Conversations with the Class of Fall 2020: Jenna Topan, Faculty of Law

"Law is a tough program, and McGill is a rigorous school. Still, everything about the program was great — the professors, the students, the academics, the social aspects"
At Fall 2020 virtual Convocation, Jenna Topan graduated from the Faculty of Law with a BCL/JD double degree.

Whether it’s in-person or, as is the special case this year, held virtually, Fall Convocation is a celebration of our graduating students’ hard work, talents and determination. In honour of this special day, the Reporter interviewed three particularly outstanding new grads, as chosen by the Deans of their Faculties. In the first installment, we feature Jenna Topan, who graduated from the Faculty of Law with a BCL/JD double degree.

Where is your hometown?
I’m from Markham, ON, but I’ve been in Montreal for the past ten years. Both provinces are home now.

Why did you choose McGill?
Many reasons! McGill’s prestigious reputation has always been a draw. I completed my BA at McGill and loved my time here, so that was a big factor in my decision to return for law school.

The BCL/JD program is also unique: we’re taught about civil law, common law, and, increasingly, Indigenous legal traditions in an integrated and bilingual environment. That is already proving valuable, to be knowledgeable about more than one legal system and tradition.

At the end of the day, I knew McGill Law would be an exciting challenge. It was an easy decision.

What were some of your impressions when walking onto campus for the first time?
I first toured the campus in 2010, when I was deciding whether to accept McGill for my BA. It was a bit overwhelming! McGill’s campus is beautiful and impressive. Some nerves were unavoidable.

When I returned in 2017 to start the law program, however, it was a completely different feeling. I was returning to a place that was familiar and welcoming. It was pure excitement. Then I was the one showing new law students around the campus in September, introducing them to the most important points, like OAP [Open Air Pub].

What are some of the highlights of your time as a McGill student?
I say this all the time: I loved studying law at McGill. Law is a tough program, and McGill is a rigorous school. Still, everything about the program was great — the professors, the students, the academics, the social aspects. All of it.

The highlight reel is long, but it would have to include the classes and guest speakers/panels, mooting, working as a research assistant, volunteering as a student advocate, and of course all the social events, like Skit Nite, 1L Halloween, 3L Welcome Back, Thomson House post-exams, and any of the parties I was fortunate to organize as a class president.

Three favourite places on campus?
I’m tempted to say the Law Library, though that might be residual Stockholm syndrome speaking. I spent a lot of time there!

When there’s less construction, I like to stop for a moment at the top of the McTavish steps. You can look down at the campus and appreciate the architecture. The view reminds you how cool it is that McGill is this beautiful little hub situated within an amazing city.

And finally, any classroom that has a gorgeous view of campus. Leacock 808 is an unforgettable one.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your time here and how did you overcome them?
Studying law at McGill is not always a walk in the park. There’s pressure to do well in all respects. You juggle academics with extracurriculars. You try to help others while also staying afloat. It can be tough.

The biggest challenge I faced, though, was feeling like I belonged among this group of incredibly smart and accomplished people. Some students came from backgrounds where they were already comfortable chatting with a visiting lawyer or judge, or felt at ease sharing an opinion in a group of 100+ students. That didn’t come as easily for me, but it’s something I worked at. I didn’t want any imposter syndrome to lead to regrets, I wanted the full experience, and that meant putting myself out there. I’m happy I did.

What’s next for you, both short and long term?
Still figuring the details out! I am extremely excited to have a judicial clerkship lined up at the Court of Appeal for Ontario. That begins next summer. As an aspiring litigator, the thought of watching appellate advocacy in court often is an absolute dream.

Tell me about your Faculty and your classmates. How important have they been to your overall McGill experience?
My classmates were an essential part of my McGill experience. The people I met inspired me to work my hardest, but also embodied so many important qualities, like integrity, generosity, and kindness. If someone needed notes, someone else would volunteer instantly. If one student didn’t understand a case, another would stay after class to explain it.

It’s an important skill, to be able to become competitive when the situation calls for it (like in an evaluation setting), but then to support your fellow students when they need a friend, not a shark. I witnessed this so often in law school. The positive atmosphere my cohort worked to create was an indispensable part of the experience I had. Also, I have never met so many hilarious people. Law school was filled with a bunch of very clever and funny nerds.

In terms of the Faculty, I owe them so much. For the years of wisdom and mentorship, and for staying after class to answer my often incessant questions.

Who or what will you miss most?
The only reason I’m not saying my law friends is because they’re not going anywhere! Kind of like a near-death experience, law school bonds you for life.

I will definitely miss having “school” as my workplace and having “learning” as my primary job. There’s something wonderful about having your work for the day be reading and learning. Thankfully, I’ve chosen a profession where you’re not really allowed to stop doing either.

What advice do you have for new students to McGill?
First, good job! I think you’ve made an excellent choice coming here.

You will get out of this experience what you put into it. If you put in a decent amount of hard work and a positive attitude, you will have a rewarding and enriching time.

Find your balance. Work reasonably hard, but also develop your friendships and relationships. Be kind to others and yourself. Make sure that you finish your program having explored this beautiful city a bit.

And finally, just try to enjoy this time! Savour it. It goes by too quickly.

What are your plans for virtual Convocation?
Take advantage of the virtual element, i.e. wear my pyjamas and maybe have a mimosa.

What was your experience with the pandemic? How did it impact your “homestretch” at McGill?
I’m very thankful that my experience has been mostly fine. My loved ones remain safe and healthy, and that’s the big picture for me.

The pandemic actually meant that I was able to finish my studies a semester earlier than planned. Like many people, my plans for 2020 were rearranged (I originally planned to work this summer and study this fall). But as a backup plan, I was able to fill up my summer with some excellent courses. I count myself lucky.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the world today? How confident are you that we can address these challenges and make a difference?
I think there’s no shortage of challenges facing us, but a lesson I will take with me from law school is the importance of access to justice and the state of it in Canada. In many ways, our system of justice is inaccessible and, unfortunately, it has been that way for years. An expensive, complex, and time-consuming justice system is the status quo.

This is not a problem with an easy fix. It will likely take lots of innovative thinking, resources, and hard work to make strides. But ignoring the issue is not an option, especially not for those of us who wish to base our careers around delivering legal services. I’m optimistic that we will make a difference, in part because I’ve encountered so many creative, passionate, and thoughtful students during my time at McGill. Our education has taught us to look for innovative solutions to complex problems and I’m confident that we will keep this issue front of mind as we enter the legal profession together.