Author Archives: Andrew Dilts

Are you coming?

For all those undergrads / other applicants who have been reading this blog:

  • Have you decided where you’ll be attending law school?
  • If so, where?
  • What criteria are you using for your decision?

Last week, I was talking to a student from my alma mater. He was finishing his final undergraduate term, and had started to receive acceptance letters from various law schools. UBC was one of them, but he hadn’t made up his mind where he wanted to go (Queen’s was also high on his list).

If you haven’t heard back yet either way, don’t feel too bad. Because I’m a “discretionary applicant” (I had earned master’s degree before I applied), I didn’t hear from UBC until mid-June. And then, it was a one-sentence email that essentially said “please call us; we don’t seem to have your proper address.” So the process may simply take some time.

Whom does it serve?

In Arthurian legend,* a young knight of the Round Table named Percival once visited a place where a castle, and the ruined land around it, were ruled by a wounded king. While in the castle, Percival saw numerous miraculous things, including the king eating from a glowing chalice that was surely Holy Grail. Percival was amazed and curious by what he saw, but kept silent. His training as a knight instructed him not to ask questions, and instead to rely on available information for decision-making.

When Percival left the castle, both castle and king (and Grail) magically disappeared. According to legend, had Percival asked the right question, he would have obtained the Grail, and both king and land would have been healed. He was later asked, “How could someone appearing to be so successful fail to use common sense and distrust his intuition by not questioning what might be occurring?”

Eventually – after many long years of trials and challenges – Percival re-discovers the castle, and finally is able to ask the king the proper question about the Grail: “Whom does it serve?” King and land are healed, Percival wins the Grail, though many long years had needlessly passed between.

In law school, the question I find myself asking the most is “whom does it serve?” Not because I’m afraid that my legal knowledge will be put to ill use, or because I think I’m on the quest for the Holy Grail (literally or metaphorically). Rather, it’s a question of logical organization: as Nikki noted in her previous post, law students deal with a massive amount of information. Understanding why we’re studying something can help us relate lessons to each other, put pieces in context, and ask the right questions. At a cognitive level, knowing what we’ll do with information can help us to store, process, and understand it.

For some, the answer seems to be informed by desired career paths. If I want to be a litigator, I might focus carefully on my moot assignment. If I’m interested Charter challenges, I’ll pay close attention to constitutional, criminal, and transnational law readings. Still, that’s not a sure bet: UBC Law’s Career Services Office has been fantastic at setting up lunch-hour career panels, but one thing I’ve learned from them is that legal career paths often take unexpected turns. One panelist from an environmental-focused public interest law firm had never taken an environmental law class in his life; another, a federal court judge, told us that being a justice was never his career goal. You don’t always know where you’ll end up after law school, we’ve been told, just as we’ve heard “it doesn’t matter what classes you take” from multiple panelists. While wading through piles of reading, I find myself on shaky ground when trying to figure out “whom does it serve.”

One thing is clear, though: at this point, the information is in great part being learned to “serve” our April exams. Wading through hundreds of pages of reading each week, it’s important to figure out what we’ll need to know for the tests (since those tests, in turn, decide our all-important grades). Practical considerations can be secondary; more than one assignment has edited out real-world aspects. Still, I’m not sure that I’d go as far as to repeat what we occasionally hear from legal practitioners, that “what you learn in law school won’t apply in your legal career.” At the very least, we’re getting a background in theory and knowledge of the law. We’re learning to sharpen our minds, work hard, and hopefully – just like Percival – ask the right questions.

(* Like most legends, there are many variations of this story of Percival and the Grail. This is simply the version I’m most familiar with.)

It’s a moot point

This term, we first year students are being introduced to another fun, new aspect of law school: mooting.

I’ve been describing a moot to my friends as a “fake court case,” though that’s not quite accurate. A moot is a fake court appeal case, the hypothetical review of a case that has already been decided.

The moot is worth 25% of the grade in our criminal law class. The actual grade is for the factum – the written arguments that each side would submit to the court – and then there is a mandatory but non-graded oral presentation to real legal practitioners. The UBC moot has a complicated set of rules [PDF], and we’ve been given some guidelines on how to approach it.

My class’ case is based on the real-life case of R v Steele [2007]. In both cases, would-be robbers are surprised to find people at home during a break and enter. The accused threaten “we have a gun,” which subdues the home’s occupants until the robbers can flee. They’re caught a few minutes later. While they had a gun in their getaway car, they did not actually bring it into the house with them.

The question focuses on whether or not the accused were “using” the gun during the break and enter. If the courts find that they did, they are guilty of a second crime. Neither the statute nor the common law (that we’re allowed to use) answer the question, so it’s up to us to argue it out.  In real life, the Supreme Court of Canada found that the accused did “use” the weapon even though it was not on their person during the break and enter, but in the moot assignment, that Court found the opposite.

It’s a pretty enjoyable (and educational) task, but if this was a real case, we’d look through past court cases to help find guidance or authorities for our arguments. Here, we’re not allowed to do that. So while there are some fun educational pieces to the moot, this one seems to hold to the “we only trust you with baby steps” approach to first year law school. As before, I still believe we can set better educational tasks that involve more realistic practice. But of course, given the current approach, that is a potentially unrealistic discussion … I’m sure there’s a term for that

A change from previous years, the moot factums are due early this term. My team (we’re the Crown) has their written assignment due this Tuesday, Jan 18. I’m thankfully done most of my submission, but I know a lot of my other law peers will be hitting the books pretty seriously this weekend.

First year, round two

Law classes are back in session today. After a relaxing (but busy) Christmas break, I know I’m not the only one interested to see what the semester ahead will hold.

Some of it will be familiar ground. Five of our six first-year classes are eight month courses, meaning we’re continuing with the same classes and professors for most of our course load. The one switch comes as Regulatory State finished in December, and will be replaced with Transnational Law.

I expect a few other changes this term, changes of  a more subtle kind. After a gruelling round of December “practice” exams, I’m guessing that some students will change their study habits and priorities in class. I’ve already been told of fellow students who will stop bringing their “distracting” laptops to class.

We’ve been warned repeatedly by the faculty that we’ll likely receive lower grades than we expect, which makes sense given the grading policy. It will likely both dampen some moods and spur others to work harder. January 17 is our grade release day, so we don’t find out anything until then – and then we get all the (probably worse than expected) news, all at once.

Still, this is balanced by the repeated reminders that a) nobody fails out of law school, unless they really try to, and b) everybody’s grades – not just at UBC, but at schools across Canada – are kept to a B/B- average, which levels the playing field considerably.

Tilting at windmills

I enjoy tests, I really do.

I’m only half-joking when I tell people I wrote the LSAT “for fun,” and I know I’m not the only one in my class who has done so. I’ve also written the SAT, GMAT, and GRE. I like the pressure, the intellectual challenge, and let’s be honest, it’s a little exciting to work at something that will have a large but unspecified impact on your future.

So believe me that I’m not anti-test when I say: law school exams (December exams, at least) are very different.

There is simply no way to write a 50-mark essay question AND a 50-mark response to a fact pattern in the span of an hour. Or to answer six 10-mark short-answer questions in an hour. Yet both were tests we wrote.

And there is a tight range that hovers around 70%, and very few grades fall far from that mark. We have been warned multiple times that, while we might be used to getting A grades, law school grades are intentionally much lower than that.

And finally, incredulously, UBC remains one of the few law schools in Canada that uses written tests instead of computerized ones. If you think writing a term paper in just one hour is tough, try doing it in pen.

To believe that you”ll do really well on December exams is kind of crazy, not unlike Cervantes’ anti-hero Don Quixote continually trying to fight (and win) against windmills. Quixote was never going to best those windmills, and we first years are never going to do well on our December tests. But you still have to try. It’s a reality of law school.

Thankfully, those December exams are “practice” exams: the weighting reduced to 0% if we do better on the April tests, but they want to give us a chance to practice writing law school tests. They scare us a little bit with low grades, then we presumably buckle down and do better in April, when it counts.

It also helps to know that the experience is shared, common to law schools across Canada. (Click here to see the University of Victoria law class’ fun but pointed take on December exam grading). Thousands of law students have written them, done poorly, and many still became great lawyers. It also really does help to practice writing law exams, it’s useful experience. And our April exams will be longer in length (2.5 – 3 hrs each), so the “writing a term paper in an hour in pen” thankfully won’t apply.

But still, having more chances to practice would improve our skill even more. As well, making December exams the same length as April exams would also be better for writing that term-paper-in-one-sitting, and would be a more realistic practice. And I know that there are already discussions about catching us up to the 21st century and using computers for exams.

Lunch with the Dean

Earlier this week, I was fortunate to have lunch with Dr. Mary Anne Bobinski, the Dean of UBC’s Faculty of Law. It was a great experience.

I have mentioned before that UBC Law presents no shortage of extra-curricular opportunities, often sandwiched in at lunch hours or after classes. For example, this week I also helped to run the “Health Law Careers” panel, and later participated in an environmental law negotiation competition. So when an email went out last week looking for the last few people to have lunch with the Dean, I jumped at the chance.

The lunch, held at the Sage Bistro (conveniently upstairs from where our classes are held) was attended by about a dozen students. Dean Bobinski asked what each of us liked about our law school experiences so far, and what we thought needed improvement. Most of our conversation focused on the latter, as the Dean looked for ways to address the concerns we brought to the table. Some issues, such as the students’ desire to have computer-based (as opposed to paper-based) testing, are already being explored. Others issues were new, but the Dean quickly provided initial thoughts on how they might be addressed, making notes for a detailed follow-up later. In the end, our session went nearly half an hour overtime – and the Dean’s lunch went almost untouched – because she was so focused on hearing and addressing students’ concerns.

I have been in and out of the academic system for quite some time (I come from an academic family, and was very active during both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees), and always appreciate top administrators who take the time to really sit down and listen to students. Too few do so, in my opinion. It certainly was heartening to have the Dean take time to have personal conversations with students, just another example of how UBC Law does take the time to ensure that its students have a great experience at law school.

The honeymoon is over

We have our first and only midterm tomorrow, in our “Regulatory State” class. It’s interesting to see the frustration, fear, and focus this has brought for many of us.

Stress has started to surface for many in the law class. Graham made a great point about school-life balance in his recent post, and I echo his thoughts completely.

But others are getting stressed out about the silent competition that the law school grading curve creates. 5/6 of us will get a “B” on any given paper or test, and most of us are used to getting “A”s. I have talked to many people who feel real pressure to get those very few “A”s in the class, which are statistically impossible to give to everyone.

I think it’s a real shame that we can’t have a system where excellence can lead to reward. In fact, I worry sometimes about the standard that sets for us on our future careers. But it’s also a trap of the system: most Canadian law schools have similar grading policies,  and if we change ours, an “A” from UBC will not seem as valuable as an “A” from most other schools.

The counter to this, of course, is that even with minimal effort, most students will receive “B” grades. We were told straight out during orientation week that we would all pass law school, unless we chose not to. That relief helps to take the pressure off at times. Still, my preference would be to reward excellence, as I think that sets a better habit and standard for our professional development.

And please, don’t get me wrong, we are still very social. There were some great Hallowe’en events this past weekend, and the people in law school are still amazing. But, as one of my peers put it recently,  the honeymoon is definitely over.

Don’t forget your suit! (x2)

(Are you reading this blog because you’re thinking of applying to UBC Law School? Do you have specific questions for us bloggers? If so, we’d love to hear from you. Please simply leave your question in the comments below.)

As for the suit reference, this blog post has a dual purpose.

First, to say that law school has been quite a bit of work so far. Not only is it a full-time job – a full schedule plus many hours of reading each night – but surely it is only a precursor to the busy lawyering lives that many of us will soon lead. Sometimes, you feel like you should be dressed for work each day. Indeed, if you’re attending a firm visit or interview after class, you certainly do have to put a suit on.

Classes aren’t the only work. I remember being told back in our ice-breakers that free lunches (lunch periods with no events scheduled, that is) will be few and far between. I doubted, but it has been all too true. Tuesday and Wednesday we had make-up classes scheduled through lunch. 6.5 hours of class, back to back, is long enough for anyone. And that is to say nothing of the myriad of guest speakers, panels, and volunteer meetings held – often overlapping – at lunch.

Thankfully, we’re also managing to keep the mood as light as possible. Tomorrow I’ll be putting on a suit for class, not for any professional pursuits, but for fun as part of the tongue-in-cheek International Suit Up Day. A few of us are doing it, just for fun, and so I’ve been reminding classmates “don’t forget your suit!”

In another light experience, my small group has been involved in a tradition to bring breakfast/snacks for each other one morning a week.  Two weeks ago a classmate and I made home-made pancakes to order (chocolate chip and strawberry, thank you very much) and ran them over to the law school, still piping hot, before class.

And sometimes our fun is more challenging. Last Friday morning a group of us climbed the Grouse Grind, a 2.9-km nearly vertical hike up the side of Grouse Mountain, before class. Yes, that’s out the door at 6am, climbing the mountain by 7am, en route back by 8am, and sitting in class, showered, by the time class started at 9am. It wasn’t the first such trip, and it won’t be the last. Crazy? Sure. Fun? For some. Rewarding? Absolutely.

Such fun incursions and excursions will, when we look back on the rigours of law school, help us to remember the experiences and friendships as much as the hard work and challenge. There can be a lot of colour and fun in between the times where we need to suit up.

Another great week

Law school has been full of surprises, and this week was no exception.

The week kicked off with a UBC Law Wine and Cheese on Tuesday evening, essentially a career fair for law students. Held in downtown Vancouver, the Wine and Cheese brought together many of the larger law firms from Calgary and Toronto, recruiting UBC Law students to work in those cities. As with most networking events, I thoroughly enjoyed this one: I am a social person, and genuinely interested in learning about the various firms. Plus, like my law school classmates, the lawyers that work for these firms are some truly exceptional, interesting people.

Back in class this week, many of us are starting to get a handle on the rigours of law school. Reading and briefing cases has become much easier. I was back in Ontario for the weekend, so a long plane ride home afforded me the chance to do a lot of reading. Thankfully, as a result, I’ve finished all the assigned readings until the end of the month! A certainly welcome move, as it afforded me time to focus on my other committments this week: serving as an elected rep on the Law and Business Society, fundraising for the CoRe mediation clinic, and attending the first meeting of the UBC Law Review.

Last night, to top it all off, the Law Students’ Society hosted their annual boat cruise. Approximately 250 of us headed out of the Vancouver harbour for a beautiful, clear evening of dancing, discussion, and socializing. One of my small-group peers was able to secure VIP tickets for most of us at the Republic downtown, so the fun continued long into the evening. (I made it home at a (relatively) decent hour, but my housemates … some of them still haven’t made it back yet.) All in all, it was a great celebration to end another great week.

First full week, first full weekend

One of the orientation activities was a speed-dating “meet the profs” session, where we ran between rooms every 15 minutes to meet each of our six new  professors. I was not the only one impressed with the teaching calibre. Many profs are authors or editors of our course texts, and  all have spectacular professional backgrounds. At least two of my six – that we know of – have clerked for the Supreme Court. At least one has made a movie.

After O-week, we jumped right in to our classes, and the professors held true to expectations of calibre. It’s interesting to note that the classes I thought I’d like the least – criminal, for example – are taught by some of the most engaging professors, which makes them that much better.

Readings were assigned promptly. Six courses of 20-30 pages per class, per lecture, adds up quickly. Never have I seen such social people work so hard during a first week of classes, but we rose to the challenge. Our work ethic was surely helped by the course material itself: each and every course opened up a whole new path of thought, information, and perspective to explore.

Classes weren’t the only thing that filled our time. We’ve already had two law firms (Boughton and BLG) host social events for us to attend after classes. Lunch hours were packed with info sessions for extra-curricular activities, often with overlapping schedules. And the Law Student Society‘s “Clubs Fair” was surely the end for many of us: from the hockey team to the Law Review, many of us walked away over-committed, as there were simply so many great things to get involved with.

Thankfully, following our first full week was our first full weekend. The UBC Law schedule gives us three-day weekends every weekend, and our first was certainly a godsend. It was kicked off by a giant class social at a bar on Granville Island on Friday night, but many of us spent the rest of the weekend individually re-grounding and re-connecting, getting ready for the times ahead.