Dec. 6, 2018

Law student saves endangered bats with internship opportunity

Course with Alberta Utilities Commission gives hands-on learning opportunities using real-life cases
Law students gained hands-on experience in administrative tribunals through an experiential learning course and internship with the Alberta Utilities Commission. Photo by Brian McNulty

Law students gained hands-on experience in administrative tribunals through internship with AUC.

Brian McNulty

What role does a law student have in saving endangered bats in Alberta? A lot, actually, when it comes to participating in a mock hearing before the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC), which regulates electric, gas, and investor-owned water utilities in Alberta, and provides regulatory oversight of issues related to the development and operation of wholesale electricity markets as well as retail gas and electricity markets. 

The mock hearing, in which Kyle McMillan, JD/MBA’18, and Meghan Anderson, JD’18, participated, was based on a real case that had been in front of the AUC in the past. The proceeding involved a company that wanted to build a wind farm in southern Alberta. Landowners in the area were concerned that the wind farm would impact nearby endangered bat populations as well as cause health impacts to nearby people and cattle. Wind turbines can pose a collision hazard to birds and bats migrating through or living in the area.

Hearing part of new course at the law school

McMillan was an intern with the AUC at the time, part of a new clinical course offered by the law school. The course is designed to give students practical experience in public and administrative law working directly with commission lawyers, commission members and a multidisciplinary staff, experience that is sometimes difficult to get in law school, no matter where you go.

“A lot of clinical courses focus on family and criminal law, and that’s the case at all law schools,” says McMillan. “It was really great to get experience and insight into this area of the law, because it is quite different.”

Opportunity for commission members, law students to learn new techniques

The mock hearing, an administrative tribunal hearing, organized by Brian McNulty, the course instructor and executive director of the Law Division at the AUC, involved actual Ccommission members, with Law Division staff and law students playing the roles of cross-examining counsel, commission counsel and witnesses. Participants practised cross-examination techniques and learned first-hand what it is like to be a witness in a proceeding, an experience that will help new lawyers recognize when a witness may be uncertain of an answer, confused or thrown off their position by a question.  

“Practising at the commission requires lawyers skilled in oral advocacy and in expressing their ideas and legal opinions in writing,” says McNulty. “Lawyers are constantly challenged because not only are they required to have detailed knowledge of administrative law, but they also must be familiar with energy, environmental, Indigenous, construction, constitutional, employment, corporate finance, and commercial law, among other areas. Because the commission regulates utility businesses, lawyers must be familiar with all aspects of utility operations.”  

The course, which is offered in the winter semester, is only open to two students. The small class size gives participants the chance to get fully immersed in the inner workings of the commission.

“Students in the course have the opportunity to interact directly with the commission’s lawyers, commission members and our staff of engineers, accountants, environmental scientists and economists,” says McNulty. “Students gain experience working on today’s issues faced by the commission, such as the transition in the generation of electricity from coal to natural gas and renewable energy, the evolution of the capacity market for electricity, Indigenous issues, and the impact to Albertans of setting rates for gas and electric utilities.”

McNulty adds that “UCalgary law students are full of ideas and enthusiasm. The mock hearing was a great example of how they embraced their roles and learned from both participating and observing others. I am pleased to introduce students to career opportunities that many have not previously considered and to share my experiences.”