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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.

Exams in a week

In one week from now, I will have written my first December exam. We have all had the chance to write a few other exams, which I think will have made things a bit easier and less stressful. We had a midterm in Regulatory State, which was not bad at all. One thing about law school marks is that some of them come back quickly, while others take much, much too long. I am speaking about the Law in Context exam, which we wrote online at the start of November, and whose mark we won’t see until some indefinite time in January. But, having just had a torts class about defamation, I feel that I had better move on.

I thought I would share a few items of interest about exams. I assumed that it would be easy to listen to senior students’ advice and not worry at all about them. But that is somewhat harder when you are one week away and have a lot of studying to do to get up to scratch. I have probably mentioned before that, having read some articles about law schools in which a common premise was that professors don’t care about students’ performance on exams, I am pleasantly surprised to see that many of my professors have devoted large amounts of class time to going over sample exam questions, suggesting strategies for doing well, and generally encouraging us.

In addition to that, I’ve met with some students, including the president of the Law Students Society, to discuss, inter alia (a judicial term meaning “among other things”), exam-related matters. It also helps to be on the Academic Issues Caucus because there are lots of senior students on the committee who first went through the exam routine only a year or two ago.

Even so, Rebecca’s suggestions of ways to distance oneself from thoughts of exams are most helpful. I have spent a lot of time with other people, not necessarily law students. I find that my studying can be a lot more focused if I have other things to do. If I know that I have nothing to do but study in a single day, it is harder to stay focused than it is if I have plans to have dinner or to go for a walk with someone.

I’m also workin on a computer programming project, which, though a lot of work, succeeds in distracting me plentifully when I need to stop thinking about law. That project is coming to the point where I need to start actually marketing it, so I really do need to give it some thought. And then every so often I have visions of myself developing a database for keeping track of case law that I have read and searching through it, and of designing a tool to generate documents according to the McGill Guide to Legal Citation, the standard used at UBC.

That said, I am currently doing quite well at getting enough sleep and healthy food. I try and maintain a consistent schedule for eating and sleeping so that I am alert when I need to be. I’ve been making a lot of food ahead of time so that I can have, for instance, a nice, warm bowl of homemade coconut curry chicken and vegetable soup in under five minutes.

Almost Halfway!

Our winter exams are just around the corner, so I imagine this will be my last blog post for a little while. Lately, I’ve had my socks pulled up and my nose to the grindstone, which is not much to write home about. Since I’m short on anecdotes I thought I’d (once again) reflect on the some of the things I’ve learned over the last few months.

1)   There’s a list of recommended readings for prospective students on the UBC Law website, which I completely ignored until recently. In retrospect, I wish I had at least taken a peek at a book on law exams. This certainly isn’t necessary—as Graham mentioned, the December exams are essentially a trial run. We’re going to learn all about law exams next month! I’m just thinking it would be nice to have one less thing to get acquainted with over the next couple weeks.

2)   I highly recommend getting involved in the Law Students Legal Advice Program (LSLAP). LSLAP makes me want to be a lawyer. I go to clinics and I get my own clients. It is rewarding to be able to help people, plus I’ve learned so much about the law, procedure and file management. Our courses teach us substantive law and how to think about it; LSLAP let’s us apply it.

3)   Since September, my life has pretty much revolved around reading. It seems like I am either reading or thinking about how I ought to be reading. Like right now, there’s this pile of reading for my property class just staring at me.

4)   I’ve identified two types of law school stress. The first is the I’ve-got-a-million-things-to-do stress, which I would say is pretty much unavoidable. The pace is fast and the workload is intense. The good news is this can be pretty motivating and is usually followed by feelings of accomplishment when things get done. The second is the I’m-tired-and-crabby-and-feeling-super-unimpressive-oh-how-will-I-ever-make-it-as-a-lawyer stress. The best way I’ve found to deal with this is by doing something unrelated to law school. Hang out with friends. Watch a hockey game. Make dinner. Sometimes I just need a break. And there’s time for those breaks! Even with all that required reading.

5)   Hard work pays off.

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.

Balancing Life and the Scales of Justice

The important thing about law school is, apparently, that there is so much to do that it is easy to lose oneself in the many pressures and commitments. I’m afraid this blog has suffered as a result. From the first week of September onwards, I have been trying to achieve a balance with several things.

Foremost, course work. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that nearly every lecture concerns a lot of cases. In order to avoid having to reread them, we brief them. Briefing concerns making notes about what they say about the law. Then, by referring to the briefs (provided they are concise and accurate), we can synthesise the law on various subjects, spotting concurring opinions and differences. A lot of success in courses, say second- and third-year students, comes from having well-organised information of the law based on the cases assigned for each class. The upshot is that I am, very slowly, learning to read cases for what they say about the law rather than for who wins the judgment or what the facts are—not that those are unimportant or that they don’t give insight into the judgment.

Most of our exams and tests are open-book. This is lucky, because they seem to be worth between 85 and 100 per cent of the mark of most courses. In most cases, too, the exams to be written at Christmas time are worth about 25 per cent of the exam mark, but only if the mark increases as a result of counting the Christmas exam. These measures seem designed to relieve some anxiety, which remains significant nevertheless. I am, however, glad to have the security of my course summary notes so that I don’t have to worry about learning by heart what the law was in a case whose name sounds like Brinkibon Ltd. v. Stahag Stahl und Stahlwarenhandelsgesellschaft mbH.

Apart from the readings, there are many other commitments and things to think about. I didn’t manage to get involved with LSLAP, the Law Students Legal Advice Programme, this term. Some people love it, but I know one person who stopped doing it after the first time because she was interested in other commitments. I hope that by next term enough people may have dropped out that they will be glad for some new faces, whereupon I shall join. It sounds like great experience for legal work to come.

Then there are the things not related to law, such as the balanced lifestyle. I have a friend whose goal truly is to work sixty hours or more per week. I am hoping for a healthier subsistence. I got somewhat off track when it came to sleeping. I would do my readings before going to bed, but then I would have to get up early and go to class, whereupon I felt like drifting off to sleep all day. As soon as I got home, or for any other reason was out of class, I would be reasonably alert, but not otherwise. I realised that there was absolutely no point in going to class if I could hardly concentrate, no matter how important it was. As a result, I have started forcing myself always to get enough sleep. Within about two days of that decision, my productivity in reading and my alertness in lectures increased dramatically. I also pay attention to eating well for the important nutrition. I figure that starting out well and being stalwart in good habits will make a big difference for the better when the time for real work comes along.

I’m sure most law students will go through similar things: better that they should be now than later!

Time Flies!

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, and much has happened since then. Let me start with some of the highlights.

One of the appealing things about studying law is that it’s always relevant. Not only does the law touch virtually every aspect of our lives, it’s not static. For example, you may have heard about the Ontario court’s recent decision concerning the constitutionality of several prostitution laws. Well, this triggered some real interest in my small group. It just so happens that our criminal law professor, Janine Benedet, knows a great deal about this topic. We organized a lunchtime discussion and invited Professor Benedet to speak. About 100 students came! It was a great opportunity to apply what we’ve been learning, and to really think about this weighty and topical court decision.

Another highlight was the Canadian Bar Association’s mentorship meet-and-greet. Each year the BC chapter matches interested law students with practicing lawyers. I signed up for this in the second week of classes, so I can’t for the life of me remember what I put down for areas of legal interest (in the second week I was interested in everything). But I’m pretty sure I won the mentorship lottery! My mentor is a young and successful civil litigator who works for a great firm.

I had a bunch of questions for my mentor, and she had really useful answers. Allow me to pass along some of her wisdom! Grades matter, but so does being a well-rounded person. If you didn’t study something in law school, that doesn’t necessarily preclude you from practicing in that field. With that said, some things are easier to learn on the job than others: take classes on trusts and procedure, if possible. The legal profession gets a lot of flack, but there are plenty of genuinely happy lawyers.

While there are more highlights I could regale you with, my main focus as of late has been first-year law. It’s a ride! The workload is exactly what I thought it would be: a challenge. The material is very interesting (which is great!), but there’s lots of it. I sometimes think there’s no end to the amount of time and energy I could put into things, if I had endless amounts of time and energy. Needless to say, there’s been some adjusting. But we’re more than half way through the first semester and, for the most part, I’m enjoying this ride.

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.