An Interview with Rebecca Sutton

Interview by Emily Tsui (3L JD/MGA)

Rebecca SuttonPhoto Credit: Rebecca Sutton

How did you end up in law school?

I took my time getting to law school, though initially I had applied straight out of undergrad and then deferred a few times. For my undergrad I attended McMaster’s innovative and interdisciplinary Arts & Science program, and the only downside of it was that at the time of graduation I hadn’t quite pinned down whether the Arts or the Science side of my brain was going to win out. I threw my hat in for both medical and law school, and was a bit shocked when both of the options came through. So, rational being that I am, I chose neither. Instead I moved to London, England, and did an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development at SOAS (University of London). A few years later I was back home and working with wonderful people at War Child Canada. While at War Child, I had some great interactions with IHRP students from U of T, and I thought the legal research and advocacy they were doing looked fun as well as challenging. Soon enough, I was enrolled at U of T, and I began as a 1L in 2007.

Could you talk about your experience at law school? 

I first have to thank the administration of the law school for being patient with me, because I took a whole five years to finish. I did 1L in 2007-2008, and then took two years off to work in Darfur, Sudan, as Country Director for War Child, before coming back to finish in 2013. Incredibly, I had the complete support of the law school in taking a leave of absence, and my time in Sudan only enriched my law school experience when I returned. Socially, it was difficult, because all of my 1L buddies had graduated when I got back. But IHRP and Downtown Legal Services were my second homes, and I met wonderful people there who I’m still in touch with. Another huge highlight for me in the JD program was working on the Indigenous Law Journal and being part of the first cohort to do a Certificate in Aboriginal Legal Studies. This opened up a whole new world of law, and social justice, for me.

Can you walk us through your path after law school? How did you make your decision to pursue a PhD and enter into teaching?

The game changer, for me, was having the good fortune to receive a PhD Scholarship from the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation. This allowed me to enter into a PhD program at the London School of Economics, and to return to London where I had had such a good time as a grad student almost a decade earlier. At the time, I was not making a conscious decision to become an academic for life. What motivated me, really, was that I had a specific problem I wanted to solve, and I thought I had a research question big enough to spend four years puzzling over. It was once I started working as a teaching assistant at the LSE that I truly discovered my love of teaching, which I think was there all along. 

How did law school help shape your path?

Above all, it was the people I met, including Professors, Admin staff and other students, during my time in law school who shaped my path. Working closely with Professor Kent Roach on a directed research project, for example, revealed to me the exciting and emancipatory possibilities of being a legal researcher. I also had an incredible experience working on an extended project with Renu Mandhane and Elizabeth Bingham at the IHRP (on federally-sentenced women with mental health issues), which exposed me to the inside of Canadian prisons and allowed for collaboration with organizations such as Disabled Women's Network Canada, Native Women's Association of Canada and Elizabeth Fry. Professor Martha Shaffer was always a generous sounding board for me, and inspired me through her teaching as well. 

I was also fortunate to have great summer gigs while a law student. After 1L I did an IHRP internship working on immigration detention and xenophobic violence in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was bitten by the field bug while away on that trip, and I think that was a big reason why I pursued the job in Sudan with War Child. I had a strong urge to work in a hands-on way, on the ground, on issues of rights and justice that are important to me. When I returned to law school after two years in Sudan, I was constantly struck by what an enormous privilege and responsibility it is to go to law school and be a lawyer. After 2L, I had a fantastic summer at Lenczner Slaght, where I was surrounded by incredibly professional, competent and generous litigators who helped me grow. My time at the Ontario Court of Appeal, following graduation, also exposed me to a more academic side of the law, and I think the research skills I developed in the clerkship were crucial. 

You have researched extensively on the law of armed conflict. Can you walk us through your current research?

My PhD examined the civilian-combatant distinction in International Humanitarian Law, exploring how humanitarian actors (e.g. Médecins Sans Frontières, International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) express their civilian identity. I did field research in South Sudan and at civil-military trainings in West Africa and Europe. I’m currently re-working my doctorate as a book, which will be coming out with Oxford University Press in the next year or so. In my new role as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Edinburgh Law School, in Scotland, I’m continuing to engage with international humanitarian law (IHL) but now I am focusing on the role of emotions. At the moment, I’m interviewing humanitarian negotiators in South East Asia to learn about the interplay of international law, and feelings, in their everyday work. The aim of my research, in the broadest sense, is to uncover the human component of IHL. Next year, I’ll start a new strand of the Leverhulme project, which involves designing a training in International Law for journalists and war correspondents. I also teach on subjects such as International Human Rights Law, IHL and conflict resolution, which help to inform my research.

What are some skills that you think are important for a successful career in doing international legal research work? 

A lively sense of curiosity. An appreciation for playing the long game: it can sometimes be three, four, or five years before an important discovery sees the light of day. An ability to move between a grand vision and the nitty gritty nuts and bolts. A willingness to master different types of writing, like academic articles, grant writing, blogs, op-eds. These all offer different ways of expressing ideas and, done right, they can all play an important role in your intellectual engagement. Further on the subject of grant writing, I am constantly struck by how much of this job involves mobilising resources. It is time-intensive, tiring, and heart-breaking when it doesn’t lead to success. My previous experience as a grant writer at War Child helps me a lot in this respect, which perhaps highlights the advantage of thinking creatively about what could make you an effective legal researcher.

If you could give any additional advice to U of T students interested in academia and international legal work, what would it be?

Follow your heart, and keep an open mind about what meaningful work looks like for you. Also, have fun with the concept of being a ‘lawyer’ and develop a definition of justice that suits your own values. Do not be afraid of rejection; welcome it, and walk towards your fear. Be kind to your peers and colleagues, not because they might become important or useful to you in the future, but just because. Above all, do not pull the ladder away when you reach the top, and extend a hand to help others when you can.