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Jinyan Li

February 22, 2023

Roz Bahrami

Professor Jinyan Li has defied the odds over and over again on her path to becoming co-program director of Osgoode’s Professional LLM in Taxation Law.

Li has been a fixture of the program – which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year – for much of its history, but she could never have imagined her future role while growing up in a small village of around 20 families in a People’s Commune in rural China.

“I had no idea what a lawyer was until I went to university in Beijing,” Li explains.

Even after studying in her first LLM at the capital city’s University of International Business and Economics, taxation law still wasn’t on Li’s radar by the time she left China in 1985, only a few years after her home country had introduced its very first income tax law.

However, while studying for a second LLM at Queen University’s in Kingston, Ont. on a fellowship sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency, Li formed a connection with Alex Easson, the school’s legendary tax law professor, which prompted her to switch her away focus from private international law.

“That’s when I really fell in love with tax law,” she says.

A few years later, Jinyan Li completed her PhD in the subject under the supervision of leading tax scholar Professor Neil Brooks, earned a JD and gained a taste of tax practice at a prestigious law firm, before securing a tenure-track position at the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Law.

Still, Li admits it took her a little longer to feel at home in the Canadian legal world, thanks to the considerable language and cultural barriers she had to overcome to teach and publish articles in English.

“I got the job without really knowing what the academic life would be. I still felt like a foreigner, but I embraced it as a challenge,” she says. “There were many times I felt like quitting, but after a few years, the light bulb suddenly switched on and I realized I could do it.”

“Colleagues and friends at Western, such as Brian Arnold, helped me hang on and find myself in academia,” Li adds.

Any professional doubts were long-since banished by the time she was appointed to the faculty at Osgoode Hall Law School in 1999 – a homecoming of sorts for Li, who also received her PhD from Osgoode. Meanwhile, she has never stopped accepting and meeting new challenges.

In addition to heading up Osgoode’s Taxation Law LLMs and teaching students in the J.D. program, Li has also established herself as a leader in the global tax law field, serving as a consultant to the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Canada’s Department of Justice and the United Nations, among others.

She even managed to fit in a term as Osgoode’s interim dean between 2009 and 2010 – a period that turned out to be one of the law school’s most challenging in recent history – navigating a major renovation project that scattered faculty across the campus and put classroom space at a premium.

“There were a lot of headaches, and my blood pressure might have been a little high, but besides that, it was a great privilege. I learned a huge amount from the experience,” Li says.

Despite the serendipitous route she has taken to her status as a Canadian tax law scholar, Li says she wouldn’t change a thing.

“I see our tax system as a condensed, miniature version of Canadian society. Everyone can see themselves in it,” she says. “There are so many dimensions to the system, that to me, it’s a puzzle. I feel lucky as an academic to get the time to think about these questions.”

“The more I learn about tax law, the more I love it,” she adds.

Jinyan Li says one of the highlights of her year is the chance to share her enthusiasm with each fresh cohort enrolled in Osgoode’s world-renowned Professional LLM in Taxation Law, which includes lawyers in private practice, in-house counsel, government lawyers from the provincial and federal levels, and even some accountants and other professionals without formal legal training.

“The LLM students are practitioners already, so they are more able to contribute to the learning,” she says. “There is less of a focus on formal teaching and more of a conversation, where we get to hear about the issues and problems that they are thinking about in their own practices.”

Want to learn more about the Professional LLM in Taxation Law? Sign up for an Information Session!