Bencher Profile Series: Sandra Petersson

July 28, 2021

Sandra Petersson believes that earning a law degree opens many paths, some less traveled than others. Sandra herself has had a unique legal career, first as a tenured academic in New Zealand then working at the Alberta Law Reform Institute (ALRI) – first as legal counsel, then research manager and now as Executive Director. Her experience in legal research has provided valuable background knowledge for her new role as Bencher.

“My prior involvement with other organizations, combined with my teaching experience, provide a good background in a range of issues that affect our profession. I’ve also always had a keen interest in helping younger members of our profession find their niche. Not everyone is going to thrive on commercial mergers or litigation so it’s helping those younger members to find their own path.”

Before moving to ALRI, she earned her Master of Laws in feminist legal theory and legislative drafting from the Victoria University of Wellington. She remained at the University for five years lecturing law students in statutory interpretation, legislative drafting, torts and jurisprudence. The issues faced by law students in New Zealand years ago, are reminiscent of the issues being addressed at the Bencher table today around competence and wellness.

“Back when I was a full-time academic, I had a young student in New Zealand come to me terribly distraught because she was getting a ‘C’ in her law courses. This mindset starts with the entry system as the type of people who tend to have the marks and the LSAT scores to get into law school tend to be perfectionists, so you’re taking someone with that 3.9 average and putting them on a different curve. And for some of them, by their own standards, this will be their first time failing. These are the same people who are going to be so afraid of making mistakes in the profession but it’s inevitable. Mistakes will happen, not that you should be slack about it, but it’s part of the system that we work in. We can be far too hard on ourselves, and you see that played out in the higher rates of stress related diseases and mental illness within the profession.”

Sandra believes that we are at a critical point for legal education, both for emerging lawyers and ongoing development. She says the time is right to look at how lawyer education can better serve the lawyer themselves and the clients they serve. She thinks that the pandemic has provided the opportunity for lawyers to gain knowledge with the click of a mouse, that they would have otherwise had to pay significant costs to travel and attend. This is especially beneficial to those in smaller practices or rural communities.

“Every week there are multiple offerings for online seminars on different topics, so the pandemic has been a great leveler in terms of access to legal education opportunities.”

Sandra is especially passionate about developing policy solutions so that the law keeps pace with societal change. Involvement within the legal community is one of the ways she has been able to affect change. Her past experience includes: the Legal Education Society of Alberta, Board of Directors (2014–20); Canadian Bar Association, Alberta Branch Council (2012–19); CBA Alberta Governance Review Task Force (2017–18); Federation of Law Reform Agencies of Canada, President (2014–17); Uniform Law Conference of Canada, Alberta delegate (2007–present); Uniform Interpretation Act Working Committee (2011–14); and the Uniform Wills Act Working Committee (2010–13).

“For me, it’s about being in those different rooms and hearing those different bits of information to put the pieces together.”

As Executive Director of ALRI, she is hands-on with finding ways to simplify the law for the people who apply it. This has a direct link with ensuring that Albertans are served to the best extent possible. She looks forward to continuing to apply these learnings during her term as Bencher.

“The public interest is the defining thing to being a Bencher. That is very important because we are an independent profession, and we must take that very seriously. At ALRI, we try to hear from a broad range of voices and to examine where there may be differences between what the profession is telling us and what we are hearing from Albertans generally. If we only hear from lawyers about the perspective of their clients, we miss out on hearing from those who didn’t have the means to access a lawyer in the first place.”