What is it Like to Write a Bar Exam in Ontario?

During law school I didn’t really think about writing the Ontario bar exams. There always seemed to be a more urgent exam or paper on the horizon. Eventually, the last year of law school came and went. Soon after the bar exams became the most important event on my calendar, I realized I had no idea what to expect. I wrote this article because there isn’t too much information online about the actual experience. If you also find yourself wondering, “What is it like to write a bar exam in Ontario?” then read on.

Law Society of Upper Canada Barrister Exam Sign
Signs point the way to the bar exam entrance

The latest sitting of an Ontario bar exam in Toronto was this past Tuesday, March 24th, 2015. For anyone unfamiliar with Ontario’s lawyer licensing process, there are two exams every domestic law school graduate needs to pass to become a lawyer here: the barrister’s and solicitor’s exam. The Barrister and Solicitor Exams The distinction between “barrister” and “solicitor” material is a tradition from Ontario’s English legal heritage. In England, barristers traditionally had exclusive rights to make oral argument in court. They were the original “trial lawyers” we know today as litigators and criminal lawyers. Solicitors were responsible for paper-based legal work like real estate conveyancing, corporate structuring and transactions. Modern Ontario lawyers are all licensed to do both, although most practitioners tend to specialize in one area. Ontario’s barrister competencies include civil litigation, criminal law, administrative and family law; while the solicitor competencies survey business law, real property and estates. Both exams include scattered questions on professional responsibility and ethics. Each test is seven hours long, broken up into two 3.5 hour blocks. Each 3.5 hour block goes by quickly, but both are physically and mentally demanding. One block is in the morning and the other in the afternoon, separated by a one-hour lunch break. The barrister exam sitting usually comes two weeks before the solicitor exam sitting. After registering for the exams, Ontario law students pay for the required study materials. The barristers materials for the 2014-2015 exams total 843 pages while the solicitors are a hefty 1,086. Anything in the materials is testable, but the exams are open book. While the actual exams are open book, the questions are timed to provide one minute and forty-five seconds per answer. Since that’s generally not enough time to look up every answer, law students do need to know the basics. Arriving on Test Day If you’re writing the bar exam in Toronto like I did, chances are you’ll be attending the Toronto Congress Centre near Pearson Airport. (For a full list of Ontario bar exam dates, times and locations, click here.) The Congress Centre is actually a sprawling campus with multiple buildings. Navigating it isn’t difficult–there are staff and signs posted along the entranceway directing drivers where to go. My exam was in the North building, which faces a massive parking lot. There should be no parking shortages on test day, but keep in mind that a late arrival may mean a long walk to the front doors. Parking is free. Nice. All test-takers are supposed to arrive, get registered, pass security screening and be seated by 8:30 a.m. in advance of the 9:00 a.m. start. Registration opens at 7:00 a.m. The total entry process took 15 minutes for me, although it could have taken much longer. The March exam sitting is reputed to have only 500-600 test-takers. The June sitting is much more popular, with closer to 1,600. With that many attendees, I’d expect the process to take more than 15 minutes. Everybody entering the Ontario bar exams has at least two things: a freezer bag containing any items allowed inside the exam and a pile of indexes and materials they can use to look up answers in the exam. No bags are allowed inside the testing area, so many people used disposable paper gift bags to carry their materials. Since no coats, hooded sweaters, or bags of any kind are allowed inside the testing area, those articles need to be checked. I left my coat in my car because I didn’t want to be bothered with coat check. It was cash only, which I imagine was a hassle. When you walk into the first room, the registration desks are separated alphabetically in a massive airplane-hanger sized building. It’s a convention centre, so picture the auto show with zero displays. The only things set up are signs and desks with law society personnel. Most lines are marked out with red concession ropes, but the law society folks wearing green smocks direct the traffic. After you present your bar exam ID card and your registration is confirmed, you get tagged with a brightly-coloured wristband identifying your seat number, and then you proceed to the security line. Security Although I’d like to describe what the security process was like at the bar exam, I’m not allowed. After communicating with Law Society personnel on the matter, they made it clear that I can’t share any details about the security protocols in place. All I can say is that the LSUC explains online what items are prohibited and allowed inside the testing area. The rule list is posted here. One comment I will add (based on the public rules) is about the paper cost to the exam. Test writers can bring in any paper assistance materials they want into the exam, but can’t bring any paper out. While it may save the Law Society the expense of writing new questions in the event a test is copied, the “no paper” rule creates a lot of waste. I estimate I printed roughly 2,200 pages to have on hand during the exams. Assuming there were 500-600 people writing the March bar exam in Toronto, roughly 600,000 double-sided sheets of paper were consumed that day. An electronic test (like the GMAT and MCAT) would make all that paper unnecessary.  Surely it wouldn’t be any more expensive to the law society than printing those 600-1,500 tests every three months and renting out the Toronto Congress Centre, would it? The Actual Test After you make it to your desk, you thump down your material stack and sit down. Depending on how early you checked in, you might have a long wait until the test starts up. Most students take the first few minutes to set up their test shrine: the semi-circle spread of books, paper, water bottles, snacks and tissues surrounding their seat. If you’re curious, yes there will be enough surface area for all your stuff. Each test-writer gets a Costco-style fold-out table to his or herself (if 72″ x 30″isn’t enough room for your stuff, well… wow). The tables are set up in square clusters with two law society personnel assigned to each one. These folks will be wearing blue smocks. They are there to help you—their role is to make sure you don’t do anything dumb that disqualifies your test (e.g. fill in your Scantron test sheet with the wrong ID number). Both teams I had were super friendly, so be nice to them. Looking up, you’ll see three huge timers displayed across the front wall of the air plane hanger-sized testing area. I brought a plain-faced watch into the test, but didn’t need it. The chairs are comfortable, but tilted a little too far back for a test-writing session. They’re the padded chairs you might lay out at a banquet-style conference. If you checked in on time, you should have between 8:30 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. to go to the testing-area washroom and try to calm down after all the entrance procedures. Around 8:45 a.m. someone at the front of the room on a stage starts talking about the test and the rules. Ideally you haven’t already popped in your earplugs. Even if you did, the microphone is so loud you can probably still hear what’s being said. Not long after, the tests are handed out. The stage tells you what to do. When to open the package, what to write, when to write it, and when to turn it over. Listen up and don’t do anything dumb. If you’re like me, you might not have written a paper exam since you graduated from your undergraduate program. It’ll come back to you. The test is Scantron-based, so beyond getting the right answer, there’s also a small (but very important) technical element to making sure your Scantron sheet doesn’t get spoiled. The law society indicated that they do not check the actual paper test, so it sounded like if you filled out the Scantron sheet wrong, you were in deep trouble. Once the stage says “you may begin,” then a paper thunderstorm erupts. It quickly quiets down, but the accumulated noise of 600 people shuffling and flipping paper is difficult to ignore. I highly recommend earplugs even if you never used them in law school. Besides the paper, when people move their chairs it sounds like little trumpets blasting off in different corners of the room. Coughing fits and sneezes occasionally break out. During the first half I barely noticed. Half-way through the afternoon sitting, my attention span and willpower were waning and it was hard not to. The Physical Element To prepare for the test I mostly focused on the mental element: the test content, the prep material, organization and timing. What caught me off-guard was the physical nature of the test. Most of my exams in law school were limited to three hours. I never had more than one law exam in the same day. Before a three-hour exam, you might be able to get away with an all-nighter, no breakfast, or no water—bad habits might not catch up with you until a day later. When you’re writing a test all day, those things matter. Sitting for seven hours in one day with attention locked was surprisingly taxing. By mid-afternoon, I found myself re-reading questions I would have blown through in the morning. Looking things up in my index, I had to murmur to myself, “L M N O… P” when flipping through. Tiredness made my thoughts sluggish. For that reason alone I recommend having sugar, fat, protein and water on hand to give you a burst when you need it. Depending on how you react to caffeine when you’re tired, coffee might be a great or terrible idea. Sleep also makes a huge difference. Before the first test, I got a great sleep. Somehow I slept through the entire night, and I’m glad I did. Before the solicitor’s exam I didn’t—for some reason I woke up at 4:00 a.m. and had trouble falling back asleep. I felt noticeably more crappy during the second afternoon. At times my mind started wandering and my focus was more easily broken by the people around me. So, know yourself and what your body needs to stay tuned all day. It will make the experience more humane. The Aftermath Test day was physically demanding. What really caught up with me was the intensity leading up to it. Both were more exhausting than I realized. Like most optimistic scholars, I expected to take the morning off after the first test and be back at the books that afternoon. I was wrong. The seven-hour test knocked me down. The four days before that test I was writing a 2-3 hours of practice questions nearly every day (and reviewing the answers for hours after). Delaying rest and recovery meant I had to do it after test day. After the barrister’s exam my attention span was shot for two full days. For me, burnout meant I could only look at a page for two or three paragraphs before I found myself looking out the window. That is obviously not where you want to be when you still have material to cover. To prevent burnout, I highly recommend taking regular breaks and being kind to yourself. Working through burnout is inefficient and demoralizing (e.g., “Sigh… I only read four pages in the last 45 minutes… I’ll never finish at this rate.”) Know yourself so you know the difference between procrastination and real burnout. No matter what, you’ll still make it through. If you have questions about the bar exam, comment after this post and I’ll answer them if I can. Thanks for reading and good luck!

Three Main Themes from NCFA’s 2015 Crowdfunding Summit

March 3, 2015 marked the first annual National Crowdfunding Association of Canada (NCFA)’s summit at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. The event combined informative, strategic, and regulatory updates for entrepreneurs interested in the space as well as a live pitching competition for startups.

The core idea: entrepreneurs in Canada currently struggle to raise capital when the amount is between $25,000 and $250,000. Crowdfunding is an attractive oasis in Canada’s barren venture capital landscape, but as we learned at the summit, we have a long way to go before crowdfunding realizes its full potential.

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I was lucky to have the chance to volunteer for the event. At the registration desk and on breaks I spoke with sponsors, attendees, and speakers alike. The pitching competitions were also extremely popular (here is a full list of speakers, sponsors, and companies who pitched). The event had a live twitter feed at #CCS2015 which was great for updates from the three simultaneous session-rooms. Nikolas Badminton from FreeLancer.com wrote a great LinkedIn post on the event here, and James Daigle created a Twitter list of speakers and attendees to follow here.

Three main themes were repeated at the NCFA’s summit: crowdfunding is making capital markets more social, accessible, and challenging to regulate.

Crowdfunding is an inherently social investment tool

FundRazr’s CEO Daryl Hatton talked about how social media and crowdfunding combine to change the way people are investing. According to Hatton, Facebook makes up about 98% of FundRazr’s social shares. Investors want to promote their own investments to their friends.

The days where “angel investment” ended at local friends and family are over. Now early-stage investment can be fueled by dispersed networks with the strength of those community bonds. As one pitch competition judge put it:

Tonya Surman, CEO of Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation talked about her experience crowdfunding “community bonds” to fund the centre’s real estate purchases. In addition to using social connections to boost business investment, it also has the power to share and spread ideas that help support communities. What a powerful combination.

Crowdfunding makes capital markets more accessible

Social investment may be a powerful promotion tool, but another theme repeated at the Summit was that Canadian business owners pursue crowdfunding because there is a scarcity of capital in our country. Although this may change as the startup industry heats up in Canada’s tech centers, for now, crowdfunding provides ready access to investors around the world.

There were startups at the summit applying the crowdfunding model to fund companies by connecting seed-stage startups with unaccredited investors (SeedUps.com) all the way to pairing private-equity ready businesses with high-value accredited investors (InvestX.com). All of them had one thing in common: they were capitalizing on the opportunity to provide easier and affordable access to equity (and debt) financing in Canada.

Crowdfunding is creating a regulatory challenge for Canada

Crowdfunding’s greater reach and accessibility creates a challenging regulatory environment, especially in Canada where securities regulations vary by province.

Vancouver lawyer and founder of Venture Law Corporation, Alixe B. Cormick, had an impressive presentation that outlined some current barriers to entrepreneurs in Canada seeking equity investment abroad. The complex interplay between US and Canadian securities regulations means that legal advice will be critical for business owners performing big fundraising rounds using crowdfunding. As a recent graduate and soon-to-be lawyer, it made me realize I need to keep tabs on this rapidly developing area.

In the meantime, I’m already looking forward to next year’s event. If you’d like to reach out to the NCFA or volunteer at a future event, become a member and reach out at NCFACanada.org.

Let me know in the comments: What’s your experience with crowdfunding? What would you like to see improved in Canada? Thanks for participating in the conversation.

Photo gallery

What Law Students Missed at #LegalLean Toronto

Legal innovation was brewing at the MaRS Discovery District this past Saturday, February 21st, 2015 at Toronto’s #LegalLean event. Over 70 attendees arrived to participate in “unconference” sessions moderated by MaRS’s Aron Solomon and Cognition LLP’s Jason Moyse.

The main purpose of the event: surveying the legal innovation landscape, with a focus on applying “lean” (waste-cutting and value-adding) principles to legal services.  The event played out in both real-time and on Twitter.

As a recent graduate, I couldn’t help but notice that there were not many law students at the event. The strongest law school turnout was from Michigan State University (MSU)’s ReInvent Law Laboratory. The sessions that followed were a glimpse at the legal landscape law students will soon find themselves in. This article is a quick summary of what law students missed: the people, the ideas, and the inspiration.

MaRS Discovery District

Who was there?

The only thing more important than the ideas discussed at the unconference were the people and interests represented there. If there was one thing law students missed at #LegalLean, it was the chance to meet and network with people who are solving tomorrow’s legal challenges.

The #LegalLean session leaders included Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s Ken Grady, Proskauer e-Discovery’s Dera Nevin, and Clio’s Joshua Lenon. If law students haven’t heard about new-model law firms, e-discovery services, or cloud-based practice management platforms, Ken, Dera, and Josh provided great introductions. (For anyone looking for more resources on these topics, reach out in the comments or through my contact form and I’ll send suggestions.)

The keynote speech was delivered by Mitch Kowalski, author of Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century. Mitch’s book should be required reading in law school. It was an eye-opener for me when I first read it, as a novella-style description of what law firms might look like one day. Other legal celebrities present included Peter Carayiannis, founder of Conduit Law and the Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Lawyer family of publications Gail J. Cohen. The ROSS founders were also there, the entrepreneurs using IBM’s Watson to perform legal research.

As for the audience, a show of hands revealed that about 70% were lawyers, 15% entrepreneurs, and 15% non-legal:

If you didn’t get a chance to go and would like a survey of the people who were there, the Twitter feed #LegalLean shows who was tweeting during the event.

Why was it special?

The #LegalLean conference featured some powerful ideas:

  • The way the event was organized “unconference style” meant that people off-site could follow along via the Twitter hashtag feed. Although not as participant-driven as it could have been, audience members could still tweet favourite quotes and moments from the conference. Particularly diligent attendees like Knowledge Management Consultant Connie Crosby helped create a written record of the presentations in digestible 140-character snippets. This isn’t a new trend, but it set the theme for the day. Conferences used to be done the same way legal advice was—advice would be thrown out into the audience and lost unless someone made it available on paper. Not any more. #LegalLean was captured on video, by live tweet, and through post-event blog articles like this one.
  • In a similar vein, Dera Nevin’s talk described that the main sticking point for legal innovation was the lack of categorization. Our transition from unstructured legal “stories” to structured searchable data has been painfully slow. Why are our judicial decisions still written in prose? Why are they not broken down by independent and dependent variable? Better data would allow better predictions, more certainty, and easier legal compliance. Law students should think about how they are capturing data at their future firms. Are they creating organizational learning, or forcing someone else to repeat the same work in the future?
  • Legal advice tends to be equally unstructured. Ken Grady described his visits to law firms all over the world, where he would ask for the likelihood of success on trademark litigation. The answer would invariably be “about 50/50.” Better data capture and processes in law firms should allow more accurate predictions. As lawyers, we need to step out of the grey and add value by providing more certainty for our clients.
  • Certainty and consistency brings us to one of the main ideas at #LegalLean. Jayson Moyse described “lean six sigma” as reducing the manufacturing process error rate below 3.4 defects per one million occurrences. That is an incredible achievement for manufacturing firms, often demanded in high-risk, high-value industries like aerospace. What if we brought that level of certainty to law? Through lean processes (a waste-cutting and value-adding discipline) it could be possible.

For a broader survey of the moments and ideas expressed at #LegalLean, the Canadian Lawyer published a tweet stream summary, and David Curle from Thomson Reuters published an excellent report here.

What was inspirational?

The people and ideas at #LegalLean were no doubt engaging. The best part was the inspiration. Law students and recent graduates like myself would have left the day feeling like we were entering world of opportunity. While walking down College Street in the snow, I couldn’t help but feel like it is the perfect time to be in (or graduating from) law school.

Right here in Toronto, there are groups working to make legal services more accessible, more predictable, and more useful for clients. Venture capital investment in legal startups is heating up.

Innovation centers like MaRS in Toronto and Communitech in Waterloo are close at hand. Exciting ventures like the IBM-Watson powered ROSS are evidence that beyond-the-edge legal startups can be created in Toronto. The legal innovation culture in Canada is still nascent. We don’t yet have institutions preaching this methodology, although Lakehead’s new law school is challenging the status quo, and the LPP program is changing the way lawyers are educated. 

We ended the event with an open Q&A. I asked the audience what inspired them about the conference; what idea they planned to take action on. The only answer from the crowd was an American law student from Michigan’s ReInvent Law Program. I think that speaks volumes.

Personally I’d like to see Canada lead the North American legal innovation sector. I didn’t get a chance to share my own inspiration from the event, but ask me and I’ll tell you. I came away from #LegalLean thinking differently, and I’m planning on shaking up the legal industry in my own way over the next few years.

Please get in touch if you’d like to share ideas, ask questions or collaborate. Thanks for reading.

#LegalLean Photo Gallery

4 Things I Learned Reading My Law School Admission Essay

Before I graduated law school, I asked the admissions coordinator for a copy of my law school admission essay. My request came as a surprise.

“Not many people ask to see those,” she said. “Are you okay?”

I told her not to worry. I was just wondering why I originally applied to law school. The thought came to me after reading an article that compared University of Toronto law school admission essays to what those eventual lawyers really did. The article contrasts high ideals with “the reality” in large corporate law firms.

“Did my motivations change?” I wondered.

When I looked through the cloud for my old application essay, I couldn’t find it. Somewhere in the five years, two laptops, and multiple cloud services I used since applying it had gotten lost. Our administrator was kind enough to give me a copy. Reading my law school application essay was one of the most important things I did before graduating.

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For anyone unfamiliar with law school, the admissions essay or “personal statement” is every applicant’s one chance to tell their story. It’s completely unstructured, often with no page limits or guidelines. The blank page stares back and says, “Tell me about yourself. Why do you want to go to law school?”

After half a decade, I didn’t expect my application essay to still ring true. A lot happened in the five years since I had applied. Wikileaks was just unfolding. Snowden. The Boston bombings. China also surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. It’s hard to say how much those events influenced me. In that time I had also completed two graduate-level degrees, made mistakes, and learned a lot about myself.

When I read my law school application essay I learned four things:

  1. Passion is about action. When I wrote that original essay, there were a lot of things I could have talked about. I could have talked about big issues, world events, or the importance of a legal education. My passion really shone through when I talked about action. What I did spoke far louder than anything I could have said. Taking on early roles as a community leader, mediator, researcher, and writer showed I already had a passion for doing what lawyers do–even if I didn’t really know what it was like to be a lawyer.
  2. Vulnerability is as important as strength. Law school admission essays can be awful to read. It can be very difficult to read someone else promote themselves. When all that’s presented is strength, we want to turn away because it’s not real.  After reading my essay, I thought the best part was my struggle (and eventual failure) to learn Japanese. Addressing failure helps us stay human. It helps us show our resiliency. And it makes us trustworthy. Nobody is perfect, and I’m glad I didn’t try to be.
  3. The only way to know “what you want to do next” is past experience. Ever heard someone complain that they’re not sure what they want to do for an education, a career, or a next move? That was me before I came to law school. I wasn’t sure if law was really for me, and my uncertainty comes through in my writing. The only information I was proceeding on was from past experiences. Not everyone has known what they want to do since they were born. I certainly didn’t. For most of us, “what to do next” comes from past experience. We need to constantly try new things to learn about ourselves to calibrate our compass for the way forward.
  4. Our most difficult moments define us and refine us. Strangely enough, I was encouraged to become a lawyer by my first tough experience in university. I had to find an apartment off-campus when all my friends were moving into residence; I had forgotten to hand in my housing forms on time. Two things happened after I moved into an apartment off-campus: (a) I became much more social and outgoing on campus. (b) I found out how to break my lease legally by researching the Residential Tenancies Act. That early experience could have made me give up. I could have stayed isolated off campus and stayed put. Instead, the experience forced me to grow.

After reading the essay, I was relieved to learn my motivations for going to law school hadn’t changed. I still want to use law to be a leader in my community.

If you’re in law school, I highly recommend you read your admission essay before you leave. It never hurts to re-calibrate your reasons for pursuing a long-term commitment. If you’re not in law school, but you’re thinking about committing to something or someone or somewhere for years, you should try writing a personal statement.

Leave a comment if you do read your admission essay. What does it say?

This Law Firm Recruiter Inspired Me to Be a Better Lawyer

Everybody has heroes growing up. By the time you’ve made it through formal education and made it into the working world, chances are you’ve had a few people help you get there. My story has been no different.

After reflecting on the journey, there are a few people I’d like to recognize as exceptional at what they do.  This is the first article in a series on people who inspired me to be a better lawyer before I graduated law school: Gail Wong, Director of Student Programs (Ontario) at McCarthy Tetrault LLP.

During law school most students reach out to at least one law firm recruiter. That means that every recruiter deals with thousands of messages, enquiries, and applications every year. Being a Regional Director of one of Canada’s largest law firms, I’m sure that was no less true for Gail Wong.

Gail first wowed me because she was able to remember my name and the events I had previously attended despite hosting, messaging, and meeting hundreds of candidates every month. Remembering names seems trivial, but it made Gail instantly stand out.

That personal approach extended to her email responsiveness and event attendance. Gail responded to email follow-ups very quickly. It was also remarkable that she showed up personally to most recruitment events. Before she knew whether we were VIP’s, her attendance in person sent a strong message that we were. As a future lawyer I plan to make my clients, colleagues and contacts feel important in the same way.

Meeting

Ultimately I failed to make it to the final interview stage at Gail’s firm, but afterwards she agreed to provide one-on-one feedback that left a lasting impression. Even though I was no longer a candidate, she took the time to give important (and honest) feedback that I needed to hear. That tough conversation helped me grow—and ultimately succeed—in my legal job search. It was also a great example where honest post-project feedback helped make a better result possible.

The ways we act send a message to others. Gail’s quick responses, memory for names, and front-line presence set an early example to me how to treat potential clients. Despite the recruitment process now being many months behind me, it goes to show that great impressions last. Thanks for the inspiration, Gail.

PS Do you have someone who inspired you to get where you are? If so, please let me know in the comments below. Any thoughts or stories are welcome.

Failure Should Be a Graduation Requirement

Every university and high-school student should be required to fail one course before graduating.

It’s easy to focus on achievement, and reward those who meet (or exceed) expectations of performance.  Our school system feeds its success obsession using standardized tests, pass rates, and college admissions as a measurement of its effectiveness.

The problem is that many of the highest achievers graduate without ever being challenged.  They never learn how to take risks and fail.

Failure Hitting the Ground

The pressure to have high pass rates have made it tough to actually fail in Ontario high schools.  I’m not saying we should celebrate the failure to show up to class, or failure from a total lack of effort.

Real failure is about trying your hardest, and still not making it.

If every student were challenged to that level, we’d have the opportunity to teach real life lessons.  How to ask for help.  How to come to terms with your weaknesses.  How to push on when you feel like giving up.

With admission averages to many competitive Ontario university programs continuing the “upward spiral” that began over a decade ago, it’s no wonder students are allergic to failure.

At my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, you only have a 40% chance of receiving an admission offer to civil, mechanical, or software engineering if your high-school grade point average (GPA) is between 85 and 90%.  If your GPA is between 91 and 95%, the probability of being admitted jumps to 85%.

I’m not an engineer, and frankly, I would have never been able to make into a program at Waterloo if I had applied.  Even with such high admission averages, Waterloo was failing an average of 20% of its first-year engineering classes.  This bothered people so much they suggested making changes to the first-year curriculum in 2010.

As a residence don for 1st year engineers at Waterloo, I witnessed first-hand what failure would do to some of those 18-year olds.  Adult responsibility for their own learning hit many of them like a truck.  Some reacted by doubling down and studying seriously for the first time in their lives.  Others escaped into virtual worlds online.

For those of us who overcame it, failure was the best lesson of our lives.  My first lesson with failure didn’t come until I took a Japanese course for credit, and was blown out of the water by classmates who had studied it as a second language in Hong Kong and China.  Failing test after test taught me how to push myself harder, to ask for help, and how to take responsibility for something marked with the letter “F.”

If every school required students to fail at least one course, it would make failing okay.  Students would be encouraged to take risks, and get seriously challenged without the risk of their average slipping to an unacceptable 89%.

To have the F count as course credit, the student should have to (1) reflect on why the failure happened, (2) make a plan to overcome it by using all the resources at their disposal, (3) develop a “plan B” if their first plan doesn’t work, (4) follow through with the plan, and (5) reflect on the experience.

What do you think?  Would this ever work?  Would this have enriched your overall experience in school, or should we wait until people graduate before they’re allowed to fail?

TEAMwork: Interdisciplinary Learning at its Finest

April 1st 2013 marks the end of my eight-month experience in the Technology Engineering And Management (TEAM) course at Queen’s University.

Every law school should have a course like TEAM.  It allows law students to work with engineering and management students, and trains legal minds to look for ways they can add value in real-world projects.

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What is TEAM?

TEAM is an interdisciplinary project course.  Senior students enrol in the course from chemical engineering, commerce, and law.  Each student begins the term by bidding on projects proposed by industry partners across Canada and the United States.

Students are matched to projects based on their interest and experience.  Teams of 3-5 students are formed for each project.  The TEAM class runs anywhere from 18 to 20 projects a year.

Former projects have included the retrofit of a manufacturing plant, innovative carbon capture processes, feasibility of a new oil pipeline upgrader design, geothermal energy production, and environmentally friendly oil sands worker housing.

How did TEAM start?

The TEAM course was designed by Barrie Jackson , an ex-Shell employee and Queen’s Adjunct Associate Professor, in 1995.  He realized that engineers never work in isolation, and should learn the business and legal side of their work.

TEAM’s great work continues thanks to the tireless efforts of Dave Mody, an Adjunct Lecturer and “Engineer in Residence” at the Chemical Engineering Faculty at Queen’s.  Dave meets with student teams weekly to guide and mentor student groups, and to share his 17 years of engineering and design process experience.

What was my experience like?

I was lucky to be matched with a fantastic client known in the energy industry worldwide.  Their head office in Canada is in Calgary, so our team was flown out to get briefed on our project in November 2012.  Next week, on April 2nd we’ll present our final presentation and report.

Our project is a concept design for an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable remote housing unit for resource development workers.  We had a few different personality types and learning styles on our team.  It was a great leadership experience.

Have you ever had an interdisciplinary project that inspired you, or taught you things you didn’t expect?  Post it in the comments.

The legal angle of my project was on the aboriginal consultation requirements, and the environmental-regulatory requirements for an energy development project.  The nature of the project touched many areas of law, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.