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Red Deer lawyer brings a world of experience to his master’s studies

Going back to university was a dream come true for Dan Wilson
November 9, 2016
Dan Wilson, a graduating University of Calgary master's student, on a recent hike in Italy. Photo courtesy of Dan Wilson

Dan Wilson, a graduating University of Calgary master's student, on a recent hike in Italy. Photo courtesy of Dan Wilson

As a farm boy from Boyle, Alta., Dan Wilson wasn’t even sure what a lawyer did, since no legal shingle hung in his small northern town.

“As a kid, I saw (lawyers) on TV and we had an old, pre-Second World War social studies textbook with a story of a lawyer in the 1800s involved in assisting startup companies,” says Wilson, now a 47-year-old Red Deer-based corporate lawyer who will receive his Master of Law degree from the University of Calgary.

Wanting to use his academic abilities, the teenager thought law would pose a challenge. At the age of 22, he graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta.

Now, a quarter of a century later, Wilson — who has gone from “not having a lot of worldly experience” to travelling more than two million miles to 70 countries for professional and volunteer legal efforts — will receive his LLM.

Career takes young lawyer around the world

After his Bachelor of Law degree, Wilson went to California, took its bar exam, while considering graduate school at Stanford. Instead, he articled at the Supreme Court of Canada, joined private corporate practice in Calgary before moving to Toronto, where he met his medical student wife.

They moved to Red Deer for her medical residency and never left, now involved in the community and raising a family. 

Wilson has honed expertise on cross-border issues with clients who have international holdings. When his parents, involved in a humanitarian organization in Mexico, asked for legal help, he gladly gave it.

That led other community-based development organizations to seek his aid — “it helps when you are doing it for free” — most of them small groups supporting partnership projects relating to education, health, potable water and infrastructure, in countries including Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Haiti, and Guatemala.

Expertise in cross-border issues

Wilson quotes a Seinfeld episode when describing a lawyer’s role in helping non-profits deal with international compliance, so they can keep their focus and budget elsewhere: “…. If there is a problem the lawyer is the only person who has read the inside of the top of the box.”

His volunteer work led Wilson back to a “dream” deferred for more than two decades — getting his master’s.

His two goals: to increase knowledge of international law and development (knowing more about the “inside of the box”), and to enhance his ability to teach (he will miss convocation because of his teaching schedule at Red Deer College).

So, at an age significantly older than his fellow students — and most of his professors — Wilson rejoined academic life.

“The first time, I was only there for the result: the degree, the job, the salary. This time, I was interested in what I could take in every day; the process rather than the reward.”

'He certainly improved the experience of everyone involved'

Wilson is grateful to the university for welcoming him. The feeling is mutual. Michael Ilg, professor in the Faculty of Law, says he’s never had a student so well versed in international development issues.

“There were times when our best resource on a given topic was Dan himself. I am grateful Dan took the course — he certainly improved the experience of everyone involved.”

Wilson’s Advice: Don’t go to law school with the sole purpose of being a lawyer. Legal education is an opportunity to learn how to think critically, analyze and engage with the world. You can do more things with a law degree than with any other.