With Valentine’s Day around the corner, law students in love will be reminded of the challenges school throws at us and the concessions we make putting the mastery of reasonableness before relationships. The struggle is real and is evident to Osgoode’s student success and wellness counsellor.
“Breakups and relationship difficulty were a common reason students came in for counselling, probably a leading reason right after depression and anxiety,” says Melanie Banka Goela, who is spending a sabbatical year away from the counselling chair.
“I saw a couple of different scenarios, but the most common was a recent breakup or breakup of a long-term relationship that understandably was making it challenging to keep up with the demands of law school.”
Banka Goela says that most often her students needed to hear that the stress caused by a relationship on the rails that is straining their otherwise laser-beam academic focus is understandable. “Law students could benefit from hearing that relationships are to be valued and the loss of them is something we would expect them to grieve rather than sweep under the rug for the sake of productivity.”
Those are meaningful words often lost in the mad shuffle between lectures, pouring over casebooks, and keeping pace with classmates.
UNB 3Ls Geneva McSheffery and Tim McLaughlin have faced — and survived — the pressure-cooker environment of law school and its effects on their relationship. Married in October, the couple met in 2011 and spent most of their relationship before law school apart, given McSheffery’s schooling at UNB’s Fredericton campus and McLaughlin’s semester abroad during his philosophy undergrad at UNB followed by graduate school at the University of Toronto.
Of the distance between them in those early days, McSheffery says it strengthened the relationship. “It forced us to get to know each other on a more in-depth level,” McSheffery says, admitting that they didn’t have the luxury of spending mere casual time together.
Now in their third year sharing a home, the couple says attending law school together has been a perk. “In terms of us both being in law school together, I found it was beneficial,” McSheffery says. “I mean, law school is challenging, but the fact that we were both in law school at the same time, I didn’t think it was exceptionally challenging. And I think it probably helped us out a lot because we could bounce ideas off each other when we were cooking dinner.”
“Plus, it’s motivation because, if she’s working, I feel like I need to be working and I think vice versa,” McLaughlin adds. “So, it’s kind of motivating in that sense at least in terms of keeping each other on track.”
If Ludlow Hall was pretentious enough to have a power couple, McSheffery and McLaughlin would be it. Both are equal parts brainy and witty. McSheffery hauls in multiple scholarships annually, has worked as a research assistant with the faculty, and will be clerking at the New Brunswick Court of Appeal next year. McLaughlin is a recipient of the school’s illustrious Lord Beaverbook scholarship, an $18,000 renewable award. He summered and will article at McInnes Cooper in Saint John.
But looking beyond their impressive resumes, the couple says there have been highly stressful pressure points, particularly in the early days. “In the first year, there were some times,” McLaughlin admits, now laughing while looking back. “The first year is the hardest, I would say, just because there is a bigger adjustment. In second year, we kind of settled into a groove and got more relaxed.
“Be mindful of your own stress and of your partner’s stress,” he advises new law students in a relationship, revealing his first-hand experience. “So, if you’re very stressed out, it’s important to be aware of that and not take it out on people around you. At the same time, if you realize that your partner is stressed, don’t throw more coal into the fire.”
The scattering of articling positions across the province means challenges of geography will resurface for the couple. McSheffery will article in Fredericton while McLaughlin will be in Saint John.
“We’ve done the long-distance thing before and this isn’t, at least from an emotional standpoint, particularly onerous to me because we’ll probably be able to see each other most weekends,” McSheffery says. “The part that I have issues with in my head is just wrapping my head around how expensive it’s going to be, which again is just how it is for a year or so.”
It’s a concept with which Rachelle Philippe is all too familiar as she balances school with her roles as a long-distance wife, mother, and grandmother. The UNB 3L transplanted from Sudbury, Ont., to Fredericton, saying good-bye to her husband Gerry, three daughters, and seven grandchildren. Philippe and her husband have been married 26 years. “I was excited to be going to law school and terrified about leaving my family,” she says of the sacrifice.
The decision to attend law school across the country involved family-wide consultation. “Not only did Gerry and I speak about what the long distance would do for us, we also had discussions as a family and how this would impact everyone,” she says. “I talk with my daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren often throughout the week. I don’t think being away for this long would have been possible without the technology we have today.”
Being so far from her support circle has tested Philippe. “I have always been a person who has functioned on my own, but this experience showed me that I do need some interaction, even if it was only someone walking past my [library study] carrel and having a quiet chat before hitting the books again,” she says.
Meanwhile, back home, Gerry spends so much time with their eldest daughter’s family that it provokes an unexpected question when Philippe returns to visit. “Our grandchildren, Kayleigh and Kody, have become so accustomed to him being there that when I go home during breaks they ask when I am leaving because they look forward to him going back to live with them while I am gone,” she says. “It’s a joke that they are going to go through withdrawal when I graduate and am home full time.”
Over time, the separation has become easier. “Gerry and I talk every day and text constantly,” Philippe says. “In 2L, I went home monthly. In the first semester of 3L, I also went home monthly. But this semester I will go home on reading week, so once and then be home mid-April.”
“We have made one promise to each other though,” Philippe concludes. “That this is the last time we will do a long-distance thing. Our relationship has always been one where if it would make the other happy then we’d make it work together. And we’ve decided that we will never be separated like this again in our lifetime.”