Monthly Archives: October 2014

Life on Exchange – Seth Whitmore

UBC Law student Seth Whitmore reflects on his experiences on exchange
in Paris at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) 

Life on Exchange

If you are currently sitting in Vancouver and wondering “Should I go on exchange?”, the only right answer is “Yes, of course you should!”. Exchange provides UBC Law students with the amazing opportunity to spend a semester or two abroad at another school and experience a different way of life and teaching. Given the career demands of most lawyers, it will be years (if ever!) before many of us have a similar opportunity.

If you are anything like me, that’s all the convincing you needed. If so, stop reading and go explore your exchange options at:

If, however, you require a little more convincing, read on as I briefly explain various aspects of life on exchange and why it is great!


Academics at Sciences Po are treated very differently than back at UBC. Some of the differences are strange and confusing, while others are great. In the strange column is the fact that there is no add/drop period (you can add courses and switch if there are conflicts, but swapping one course for another is frowned upon) and the rule that if you miss more than two classes in any course you fail that course.

But these French eccentricities are more than made up for by the things that make academics at Sciences Po great. For example, I am writing this post after having had lunch with a professor at a brasserie where we discussed my term paper. I’ve never done that in Canada! Sciences Po is a very internationally focused school and has a large number of non-French professors. This semester I have Italian, American, German, and French professors. As a student this is great as I am exposed to different teaching styles, ideas about the law, and evaluation methods. Finally, the course selection at Sciences Po is great. It offers a mix of lecture and seminar courses, a large number of comparative law classes, and a diverse subject mix.

Daily Life

The view from my walk or bike ride to school

The view from my walk or bike ride to school

When not in school, doing homework, or travelling, there is a lot to do in Paris. Like schools in Canada, Sciences Po offers a huge number of extra-curricular and athletic activities including pottery, art history, moots (exchange students are welcome to try out for moot teams here), ultimate-frisbee, basketball, and polo (ridiculous, I know). I will warn you, however, there is no hockey option.

Every week, the school hosts a variety of talks, seminars, and symposiums on topics ranging from politics in the EU to experiences of arranged marriages in other parts of the world. A list of events happening at the school is emailed to students weekly to make it easy to stay on top of what is happening. Finally, for international students hoping to improve their French Sciences Po also offers free French classes for all ability levels.

Aside from all of the organized school-related events, it has been easy to keep busy. I’ve been able to explore some of the city’s many museums and galleries, enjoy the city’s café culture, indulge in French cuisine in the brasseries, go to concerts (two of my favourite Canadian bands have already come through Paris this fall), see the Eiffel Tower and the city’s many other tourist attractions (traps), have picnics and explore parks such as the Jardin du Luxembourg, Jardin des Tuileries, and Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, go running along the Coulée Verte (Paris’ answer to the High Line), take a riverboat tour of the Seine, get around Paris on the Vélib bike sharing system, go on a walking tour of Montmatre, eat all the croissants, baguettes, and pain au chocolat I can get my hands on, shop at the city’s many markets, and make great new friends from Paris and all around the world.


Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor, Montenegro

One of the great perks of being on exchange in Europe (and only having class Monday through Wednesday!) is how easy it is to travel. Living in a transportation hub as well-connected as Paris is also a plus as I have been able to get direct and affordable trains and planes to every city I’ve wanted to visit. As much fun as it is exploring and getting to know Paris, it also exciting to see what the rest of Europe has to offer.  So far I have been able to visit Mike (another UBC Law student) in Bern, Switzerland, spend a long weekend in Berlin, and enjoy fall reading week from the comforts of Croatia and Montenegro. Over the next two months I will also be heading to London, Fes, Marrakech, and Oslo.

Convinced? Good. Now go pick the part of the world you want to explore and get your applications ready!

Is Law School Stress a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

The topic in my Ethics and Professionalism class recently was mental health and fitness in the legal profession. The guest lectures and discussion revolved a lot around issues of alcohol and substance addictions in the profession. One student commented that in the “swag bag” given to first years during orientation, there were brochures about depression and substance abuse and related support resources. This student found the inclusion of such material helpful as a way to pre-emptively address what is an unfortunate problem in the profession, but also “weird” as some sort of odd omen of things to come, namely stress.

This comment reminded me of something I’ve been thinking on for some time now, and that is the question of to what extent, if any, the stresses of law school are a self fulfilling prophecy. For starters, here is a quoted Wikipedia definition: “A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior.” To me, the main thrust of a self-fulfilling prophecy is expectation. I expect X to happen; therefore, my behaviours, affects, and attitudes directly and/or indirectly make it more likely for X to happen. I expect law school to be stressful; therefore, my behaviours, affects, and attitudes make it more likely that law school is stressful.

Is this something that happens? I think it is. By no means am I suggesting all the stressors that one can come across in law school are explained by this phenomenon. But I do think part of the stress is caused this way. The relevant expectation related to stress in law school is the expectation of importance: the importance we as law students think we must place on various aspects of law school. First and foremost, the importance placed on grades: in my experience both as a student and as a peer tutor, I can see the high levels of stress caused directly by the expectation that grades are incredibly important. There is a dangerous leap a lot of us students make, often unconsciously, from seeing grades as important for creating certain opportunities to seeing grades as the sole means of creating worthwhile opportunities or even as a reflection of self-worth. When everyone talks about grades and what numbers are needed for what doors to open, the expectation is formed that grades are the be all and end all of one’s law school experience. (They are not). The same process can apply to any other aspect of law school: the importance placed on certain kinds of jobs, certain kinds of employers, the OCI process, etc.

Related to the concept of a self fulfilling prophecy and expectations is the concept of a script. In psychology, there is the concept that we learn certain scripts about how the social (and natural) world around us works, and hence we shape our behaviours, affects and attitudes according to this script. There is a script for what happens when you ring up your groceries at the cash register, about what a date looks like, about how a job interview is supposed to unfold, and etc. If our script of law school is that we are “supposed” to be stressed, then we are much more likely to act, feel and be “stressed”. The distinction I’m attempting to draw is between the script that says: law school is going to be inevitably stressful, so you should act/feel/be stressed and then combat that stress, vs a script that says: law school is not inevitably going to be stressful, but if it is, we’ll deal with the stress if and when it comes up. I think pre-empting our expectation of law school with the expectation of stress is more likely to bring about stress. This is akin to caregivers and parents telling children that they must eat their vegetables. The child, before she has had any chance to form a script about how eating vegetables is supposed to go, is being given negative signals: that vegetables are something different, something she must eat, and why must she be told to eat them unless they are somehow bad. And lo and behold, the child dislikes her vegetables. The same goes for warning children they may find math difficult and observing that they end up finding it more difficult than other subjects, having formed the expectation that it is so.

I think there is also a cultural component at play. Those who know me know that I’ve had an eclectically multicultural upbringing, and while that makes me the perpetual outsider, it also has made me an acute observer of the social world and always interested in culture, understood by me very broadly as all the stuff in a human’s mind. One spectrum on which cultures can be studied runs between the poles of individualism and collectivism. In an individualistic culture, the individual is the unit of social measurement and focus, with his or her rights, ambitions, perceptions and value more in focus than the group, community or relational bonds among individuals. One key assumption of an individualistic culture is that the individual is capable of generally controlling the world. I think as law students, we may have too much of an individualistic culture when it comes to the degree to which we can control certain outcomes. We think it is wholly in our control to achieve grade X or job Y, and so our stress comes from the fact that if we do not achieve grade X or get job Y, it must mean it is our shortcoming. We do not sufficiently account for the myriad other factors at play which affect such outcomes, like statistical realities of grading, subjective perceptions of job applicants, the breakfast we had that morning, the weather (seriously, look at the research literature on the link between hot days and murder rates). Couple this illusion of ultimate control with the expectation that grade X and job Y are supposed to be important enough to stress about incessantly, and we have a problem.

I realize I’ve discussed some incredibly complex concepts in some incredibly simplified terms, but as always with this blog, my intention is not to answer questions, but to raise them, ponder them, and ultimately leave them with the reader.  I’ll cheesily end with a favourite saying of mine which to my mind sums up the enormous power that expectations can exercise on the course of our lives. ‘Our greatest fear is that our stories tell us’.