April 17, 2012
They held a day before exams where stressed-out law students could play with dogs.
They offered yoga and foot massage to these future titans of trials.
Now the University of Toronto’s law school could become the first in Canada to scrap the often nerve-wracking letter grades of A, B, C, D and F for the kinder, gentler ratings of Honours, Pass and Fail.
Is this any way to run a law school? What happened to Paper Chase pressure?
“Look, stress is inevitable with law, but there’s lots of evidence to show that developing some perspective and a healthy lifestyle is part of becoming a great advocate,” said Dean Mayo Moran, who brought her dachshund Alfie to school along with other canine visitors on a recent “doggie day” — to rave reviews from weary cram artists.
“Taking a dog for a walk can give you perspective; I do some of my best thinking while I’m on the boardwalk,” said Moran.
“The fact you do yoga doesn’t mean you’ll be flaky in negotiations.”
After two years of studying how to make often frazzled law students worry less about marks and actually enjoy what they’re studying, the U of T law faculty is considering a plan to ditch its seven old letter grades (A, B+, B, C+, C, D, F) and introduce five broader categories of marks; High Honours, Honours, Pass, Low Pass and Fail. It’s a system adopted by the law schools of Berkeley, Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
The law school may also start telling professors roughly how many students should fall in each category, to avoid a wild variation in marks from class to class.
“We’re trying to shift the culture and give students permission to really follow their interests and not just focus on what marks they get in a course,” said Alexis Archbold, assistant dean of students. It’s part of a larger move to tackle mental health issues across Canadian universities, she said, “and quite frankly, it’s good advice for your career as well.”
Hogwash, says defence lawyer Edward Sapiano.
“That’s ridiculous! Dogs on campus? Changing the grading system to spare student feelings? The law school paying for foot massage? That does not bode well for the field of law,” clucked Sapiano. “We’re creating a false environment; the pressure is going to be intense when they get out, but this teaches them that the world will change for them.”
Besides, law students are smart enough to find their own ways to burn off stress — “even if it’s smoking a joint of marijuana. Whatever works.”
But law student Erin Simpson said she appreciates faculty efforts to lower the stress “that can sometimes run amok because of the competitive group of students law schools attract.”
With 2,000 applicants for some 200 spots, the entering average is 86 per cent, and assistant dean Sara Faherty said some students have never landed a mark below A before arriving at law school, which can cause anxiety.
“But there’s a lot of talk these days about how to retain more women lawyers at the senior levels,” said Simpson, mother of a toddler, “yet the fact is, the hours that you’re expected to work are not compatible with family life; it’s a cut-throat business. I applaud anything they can do to reshape that culture.”
Aaron Rankin, president of the Students’ Law Society, said he likes the move to streamline the mark spread, but that dropping letter grades “is really just rebranding. You could call them Leprechaun and Rainbow for all the name matters.”
In the end, can law change from dog-eat-dog to a dog’s life? Replied Rankin: “The jury is out.”