It didn’t take long for Erika Chamberlain to settle on a career path.
“I pretty much knew I wanted to be an academic,” said Chamberlain, who on May 1 will begin a five-year term as Dean in Western’s Faculty of Law, replacing Iain Scott, whose five-year term ends this year.
“I worked for a Law professor as a research assistant after my first year (in law school), and I liked the freedom to pursue research that interested me. And I’ve always liked school; I thought I could make a bigger impact on the profession as an academic than as a practitioner,” she said.
Chamberlain steps into her new position having served as the faculty’s Associate Dean (Academic) for the past five years. Among her accomplishments in that role, Chamberlain helped develop the faculty’s strategic plan and led the quality assurance process review and the external accreditation of Western’s JD program. She also led planning and implementation of extensive curriculum reform, including restructuring of the former “January Term” and oversaw the entry of the faculty’s first-ever PhD class (2014).
“I really like this chance to educate the next generation of lawyers. The legal profession is changing quickly, too, not just legal education, and so, for us to be able to design programs that are going to be relevant for our students and whatever careers they pursue, I think that’s exciting,” Chamberlain said of her decanal appointment.
“I’m also excited about being able to hire new people; I’m excited about all the research that our faculty are doing, and I hope to promote that in a much more rigorous way, too.”
She joined Western as a professor in 2005, after being called to the Ontario bar and clerking on the Supreme Court of Canada in 2002. Chamberlain, who came to Western as a National Scholar in 1996 and graduated with her LLB as a Gold Medalist from Western Law in 2001, earned her PhD from the University of Cambridge (2009), where she held a Cambridge Commonwealth Scholarship and the WM Tapp Studentship in Law.
There has been a lot of progress, particularly in the area of Business Law, thanks to Scott, Chamberlain said. She feels she is inheriting a robust faculty, but sees some universal challenges ahead, she noted.
“We’ve got more experiential opportunities for students than we did 5-6 years ago, more interdisciplinary opportunities, and I think we have a lot of good momentum,” Chamberlain said.
“But probably the biggest challenge, not just for Western Law but for all law schools in Ontario, is the shortage of articling placements for our students. The province has this law practice program, a pilot run out of Ryerson, but the Law Society (of Upper Canada) isn’t sure about the future of that right now. There are still challenges for students for going through that program in terms of getting jobs at the end of the day.”
One way or another, law schools are going to be called on to do more of the experiential part of legal education, Chamberlain explained, and Western won’t be alone in looking at designing new opportunities for students to ensure they are ready to hit the ground running after they graduate. And it’s a balancing act, she added, ensuring professional training opportunities are there while maintaining a rigorous academic program for students who may not wish to pursue the professional stream.
“I think the deans (of Ontario law schools) are certainly going to have to work in concert; I think they’ll have to develop things that match their own profiles and programs, but in terms of dealing with the Law Society, I think the law schools are going to have to work together in terms of how we respond,” she said.
The other main challenge all law schools are going to be facing, Chamberlain continued, is implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
“That’s going to be a big priority for us for the next few years, too,” she said.
As a member of faculty, Chamberlain has received a number of teaching awards, and has twice received the J. McLeod Professor of the Year Award from the Student Legal Society. As a scholar, she is recognized for her expertise in two diverse fields: tort law and impaired driving law. She is co-author of a leading tort law treatise and a nationally adopted textbook, and is considered one of the foremost authorities on the tort of misfeasance in public office. Her work in impaired driving law has been cited by provincial courts of appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada.
“Right now, I’m working a fair bit with the legalization of marijuana, working on how that affects impaired driving and impaired driving enforcement, in particular. There isn’t a very good system in place for enforcing drug impaired driving provisions,” she added.