Pro Bono Students Canada

An Interview with PBSC’s Founder, Ronald Daniels


Ronald J. Daniels, President of Johns Hopkins University and PBSC Founder

Ronald J. Daniels was Dean of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law for ten years, from 1995 to 2005. During his term, Ron founded Pro Bono Students Canada. He left U of T in 2005 to become Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, a position he held for four years. In 2009, he became the 14th president of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the first non-medically trained president in the history of that institution.  As Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella says, “Ron Daniels’ remarkable intellectual and institutional creativity makes adjectives like visionary, inspirational, brilliant and courageous – or remarkable –  seem anaemic.” In 2011, PBSC interviewed President Daniels and asked him about his vision for law student pro bono.
PBSC: As founding dean, why did you think that an organization such as PBSC was needed in Canada?
Ron Daniels: We were struck by the lack of any formal organization in Canada to champion the role and value of the profession’s commitment to pro bono service. This has long been a value of the Canadian legal profession, but was not celebrated and supported by any formal organization. The lack of awareness of the role of pro bono service was particularly troublesome given my role as a legal educator. Law students tended to assume that if you wanted to do good on graduation, you opted for traditional poverty law practice, and if you entered other legal settings, there was no real scope for assisting individuals and organizations that lacked financial resources. By championing the value of pro bono service, we were able to remind students, the profession and the public at large that there are many opportunities for public interest work in traditional practice settings. PBSC became one of the key galvanizing organizations for pro bonopractice in Canada.

“I was moved by the passion and optimism of the students at the law school, and wanted to find ways to channel that into opportunities that would give expression to those strengths. PBSC was a natural outlet.”

PBSC: How did the idea for PBSC originally come about, and then develop into a pilot project?
Ron Daniels: PBSC was modeled on several different organizations that operated in the United States, especially one at NYU’s law school. But, whereas the American model required participating schools to pay an overhead fee, we went at this a different way, and successfully sought start up funding from two visionary benefactors: the Kahanoff Foundation and the Law Foundation of Ontario. As a result of their early support, we were able to enlist the involvement of schools across the country without requiring the schools to pay any kind of fees. From the get go, the program was extremely well received, and provoked considerable interest from law students and the community organizations to which they were linked. And, as we had hoped, the more excited the students became about pro bono practice, the more vocal they became in inquiring about the scope for pro bono practice as they entered the legal profession.
PBSC: What was your vision for the organization at the beginning? What were your expectations for its reach and impact?
Ron Daniels: In truth, I was hopeful but not at all confident that students would respond to the program’s services. And there were lots of naysayers at the outset. Some criticized the commitment to pro bono as being inimical to the need to ensure governmental responsibility for broad access to legal aid. Others felt that the community organizations wouldn’t welcome support from law students. And yet others saw the organization as unlikely to have any impact on the profession. Of course, they were wrong on all counts, but we weren’t so sure at the time.
PBSC: How do you feel about the growth of PBSC, and the fact that a program you started is now established at every law school in Canada, and integrated into the fabric of legal education across the country?
Ron Daniels: Enormously proud. From its inception, the organization benefited from inspired leadership of law deans across the country, who understood the role for the organization. We were also blessed with several gifted directors—Pam Shime, Noah Aiken-Klar, and now Nikki Gershbain—who each strengthened the organization in different ways, and moved the program well beyond its initial mandate. The ongoing and enthusiastic support of Dean Mayo Moran and numerous faculty at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law no doubt contributes to PBSC’s continuing success. We never envisioned, for instance, the many specialized programs that evolved in family law, multidisciplinary practice and so on.
PBSC: Looking back on some of the other academic and co-curricular programs you created and championed while at the University of Toronto, why did you feel it was important to bring public interest values to the university? Do any initiatives stand out in your mind?
Ron Daniels: As a student and later as a faculty member, my interest in law was strongly influenced by the role of the public interest in evaluating different legal and policy arrangements. So I saw a focus on the public interest in an applied setting as a natural complement to the law’s core academic program. At another level, I was moved by the passion and optimism of the students at the law school, and wanted to find ways to channel that into opportunities that would give expression to those strengths. PBSC was a natural outlet.
PBSC: Have you been able to bring your commitment to public interest work to your current position at Johns Hopkins? If so, what initiatives have you been involved with?
Ron Daniels:  These are early days. Ask me in a year.
PBSC: Next year, you’ll be returning to U of T for PBSC’s 15th anniversary, celebrating your vision in creating the program and featuring a lecture from Justice Rosalie Abella. Looking ahead to this event, what are your thoughts on returning to U of T?
Ron Daniels:  I owe so much to the University. My wife, Joanne Rosen, and I each received two degrees from the University, I spent 16 years as a faculty member and then dean at the law school, and we developed some of our most cherished personal friendships there. It is always a privilege to come back home to the law school, and this event will be particularly meaningful.