14 April 2020 update: Patricia Kosseim has been appointed as the new Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. She will begin her five-year mandate on July 1, 2020.
Patricia Kosseim, BCL’92, LLB’92, has a palpable passion for her work. As Counsel for Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP’s Privacy & Data Management Group and National Co-leader of Osler’s AccessPrivacy knowledge platform, she engages in cutting-edge legal issues on a daily basis.
Growing up, Kosseim wasn’t always so sure of her career aspirations. “I come from a family of health professionals, engineers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and artists of all kinds – so I had this broad range of inspirational models. The world was my oyster, but I didn’t know for sure which career path I would take.” Looking back today, Kosseim feels she landed exactly where she was meant to be.
Choosing Law to address societal challenges
Before studying at McGill Law, Kosseim graduated with a BCom from McGill and then took a gap year to travel and work as a researcher for McGill’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. “Here was this interdisciplinary team of people thinking about the issues I really cared about – health, policy, ethics, society – and they were all coming at it from different angles. Throughout that year, I learned that the legal approach appealed to me the most and law would be the tool I would eventually choose for addressing these societal challenges.” She enrolled at McGill’s Law Faculty that September, and during her time there, she drew greatest inspiration from her peers, several of whom remain good friends to this day: “Their minds, generosity, spirit, and collegiality were all so incredible.”
Although she was very involved in Faculty life – she was VP Administration of the Law Students’ Association, conducted research at the Centre for Private and Comparative Law (now the Crépeau Centre), and swam for the McGill Masters Swim Club – she says self-deprecatingly that she was “way too prim and proper”. “I was the kind of student who was far too serious, sat at the front of the class, taking tons of notes. Today, I tell my students, and my kids – both of whom are in university now – to have fun! These are some of the best years of your life.”
An enriched perspective
Kosseim’s love of health policy stayed with her after graduation, when she completed a Masters’ Degree in Medical Law and Ethics from Kings’ College London (United Kingdom.) and returned to Montreal to begin her practice in health law at a national firm. She then worked at the Ethics Office of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), where she helped develop an ethical framework to guide the ways in which personal health information is used in large population health studies and biobanks. “In particular, we looked at how to advise the health research community in balancing the need to protect the privacy of individuals with the need to obtain valuable data for advancing science and technology to improve the health of Canadians,” she says. “I became really impassioned about the issues, and inadvertently developed an expertise in privacy law.”
Following her stint at CIHR, Kosseim served as Senior General Counsel and Director General at Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada for eleven years, and credits this experience with enriching her ability to provide privacy and data management expertise to her clients today. “I don’t think I could offer the same strategic insights to my clients if I had not worked as a policymaker and regulator for so many years,” she notes. “Working in the public sector helped me gain a broader perspective: I can better understand general trends of law and policy in this field, and can anticipate how the other side is likely to perceive and react to a situation. When you’ve seen how badly things can go downstream, it’s a lot easier to give sound, practical advice upstream. It’s gratifying to see how much clients appreciate that enriched perspective.”
Returning to private practice
Returning to private practice presented some interesting “barriers to entry”. After all these years of being a member of the Barreau du Québec, Kosseim had to get her Ontario license to practice out of Ottawa, where she lives with her family. She studied and passed her Bar exams and though she tried to avoid the embarrassment of going to the swearing-in ceremony as a relatively “mature student”, she is very glad she went in person. “I felt rejuvenated by the enormous sense of energy and optimism around me, profoundly touched by renewing my oath, and listened intently to this year’s convocation address, which was all about work-life balance and mental health — two topics rarely, if ever, discussed when I started out my career more than twenty years ago.”
At Osler, Kosseim leads an exciting practice in privacy and data management law. In her role, she particularly enjoys meeting with clients on-site and relishes the opportunity for face-to-face collaboration. “It’s exciting to see a client’s reality up front, hear first-hand about their challenges, and meet with their board members, senior C-suite and privacy teams,” she says.
Data privacy requires reaching across different disciplines
However, as privacy and data management are both quickly evolving fields, Kosseim acknowledges the challenges involved in keeping pace with emerging business models and technologies. “There aren’t enough librarians, researchers, or hours in a day to read or know everything. The challenge is to always stay on top of the most relevant and the most important questions, and know how to decipher them from the rest.”
In addition to advising clients in the traditional sense, Kosseim is the national co-lead of Osler’s AccessPrivacy, a subscription-based platform that offers subscribers 24/7 online access to the basic privacy information they need, including expert analysis and commentary on developments in the field. “The idea is to make this knowledge available in a convenient and affordable format so that clients can get the answers themselves.”
When it comes to the future of privacy and data management, Kosseim says there’s no question that “dataism” is transforming our lives and will forever change society. “Privacy as we know it is under severe strain. But because we fundamentally need privacy to thrive as human beings, and because we cherish it so deeply as part of our sense of dignity, its impending loss will force us to recalculate its value relative to other things on offer,” she says.
Although Kosseim is confident that we will eventually reach a general consensus on acceptable ethical boundaries, she predicts that the field of privacy law will continue to get more complex, and lawyers will be asked increasingly tougher questions from clients. “We will have to learn to think more broadly beyond the black letter law, to find creative and strategic solutions, and to reach out for help from colleagues across different fields of law, and frankly, across different disciplines altogether.”
These days, Kosseim spends a lot of her time thinking and writing about the future of privacy law, though not all of it. After almost 20 years in Ottawa, Kosseim has become immersed in her community, teaching at the University of Ottawa and serving on the Board of Governors of The Ottawa Hospital. But, she says, McGill will always remain her alma mater, and Montreal, her home.