Clerking at Canada’s highest court
Photography John Major
The mentor: Owen Rees, lawyer at Conway Baxter Wilson in Ottawa and former executive legal officer to the Chief Justice of Canada, the Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin.
Background: Rees spent three years as the principal advisor to Chief Justice McLachlin from 2012 to 2015. One of his responsibilities was overseeing the Supreme Court of Canada’s clerkship program.
The mentee: Mark Strychar-Bodnar, a University of Ottawa common law graduate who began a one-year clerkship at the Supreme Court in July.
Background: Strychar-Bodnar started working as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella in the summer of 2016 after completing his articling at Aird & Berlis in Toronto.
Clerks at the Supreme Court of Canada get “a ringside seat” to watch Canada’s highest-ranking judges wrestle with cases that affect the lives of Canadians, says Owen Rees, an Ottawa lawyer who spent three years overseeing the high court’s clerking program. They work in a “fertile intellectual environment” and enjoy the satisfaction of contributing to the work of the country’s final court of appeal.
“It is one of the best jobs you can have in the legal profession,” says Rees, himself a former Supreme Court clerk.
On a sunny summer day in the nation’s capital, Rees sat down with Mark Strychar-Bodnar at the Wellington Gastropub, a few minutes away from the high court, to fill him in on what the coming year has in store for him.
At the Supreme Co urt, three clerks are assigned to each of the court’s nine justices. Clerks spend a year helping them prepare for hearings and doing research they use in their deliberations.
“What you have is an amazing intellectual environment where you bring together 27 incredibly talented and smart lawyers who get to work alongside the judges on the important legal issues of national importance of the day,” Rees says.
Effective communication between clerks and judges is the key to success, just as it is between lawyers and their clients, he says.
“The importance of communicating with your judge and knowing what your judge’s needs are — that is the formula for a successful clerkship,” Rees says. Clerks also act as sounding boards for their judges.
Strychar-Bodnar, assigned to work for Justice Rosalie Abella, acknowledges he was nervous, but excited about contributing to the work of such an important institution.
There are some fascinating cases out there,” he says. “Everything has its own little riddle or problem that needs to be solved.”
And he’s looking forward to seeing some of Canada’s best legal minds at hearings. “I assume you see some of the best litigators in the country discuss the law with the judges.”
Rees compares the way a clerk serves a judge to the way lawyers serve their clients, though Supreme Court clerks have just one client: their judge.
Another difference is that lawyers typically try to tailor their answer to their clients' needs. Supreme Court judges are only interested in determining what the law is.
“A judge is not interested in the outcome. A judge just wants to get to the correct result, whatever that may be,” Rees says.
Both Rees and Strychar-Bodnar say working at such an important institution pushes clerks to do their best work.
“It’s a different kind of pressure. At a law firm, at the end of the day, you’re dealing with someone’s rights, someone’s property, someone’s liberty.... At the Court, we’re dealing with the nation’s questions and issues that need to be solved,” Strychar-Bodnar says.
For alumni of the high court’s clerkship program, a sense of pride accompanies the experience of contributing to the work of Canada’s highest court. There’s also a lasting camaraderie among former Supreme Court clerks.
“Some of my closest friends are from that year,” Rees says.