Letter to the Editors: First world problems

Last week we published a story on the controversial Corporations Law exam. Now the Dean responds.

On Tuesday 12 November 2013, while the world was mourning the devastation of tens of thousands of lives in the Philippines, tragedy also struck the Law IV/JDII students of Sydney University, who were sitting their Corporate Law exam.  An alarm sounded a short time into the exam. Some 450 or so students evacuated McLaurin Hall, into the rain-drenched quadrangle below.  Chaos broke out.

It is a great pity that we didn’t have a small army of primary school deputy principals on hand to manage the situation.  They might have marched the students out onto the wet lawns to sit legs akimbo, hand on heads (or better still, index fingers across the lips to hush any collaboration) until the crisis passed.  If we had done that we might have avoided the dreadful rumours (as yet unsubstantiated, but we are looking into it) that law students – students who are being educated for a profession with the highest ethical standards – were taking out their notes and discussing the answers to questions.

Nevertheless, the Exams Office – who do a remarkable job of managing the logistics of examinations in a big university – managed to restore order and the examination resumed.  Most students settled down and completed their papers without further fuss.

I met with relevant staff to consider what steps we needed to take to address the disruption of the exam.  A few students who emailed promptly after the exam proposed what I would label the ‘primary school solution’.  It was alleged that some students had cheated, we couldn’t identify for sure who they were (not without asking students themselves to become ‘dobbers’, and Australians hate doing that – or at least, they used to in my day), so the best solution would be to make all of the students sit another exam.  All 450 odd, including the majority who came well-prepared, followed the invigilators’ instructions, did nothing wrong, and probably did quite well in the exam, should be punished for the sins of the few.  (‘Alleged’ sins, I might add.  As Dean of a law school that values the reputation of its graduates, I am loathe to accept the allegations of cheating without firm proof.)   Students typically have summer jobs and travel plans following the exam period.  Requiring them to sit all over again would have been one of those vindictive, school ma’m decisions that I really, really hated when I was a little kid, made to sit with aching arms raised above my head, until some wretched urchin confessed to spilling his milk in the playground. Surprisingly, this was the solution pressed by the Student Representative Council (on behalf of LLB students) and SUPRA (who represent the JD cohort).  In the end, I had to make a decision.  As dean of the law school, I have to take into account all the myriad issues, and come up with the solution that does least harm.  I have offered to meet with the most vociferous agitators for the ‘primary school solution’, but so far, those who have responded to the invitation have declined to meet me because they have work, travel and personal commitments to attend to, now that exams are over. (I rest my case.)

We had a lot of email traffic about this one, as you would imagine.  Law students can be an anxious and competitive lot. They do worry dreadfully about exam marks.  A couple of years post-graduation and they will learn that the marks in any one exam are soon forgotten, and many skills other than mark-harvesting are more important to success in the profession (and in life).  Those important skills include being able to suspend emotion for long enough to assess all the ramifications of a decision you need to make.  And one vital skill is professionalism.  One good thing came out of this little typhoon that struck the corporate law exam on 12 November.  Honi Soit did me the great service of publishing possibly the best piece of personal advice I have given to a student so far in my short term as dean:  be very careful how you choose your words when you broadcast a complaint.  We do have defamation laws in this country.  The editors of Honi Soit know that, because on the same page that the ‘Stuff Happens’ story was published, there was an apology to a herbal products supplier, retracting any imputation in an earlier story that they dealt in illegal drugs.  Even if there were no defamation laws exposing those who allow emotion to swamp good sense to the risk of sizeable damages awards, we are working together at the university in a scholarly community.  Members of staff at this institution deserve respectful treatment.  I had understood, from the commendable support students showed to staff during the enterprise bargaining negotiations, that students do value good relationships with their staff.  Those relationships are best maintained by professional communication.  By all means complain when you feel you need to, but don’t fall into the temptation of writing in hyperbolic, offensive terms.  The fun of hurling insults at people is short-lived.  Lawyers in particular need to learn that lesson quickly.  If you are launching into a profession which is all about disputes, you have to be able to maintain objectivity and professionalism, even in the most annoying circumstances.

This little typhoon-in-a-tea-cup could become a real tragedy if those students who have developed a grievance about this allow it to poison their experience of law school.  Treat it as a life lesson.  Stuff does happen.  Stuff will keep happening.  All the things you are learning at law school will help you navigate a life full of some pretty awful stuff if you are going to be a lawyer. You do need to be a bit kind to yourself, and to others.


Joellen Riley

Dean, Sydney Law School

23 November 2013

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