Alan Aucoin, a University of Windsor Law alumni, is a senior litigator with arbitration credentials practising with Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP. Alan’s practice covers a number of areas including dealing with commercial, regulatory, intellectual property and technology law matters. In an interview with LTEC Lab, Alan Aucoin discusses what it’s like working in such a diverse practice, what it takes to get there, what his time was like at Windsor, and what the future holds for him.
You are a partner at Blakes practicing in a wide variety of areas spanning from regulatory issues in financial services sector to IP and technology issues such as pharmaceutical development, can you provide some input on what it’s like working in such a diverse practice?
Interesting, challenging, and rewarding. I look at the law as broader than a given area, which allows me to look into a number of different areas requiring me to hit the books and delve into areas outside the areas I have built up experience in. That means being willing to put in the extra hours to educate yourself, and surrounding yourself with really good people who can educate you. As a litigator, you’re always looking to obtain the information required to advance your client’s case. That sometimes means being taught by people who have blackbelt PhDs in areas that maybe you have a grade 13 education in. In many respects and at least in my case, it is easier to be taught if you are willing to suspend disbelief about concepts and ideas that are new to you. At the end of the day, you have to present everything to a judge who probably doesn’t have any better understanding in the area you’re going to educate them about, so you’re going to have to condense down the complex into the simple for your judge.
What attracted you to becoming a litigator/arbitrator?
I didn’t start off as a litigator/arbitrator. I started doing solicitor’s work in the financial services area. Our firm then had a policy where you had to rotate into a completely different area after your first or second year. I chose to do litigation after my first year of banking, partly because new rules of practice that came into force in 1985 so I would’ve been as current as anyone else trying to deal with those rules at the time. What interested me about litigation was being able to practice different areas of law, but quite frankly, after I put on the robes I knew that’s what I wanted to do. What kept me interested continuing with litigation for the balance of my career was the diversity of the issues I could deal with as a litigator.
Arbitration was something that became an interest following my participation in a subgroup of the Ontario Bar Association looking into alternate dispute resolution or ADR in the early 90s. ADR had become very popular in the United States owing to the high cost of litigation, especially in patent cases. Shortly thereafter, I started doing arbitrations as counsel. I found arbitration very much like trial, but much more informal and quicker. Recently, I decided to qualify as an international and domestic arbitrator and may decide to pursue that as a career in the future.
How did you come to working in IP and technology law? Were there particular aspects of the field that drew you to it?
Our firm attracted good IP lawyers and patent agents in 1986. I was doing commercial and banking litigation at the time and when they showed up, the things they were fighting over, patents, trademarks and copyright seemed a little bit more interesting than fighting over cheques, although cheques can also be interesting. In any event, I offered to help if they needed a litigator. Soon thereafter, I was fortunate to be able to junior on a large case dealing with cross border passing off issues involving a restaurant that had started in Ontario. That got my feet wet and then I moved into the IP group. Our firm tends to be set up in groups of lawyers that practice in the same or related area so sitting in the IP Group was a natural. I must also mention that my firm has been very good about letting me move into whatever area I wanted to. I’m not sure if it’s as easy for young lawyers these days. After joining the IP group, I qualified as a Trademark agent, and did Trademark prosecution and litigation and a fair bit of injunction work. At some point, I wanted more trial experience so I moved into another litigation group that was more trial focused and did that for a number of years. In the mid-90s, I moved back to the IP group and since then, I have done patent litigation and other IP related litigation. Although I sit with the Intellectual Property Group, I continue to do a variety of commercial and banking litigation.
What would you say is the most interesting part about practicing in a practice such as yours?
The diversity is exciting and I love dealing with people, resolving problems, and trying to find ways for client interests to be advanced. The constant learning is also something that I live for. I’ve had many great relationships with the firm’s clients and the variety of work they have brought to me has been very fulfilling and interesting. All of this has provided me with a great career which is just about to be changed at the end of this year! I’ve decided to take an early retirement and focus on other things which may include teaching. I taught contract remedies at Osgoode for a number of years and during my graduate work I thought I was going to go into teaching. Having said this, Blakes has been and continues to be a great firm to practice with and I will always cherish the time spent here and wonderful friends and colleagues that I’ve dealt with both inside and outside the firm.
How was your time at Windsor Law?
My time at Windsor was special and I will always be grateful to Windsor for having given me the opportunity to study law. I must admit that it was the only law school in Canada to take me. Indeed, I think I was probably the last one on the waiting list to get in. The other thing I recall fondly about Windsor was the camaraderie of our class and the great Dean and professors we had. When it came time for me to decide what I wanted to do after Windsor, I was fortunate to receive a Duff Rinfret scholarship to complete my LL.M, which I did at University of Toronto. I thought about teaching but practice called. I had applied to article with Blakes, largely because of the breadth of its practice areas its historical pedigree. It’s a firm that is older than Canada. In the end, I believe that Windsor gave me the confidence to practice in any number of areas as long as I applied myself. It was and is a great school.
It’s usually hard to enter the field of IP without a technical science/engineering background, could you provide some insight as to how you came about entering the field without a technical background?
No, because part of my make up is to suspend disbelief and to be inquisitive. For example, when I do a patent litigation case, I’ll be staffing the case with more than just myself. I always involve one of our patent agents as someone who can distill the information for me in a way that I can then ask the right questions. At the end of the day you’re going to find and rely upon experts who can testify with respect to the technology and they’re going to teach you as well. So the trick is not thinking you have to know it all, but be willing to be taught.
Could you provide some advice for students with and without a science/engineering degree interested in pursuing a career in IP/technology law such as yours?
Honestly, I don’t know how you could give a prescription for that. I’m fairly eccentric and eclectic in my interests. So if someone wanted to do what I do, you’d have to have a balanced life; I have a great family, I play music and enjoy entertaining, I read well and widely, and I just love what I do. If people get into law because they want to make money, I think that is a prescription for unhappiness. If they want to get into law because it opens you up to the potential to understand complexities and the philosophical problems our world and society face, then there is no better study. Prior to law school, I studied in English and History and dabbled a little bit in political science and sociology. However, my primary studies were History and English, and I still love those areas. I worked for a brief time after graduating with my BA. that underscored how fortunate I was to be able to study and learn at Windsor. Once you get into law school, you just have to pinch yourself and know how lucky you are to be able to be sitting in a class, absorbing, and participating in discussions that most people never get a chance to do. We are so very fortunate and privileged to practice law.
As for entering IP without a science degree, if you think you want to be a patent agent, you can do it without a science or technical background although that may be more challenging. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t litigate in scientific or technical areas if you have the right teachers and you are willing to learn. There are also other areas of IP that might be of interest. For example, trademark or copyright law are fascinating areas. There are a number of good firms that specialize in IP or, like Blakes that have an IP department.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aaraf Dewan, M.Sc., University of Windsor (1L Dual J.D.), LTEC Lab Student Writer