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Alumni Interviews: The “big questions” of philosophy, the law and the need to pay it forward

Photo of: Stephen BowmanStephen Bowman (BA 1976) is a managing partner at the law firm Bennett Jones LLP, where he is a member of the firm’s partnership board and tax department. Bowman has given back to the university in numerous ways: as a mentor, a distinguished volunteer, and as a donor to a scholarship for graduate studies in philosophy and law. A&S caught up with Bowman to discuss how his experiences as a student at the University of Toronto impacted his life and career, and why he decided to give back to where it all started.

Looking back at your time as a student at the University of Toronto, what do you think attracted you to a Bachelors of Arts in philosophy?

When I was considering university I wanted to explore the “big questions” that were addressed by philosophy. I thought this was the time in my education to pursue an area of interest for its own sake and so my intention from the beginning was to study philosophy. Because of my concurrent interest in the sciences, I filled the rest of my schedule with courses in mathematics and physics.

What’s your favorite memory of your own experiences as a U of T student?

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the things I most enjoyed as an undergraduate was the opportunity to serve as an occasional math tutor. My role was to be available in a particular office during certain designated hours during the week, during which first- and second-year math students could come and get help with their assignments.

What did you find most valuable about attending U of T as a whole?

U of T opened my eyes to the world of learning and scholarship. Because of the scale of the philosophy program at U of T, which at the time consisted really of parallel programs at St. Michael’s College and in the university department on St. George, I essentially had the choice of courses from two complete streams of undergraduate education. It was a feast of learning. In addition to the courses I took, I was able to audit lectures from time to time by the likes of Emil Fackenheim and Harold Bloom. Thinking back on it, I realize I only scratched the surface of what was available, but for me it was an adventure and an exciting time.

What were the direct and indirect effects of philosophy on the career as a lawyer? How did this degree assist in your success?

It’s not much of a secret that philosophy is not exactly a practical education to equip a person for a specific trade or calling. However, as I suspected, and as experience has borne out, it turned out to be a wonderful preparation for everything. The focus on ideas, analysis and truth-seeking were of immense help to me when I enrolled in the Faculty of Law and subsequently began practicing as a lawyer. Law school is notorious for being considered a lot of work and quite difficult, but I found that after four years of philosophy I was well-suited to the job of tackling large amounts of reading and thinking through the implications of what I was studying. As a matter of fact, what I gained in my four years studying philosophy continues to inform my thinking about law and legal issues.

What is your personal guiding philosophy?

Asking me what is my “personal guiding philosophy” prompts an automatic reaction that goes back to my days as a philosophy student; my answer depends on what you mean by the question. By taking the question to mean what guides my approach to the world around me, it is to try to maintain an open mind, a curious mind and a willingness to listen and appreciate the perspectives of others.

When and why did you decide that your career calling was to become a lawyer? What did you learn from U of T that aided you in making this decision?

In about my third undergraduate year, I came to realize that while I enjoyed studying philosophy it was not something that was going to provide me with a career. And I reached that conclusion not just in the context of the job market for philosophers at the time, but more significantly in terms of my own disposition and talents. During my summers as an undergraduate I was fortunate to be able to work in a bank. The income was good, the job conditions were comfortable and the people were nice. The work, however, was too mundane for my taste (bearing in mind that I was working essentially as a summer student doing clerical work in a suburban bank branch – likely not my life’s work had I stuck with it) and yet on the other hand I found philosophy to be very abstract. It struck me that law might represent a middle way and indeed I was right. I draw on the intellectual training and skills I learned studying philosophy and yet I deal with practical issues in the real world, at least most of the time. Without the experience of studying philosophy, I am not sure that I would have been sufficiently self-aware to find my place in the practical-to-abstract spectrum.

What is your advice to those considering a career in law? What are the factors that should definitely be taken into consideration?

A career in law can be immensely satisfying. A legal education provides an understanding of how the world works, of the machinery that guides our dealings with each other and with the state. In and of itself, I think a legal education is a tremendously valuable and rewarding thing. Most law students, of course, aspire to become lawyers, and indeed most pursue careers representing their clients in courtrooms, boardrooms and in virtually every other forum where people interact with each other and with their governments. They help the poor, they have an impact on the economy and many have active roles in government, both as officials and as elected representatives. Each lawyer can and should explore the areas that he or she finds most interesting, whether dealing with the disadvantaged or working on large complex matters involving large teams of lawyers working together to serve their clients. Because of the breadth of the things lawyers do and the places in which they practice their profession, a legal education provides an opportunity, when combined with hard work and some luck, to build a career that is molded to fit that individual’s talents, interests and temperament.

In 2006, as a prominent volunteer with the Department of Philosophy, you hosted the first gathering where alumni could meet students and faculty. What do you feel is most important about these gatherings? What should a student take from an alumni-student gathering?

Alumni-student gatherings are interesting. The students are given an opportunity to see what life after university might look like. The alumni in some ways see their own younger selves, but in every case they volunteer their time because they want to provide guidance and some sense of how the transition from university to a post-university career can happen. The students should draw on alumni for their advice and insights.

In 2007, you were the recipient of the Arbor Award, which is for generous volunteering with U of T. You also established a scholarship for graduate studies in philosophy and law. What is your greatest expectation of your scholarship? What do you feel is the greatest contribution that you have seen and given as a result of your scholarship?

The scholarship for graduate studies in philosophy and law came out of a project that I was invited into after it had been launched. A group of philosophy alumni who had also graduated from law were identified and invited to contribute to the scholarship. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect a number of lawyers who shared an interest in philosophy and had all studied at University of Toronto. We all wanted to encourage philosophical engagement with law. Philosophers as a group spend a small fraction of their time thinking about law, and the legal profession I can assure you spends very little time thinking about philosophy. Nonetheless, some of the greatest philosophers in history had a lot to say about law and the related issues of justice, governance, freedom and indeed a myriad of other legal issues, issues that raise profound philosophical questions which bear study and restudy by every generation.

As a mentor, how do you structure your mentorship? What do you emphasize to your mentee?

My approach to mentoring is a very unstructured one. There are various models around, but I prefer a conversational approach in which I encourage self-exploration and what I suppose you might call situational analysis. Where is the mentee in his or her life? What is around them? Where do they want to go? What are the stepping stones that will take them forward?

Why do you feel donor engagement is vital to the advancement of education in the arts?

Some people pursue an arts education out of a passion for their subject, and others fall into it perhaps by accident or for lack of any other ideas. Many face financial challenges that make it difficult to continue. Engaging as a donor in the advancement of an arts education provides an opportunity to help with that financial challenge and once in a while meet and offer advice to students as they continue their journey.

Finally, why do you feel one should contribute to the University of Toronto? Apart from financial implications, what can donations and volunteering accomplish to expand the educational expansion at this university?

I have long felt that my success in my career and professional life rests on a lot of hard work on my part and a lot of contributions from others. Apart from the emotional, physical and financial support from family, there is the foundational value of my undergraduate education, which I think has contributed significantly to my success as a law student and then as a lawyer. In a very real sense, my undergraduate education in philosophy and mathematics was the springboard to my legal education and subsequent career. Against that backdrop, I have always felt an obligation to give back to the Faculty of Arts & Science, which provided the basis for the education and career that followed. At the same time, helping students pursue their own path provides considerable rewards. If we can motivate many donors to support students across their own personal areas of interest, we can collectively help the next generation of students become the next generation of contributors to our society and our country and the world, and what’s not to like about that?