The Young Phillips


*SPONSORED CONTENT: Ultra Vires contributed a personalized profile to this year’s law school Promise Auction. Professor Jim Phillips was the generous winner. Large parts of this interview were invented by the author.

I arrived for my interview with Professor Phillips wracked with nerves. How would I be able to keep calm while talking with U of T Law’s most beloved professor? How could I simply chat with the man who had held me spellbound every Tuesday and Thursday morning in 1L Property? Was I worthy of interviewing this living law legend?

Professor Phillips, looking casual and elegant in dark athletic-wear, invited me in. His warm smile and melodious accent instantly put me at ease. We sat in his office, surrounded by the history books and classic literature that he reads in his spare time. His bicycle stood nearby, a subtle reminder of his impressive sportsmanship.

Born in 1954, Jim Phillips grew up in a sleepy farming village in southern England. When asked when it became clear that he was way smarter than everyone around him, he shyly chuckled and declined to answer. But he did confirm that his famous nonconformist spirit first manifested at the tender age of eight, when he was kicked out of Boy Scouts for “not taking it seriously enough.” As the legend goes, young Jim stepped in to defend a new Scout who was being bullied for not having enough Scout patches on his Scout uniform. Young Jim snipped each of his Scout badges in half to share with the boy. His troop leader pulled him aside, stared into young Jim’s eyes and said, “Phillips, you’ll never amount to anything.” Jim saluted him, and then turned his back on the troop forever.

After that incident, Jim began to yearn for broader horizons. At age eleven, he wrote an exam that would decide whether he would attend a prestigious grammar school in a nearby village where students learned Latin or Greek, or a trade school where students learned to be coal miners. He never learned his score on that exam. It is said that it was lost after the exam marker was rendered insane by a glimpse of the depth of Phillips’s intellect.

Needless to say, he passed. He left the two-room schoolhouse where he had learned the essentials and started commuting by train to grammar school. Phillips would not confirm whether he wore an adorable sailor suit uniform, but it is safe to assume that he did.

After an illustrious career there, Phillips was accepted into the University of Edinburgh. He was a first-generation student and took to it like a fish to water, earning a Ph.D. in History in record time. Phillips was an easy-going jock who aced every class and was passionate about social justice. He played back-row forward on the University’s rugby team. Archival records reveal that literally every other student at the University was in love with him.

In the span of a few years, Jim Phillips had risen from small-town obscurity to academic and social success in the big city. But in 1977, he decided to throw it all away. Life in the United Kingdom had never suited him. He chafed under the restrictive class system and “wasn’t a big fan of Margaret Thatcher.” He bought a ticket on the next plane to Halifax, and sailed through his JD at Dalhousie. He graduated with no debt, which is a sign either of his budgeting brilliance or the changing model for financing legal education (I leave this to the reader’s interpretation).

The rest, of course, is history.


Current students will know that Professor Phillips is a hero to their kind, not least for his enthusiastic participation in Follies and Coffee Houses. This is a long-standing trend. He also used to play on the law school’s intramural soccer team, hanging up his cleats after winning the championship on an all-star team that included Abraham Drassinower. Phillips is selected to give the “Hail and Farewell” address to graduating classes approximately every second year (it would be every year, but he is complicit in a conspiracy to rig the results so that other professors don’t get too jealous).

Each year, Professor Phillips invites the lucky students in his class over for dinner at the home he shares with his wife Christine and their beagle Marla. Jim met Christine at his twenty-year reunion at Dalhousie: it was love at first sight, and the two were a long-distance couple for years before he convinced her to move to Toronto.

Despite his accomplishments, Jim is almost debilitatingly modest. When asked to give some advice to the rest of the law school faculty, he demurred. “Oh, I couldn’t,” he said, a twinkle in his eyes. Later, he adds with a laugh, “They should all be more like Martha Schaffer.” The two have a close relationship that goes back to the days when they both clerked at the Supreme Court.

“Jim was an exemplary clerk,” Professor Schaffer recalls. “He was a little bit older and we all looked up to him.” Professor Schaffer also looks up to Phillips literally. “She loves it when I make jokes about how short she is,” Phillips told me.

“I didn’t realize he was balding for months, until I saw him sitting down,” Schaffer confirmed.


Charmingly, even this Titan of Teaching isn’t immune from nervousness. “Every year, I worry about how my class will go,” he confided. “Just because something worked last year doesn’t mean it will again!” Each of the twenty-thousand former students of Professor Phillips who I interviewed for this piece confirmed that he has nothing worry about, but it’s sweet that he cares so much.

“I’m lucky to have this job, I really am,” Phillips generously told me.

Professor Phillips, we all feel the same.