or two! “The world does not end when you get a C,” she told me. “I have a C+ as a final grade on my transcript. One grade doesn’t tell you anything significant about yourself.” I then asked her what she would have chosen if she could have pursued any other career. She replied that she has thought about being onstage, becoming a rabbi, and teaching something other than law. She feels that certain elements of each of these alternative aspirations have been fulfilled by her chosen career. “When I teach, it’s like being onstage. And the elements of religion that I enjoyed are things that I kind of get to do in law.”

Finally, I asked her what she would say if she could give one piece of advice to every student currently in law school. She told me that the study of law is always going to be challenging and intense, but that it also encompasses a privileged opportunity for self-discovery. “You should recognize that you are studying concepts that shouldn’t come easily. Pay attention to yourself at the same time as you’re engaging as fully as possible with new ideas.”

I would like to thank Professor Van Praagh for her time and all of her great insight!

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