Dr. Erik Knutsen
Faculty of Law
If teachers can't hide how much they love what they are doing, it is infectious!
Erik Knutsen radiates joy when he talks about life as a law professor at Queen's – he's pretty inspiring for someone who says he just stumbled into the law profession. He jokes, "My father practises law, but I knew little about it since he didn't bring things home to the supper table. I knew he did injury and insurance work, but I just thought he sat in a court room with a pile of moldy books behind him, and when someone had a problem, he would blow off the dust, point to the answer and then put the book back!"
Knutsen started his studies by earning a degree English literature, then wavered between law and graphic design until he decided that law might lead to "business-type things." His father warned him how all-consuming law could be. "But once I started law school [at Osgoode Hall] I found it complex and interesting and absolutely loved it! I never looked back."
A whole other universe...
As an added bonus to this new career choice, Knutsen, already close to his father, got even closer. "I would work with my father in the summer, and we developed a whole other relationship that could never have happened if I hadn't gone to law school. We shared this whole other universe, even when we were fishing together." A picture of Knutsen and his father in their first trial together in 2007 hangs in Knutsen's Queen's office. "We've also been to the Court of Appeal as father and son – not many have done that."
Along the way there were some other spectacular classroom teachers as well. "I had many good ones and none of them were afraid to be a person to his or her students. They were strong, charismatic personalities who loved what they did and weren't afraid to show it. I felt that they interacted with me. You never got a fake person, you got the real them, and I respected that."
One of his favourites was in high school. "My English literature teacher was tough, but always a person. She had this great black and white checkered outfit with checkered stockings, shoes, rings, earrings and even glass frames. When she walked in it was 'Kapow! This is who I am and now you are going to learn English!' She wasn't afraid to be herself and was totally genuine. These great teachers had big hearts, but had no tolerance for any shenanigans and understood the concept of tough love. Since they were working so hard, it made you want to work hard too."
"And more importantly, these teachers loved what they were doing. And if a teacher can't hide how much they love what they are doing, it's infectious. Teachers like that have a bubbling-over energy. I had an English prof in first year who would almost jump out of his skin every day – he was so excited to talk to us about Shakespeare! And because he was so excited, we started to care too."
This is my job!...
Knutsen not only has that same energy, but is extremely likeable with a self-professed love of thinking through puzzles. "When I discovered law I just couldn't shut my head off at night. I'd wonder 'Why did that guy go to jail? Why did this happen?' I envied my professors whose job it was to play with these ideas and sort out some of society's toughest questions. I thought then what a blessing it would be to get up in the morning and say, 'This is my job.'" And so he began his law career.
After grad school at Harvard, Knutsen taught at Florida State University and was firmly and forever bitten by the academic bug. "I finally felt like I was necessary and could give students some help. Some had challenges with legal writing and I helped them easily because of my English literature background. I felt like I was doing something." Eventually he returned to Canada to practise law with his father in Thunder Bay. He good-heartedly calls it a "boot camp for lawyers," since he had a chance to work on all aspects of running a case.
Eventually he moved to a large firm in Toronto, then to one of the leading firms in New York, where he did some work on the World Trade Centre cases. But he really missed the classroom, so when Florida State University called again, he packed his bags. By 2006 he was at Queen's.
"Oddly enough, now I teach the very things my father practised – torts, insurance, and civil procedure. And as a professor, it helped that I had practised law in different parts of the universe - a small town, in Toronto and in New York City."
Even today, in the classroom, Knutsen never forgets the lessons learned from his unusually dressed high school teacher. "I try to always be a person to my students. You don't get a class with me. You get an experience, and you will get all of me. You just need to meet me halfway." Knutsen says he loves teaching what others call "snoozer" subjects (insurance and civil procedure) because, he says, "They really are all about people, and people do the craziest things!"
"Since my classes have about 80 people in them, we do a lot of group work where we talk about different issues. I use a lot of videos in Accident Law – like a TV ad where a kid swings a bat and the bat goes sailing through a window. In Insurance Law, I might have them read materials and send me two questions about the readings that they found interesting. Then I can run the classes around the cases and concepts they really cared about."
In another class, Knutsen has two colleagues role-play as a husband and wife during a discovery process while two students act as their lawyers. "It makes it come alive."
In Complex Liability he runs classes looking at mass disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, plane accidents). "This reminds students how the law affects all people; that what we do is not just a concept, but about a person."
Third year law student Jonathan Chen agrees. "Professor Knutsen is a rigorous, insightful and humane teacher. He treats his students as colleagues who are qualified not merely to listen, but also to participate. His zealous teaching style makes learning an exciting adventure. It is unlike any teaching experience I have ever had."
Knutsen admits that he loves his work because of these wonderful Queen's students. "They can ask zinger questions with innocence. They are brilliant because, since they are new to the system, they can see things in ways you can't when you live it every day. They are young and excited and I feed off that. About every two weeks, there is one shocker of a question, and I have to reframe my thinking of the universe...[and] I am reminded of why I do this."
Profile by Patricia Henderson