Former microbiologist completes LLM thesis at UAlberta Law

Donald Netolitzky draws on academic background in novel study of self-represented litigants

Sarah Kent - 31 July 2020

Donald Netolitzky, ‘05 LLB, completed his LLM at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law in a speedy 10 months, a feat that he credits to being a seasoned academic.

“It is always a milestone to complete a graduate program,” said Netolitzky, whose thesis was supervised by Dean Barbara Billingsley.

Prior to attending law school and pursuing his LLM, Netolitzky completed a PhD in microbiology in 1995. He went on to work as a biological defence researcher with the Department of National Defence and as an instructor at Medicine Hat College.

Netolitzky successfully defended his master’s thesis in July as the second person in the history of UAlberta Law to undergo a virtual defence and has returned to his position as the Complex Litigant Management counsel for the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta.

"There is no doubt Donald completed his LLM, including writing and defending his thesis, in record time,” said Billingsley. “He is an experienced and prolific legal writer. The most challenging part of supervising his work was keeping up with the reading he was producing for me!"

Academic legal research comes naturally to Netolitzky, who describes himself as a “hobbyist academic.” He was widely published in legal journals, such as the Alberta Law Review and the University of British Columbia Law Review, even prior to his LLM.

His thesis, which is titled, “Supreme Court of Canada Self-Represented Appellants in 2017,” uses an unusual methodology that draws on his background in microbiology to examine who self-represented litigants are.

“The data collection methodology and analysis were certainly using the same standard approaches that you would use in science or social sciences to conduct population studies,” said Netolitzky. “It is fairly unusual to see a paper (in law) that is filled with graphs and data.”

Netolitzky’s data pool consisted of court documents for all of the Supreme Court of Canada cases involving self-represented appellants that occurred in 2017—a total of 125 applications.

“There is a lot written about the subject (of self-represented litigants), but there is surprisingly little known about the people.”

Research Discovery

His study uncovered a surprising finding: “There was a very high unexpected frequency of litigants who had been identified by lower courts as having misused court processes.”

"Most lawyers tend to think analytically, but while lawyers ordinarily apply that thinking to soft or experiential data, Donald's science background prompts him to look for empirical data,” said Billingsley. “That allows him to look for large patterns or trends in litigation, which is a good starting point when considering systemic change."

While Netolitzky’s research gives a clearer picture of a subset of self-represented litigants, further study is needed to learn more about these people.

“This is scratching the surface of a deeper phenomenon,” said Netolitzky.

With an LLM under his belt, Netolitzky has satisfied his appetite for graduate studies at the moment but is not ruling out the possibility of a second PhD in the future.

“My partner pointed out that I seem to return to school in synchrony with the solar sunspot cycle, so if that is the case, the next minimum is 10 to 11 years out.”