Queen's 175th Anniversary

Queen's University Queen's University

[Queen's University Douglas Library]
[Queen's University Douglas Library]
Celebrating Queen's 175th Anniversary

Bill Lederman and Queen’s Law

1957 - 1992
Decade: 1950s
[Opening of Sir John A. Macdonald law building, 1960]
Prime Minister John Diefenbaker opening the Sir John A. Macdonald law building in 1960, flanked by Chancellor Stirling, Dean Lederman and Principal Mackintosh.

Since 1889, if you wanted to be a lawyer in Ontario, the road unavoidably led through Toronto. The Law Society of Upper Canada guarded the bar by insisting that all lawyers must qualify at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall.

As the province boomed in population and prosperity after the Second World War, that monopoly came under increasing pressure. The Law Society resisted change, but Osgoode became a bottleneck in the supply of lawyers to a society that needed legal expertise to smooth its progress. Other universities pressured for entry into the sanctum of legal education.

In the spring of 1957, Queen’s Vice-Principal Alex Corry, himself a lawyer and constitutional expert, appeared before the benchers and pitched for a law school. He argued that Queen’s strong cast of supporting disciplines offered an ideal backdrop for would-be lawyers. The benchers agreed and that September, three professors and 24 students initiated a three-year LLB program in a brick house on University Avenue. Lectures were delivered in the basement of Richardson Hall. VP Corry was acting dean.

Corry and Principal William Mackintosh realized that if the school was to make its mark, decisive leadership was in order. The search began for a full-time dean and the sheer intellectual power of Regina-born William Ralph Lederman drew the VP’s attention. Armed with a University of Saskatchewan BA and LLB, Professor Lederman had won a Rhodes Scholarship and then at Oxford became a prestigious Vinerian Scholar in civil law. In 1949, he jhad oined the University of Dalhousie’s law school, emerging as one of Canada’s leading constitutional specialists. From there, VP Corry pulled him to Queen’s in 1958.

Cutting the ribbon

Dean Lederman steered the fledgling faculty with flair. He aggressively pushed for expansion, telling Principal Mackintosh that he wanted a dedicated law school building and a more aggressive enrolment target. In 1960, just as the first 18 Queen’s lawyers graduated, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker cut the ribbon on the Sir John A. Macdonald law building, one capable of accommodating 150 students. Almost immediately, the dean began telling VP Corry (who became principal after 1961) that the building was too small and its library inadequate. At the same time, Dean Lederman expanded his faculty with impressive new hires – scholars such as labour law specialist Bernard Adell, Quebec civil law expert and law librarian Irene Bessette (nee Borys), criminal lawyer Ron Delisle, constitutional and public law scholar Beverley Baines and legal information specialist Hugh Lawford, to name just a few.

The Dean emphasized that his faculty should not just be proficient teachers, but should also push the boundaries of the law through their research. Professor Lawford, for instance, began building a huge inventory of case law precedent, labelling it QUIK/LAW. Dean Lederman himself served as a constitutional advisor to Ontario Premier John Robarts.

Perhaps the dean’s most lasting legacy was his insistence that a legal education be more than training in the nuts and bolts of criminal and civil law. Lawyers must be engaged by the realities of the society they served. Legal scholars must connect themselves with social justice, constitutional adjustment and the ever-changing role of law in society.

By the time he left the deanship in 1968, Queen’s legal scholarship had won a national reputation. Challenges remained — such as bringing women into the teaching and conceptualization of the law – but Bill Lederman had set the right course. He continued teaching at Queen’s and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1981. He died in 1992.


The historical content of this site was curated by a committee of faculty and staff with submissions from the broader Queen’s community.
These moments are not intended to represent an exhaustive history of the university, but rather significant sign posts in its development.
Special thanks go to University Historian Duncan McDowall for his contributions.
Many thanks also to the people of Queen's University Archives for their support of this anniversary project.
Have feedback about the moments? Please contact qu175@queensu.ca