Education

Conduct unbecoming

John Schofield March 5 2001
Education

Conduct unbecoming

John Schofield March 5 2001

Conduct unbecoming

Education

John Schofield

The rumours started surfacing in early February, shaking the foundations of Canada's most prestigious law school. Forget those cheap lawyer jokes. This isn’t supposed to happen at the University of Toronto’s esteemed faculty of law. The allegations? That first-year students, in applying for summer jobs, lied to Bay Street law firms about the marks they received on their first-term practice exams. A preliminary probe launched by dean of law Ron Daniels only amplified the scandal, revealing

Many law educators agree with her stand on first-term exams, which are designed to help with the tough transition to law school. “Marks are becoming more important than the learning experience far too early in the game,” says Anne La Forest, dean of law at the University of New Brunswick. “What the law firms are doing is counterproductive.” Bay Street lawyers, though, seem less than sympathetic. Marks are the only objective tool that large firms have to enable them to sift through hundreds of student applications, says Stephanie Willson, director of student and associate programs at McMillan Binch, a large Bay Street practice. She argues that skyrocketing tuition, not law firms, has boosted the pressure on students to seek high-paying Bay Street jobs (first-year law students at U of T now pay $10,000 a year, compared with $2,430 five years ago). “It’s a total cop-out for people to be blaming Bay Street firms,” says Willson.

Reports of lying about marks cast a shadow over Canada s most prestigious law school

that up to 30 of the 170 students in the first-year class may be involved. Last week, Daniels went public with the case, announcing a full inquiry. A separate investigation, overseen by the university provost’s office, will look at the role a law professor may have played. “We’re simply devastated by what we’ve learned,” says Daniels. “There’s just a huge tinge of sadness about this.” Not to mention mystery. Why would

fast-track law students put their careers at risk by attempting to cheat their way to Bay Street? This month, a designated law professor will sit down with each of the accused to find some answers and determine the real culprits. Sanctions could range from a notation on a student’s transcript to outright expulsion. Still, lawyers being lawyers, the university is bound to have a fight on its hands. Some law students have already arranged for legal representation. And the University of Toronto Faculty Association is lining up to defend law professor Denise Reaume, whom the university has implicated in the affair.

In remarks allegedly made in class, Reaume expressed frustration over law firms that ask for first-term exam marks, and suggested that if all students agreed to submit straight As, potential employers could no longer rely on the grades. But in a statement released through the faculty association last week, Reaume said she was simply discussing the idea of openly protesting Bay Street’s behaviour, and she denied that she advised students to lie. Speaking to reporters in Oxford, England, where she was attending a conference, she said she was dismayed that the uni-

versity had started its investigation when she was out of the country, and had made “no serious effort to get in touch with me before I left.”

What befuddles most observers is why law students would lie when job opportunities are better than they have been in years. And with a 98-per-cent placement rate after graduation, employability is low on the list of worries for most U of T law students, says Anna Maria Di Stasio, president of the students’ law society. Regardless, the stain on those found guilty will be hard to erase. Being admitted to the bar requires a good character reference. But a 1993 study by Randi Sims, a professor of business ethics at Florida’s Nova Southeastern University, found that those who engage in academic dishonesty are more likely to be dishonest on the job. Still, when the dust settles, the faculty of law’s sterling reputation will remain intact, maintains Di Stasio. “I’d never hide the fact that I’m a grad of U of T law,” she says. “Hopefully we’11 get beyond this.” In the meantime, it might not hurt to look for a good lawyer.