“I remember people in academia saying, ‘If you start practicing, we’ll view you as a less serious scholar.’ In [private] practice, I heard the exact opposite, that, ‘you’re going to be typecast as an ivory tower person with no relevant practical experience,” Handa says.
Ultimately, he chose not to heed either warning; instead, he pursued both paths. Handa is a longstanding adjunct professor at the Faculty of Law and is National Practice Group Leader of both the Technology and the Communications groups at Blake, Cassels & Graydon SENCRL/srl. He has also played a leading role in the development and running of Blakes’ national cybersecurity practice, where he is a Partner in the firm’s Montreal office.
This versatility and range reflect Handa’s holistic approach to law.
“I like to teach. I like to learn. I like to practice. I like to write,” Handa says. “I don’t view these as compartmentalized from one another.”
For Handa, legal practice and education both require engaging in lifelong learning, a lesson he learned from his mentor, doctoral supervisor, and former Governor General of Canada, The Right Honourable David Johnston, PC, CC, CMM, COM, CD, FRSC, FRCPSC, LLD’00. Handa is now passing that lesson down to the lawyers on his team at Blakes. Indeed, every Monday, Handa teaches his technology group about a topic that interests them or that is relevant to the files they are working on.
“It shows them that we care about their learning,” Handa explains. “It’s part of the way I am. There’s no beginning and end to that.”
Turning the legal profession on its head
Sunny Handa has spent the past 25 years leading a team of lawyers in a field that was barely nascent at the start of his career, but which now touches almost every aspect of the law (and everything else): technology. His large team, some of whom have been working with the group since the late 1990s, have all but flipped the legal profession on its head.
Traditionally, firms organize themselves around legal disciplines. Handa’s goal was to build a group of lawyers whose full-time jobs are technology-related.
“Within that group, they might do many different things, but we give them a permanent home,” Handa reveals. “What’s kind of neat is that, 25 years later, I look back and see that we were able to build something based on my vision, and the firm has been awesome.”
Even if all lawyers now must deal with technological issues, Handa’s group at Blakes handles cutting-edge cases, where the issues might be only about technology. For example, one client needed to mount equipment on an area of the International Space Station that does not fall under Canada’s jurisdiction. When the case landed on the desk of Handa’s partner at Blakes, it was agreed that the tech group would take it on. Today, the group is increasingly dealing with cutting-edge cybersecurity cases along with everything else they do.
Tackling unprecedented cases contributes to Handa’s lifelong learning
“I get to digest tons of material every day,” he shares. “In my practice, I get to see and hear from super bright people, clients, other lawyers. I get to experiment and try things, be creative, see if they work; if they don’t, I pivot.”
One of the biggest lessons Handa has learned throughout the course of his legal career has been to avoid buying into the mythology of what practicing law “should be”.
“Do whatever it is that makes you feel good. Don’t try to follow all the mythology.” He adds: “If someone says, ‘You can’t do this,’ it’s probably because they haven’t done it. That doesn’t mean you can’t. So do it. Try it!”