The final flight

Seated on my return flight from Fredericton to Toronto, I thumb through my freshly printed yearbook. Chronicling the adventures of the 2015-16 academic year, the pages evoke nostalgia.

Hours earlier, I crossed the stage at graduation, firmly shook University of New Brunswick president Eddy Campbell’s hand and received my law degree from Faculty of Law dean John Williamson. The degree is now tucked above me in the overhead bin. That I am now a law school alumnus is sinking in, slowed by a near-impermeable top layer of disbelief. It’s the final flight from a place I called home for three years.

Four years ago, I was studying for the LSAT after work and on weekends, aspiring to shift my career as I approached midlife. Months later, I was at a crossroads: Accept UNB’s offer of admissions to its law school or pursue other options. Doubts surfaced.

Would an east-coast education dovetail with my ambitions to practise in Ontario? Would my Upper Canadian heritage make me a black sheep among Atlantic Canadians? Would a three-year transplant to the Maritimes irreparably damage my precious friendships in Toronto?

Earnest as my research was, I ultimately took a leap of faith back in the spring of 2013, accepted the offer, and joined the “Class of 2016.” Upon reflection over the past few weeks, I am gratified I made the decision.

I don’t propose to compare UNB’s law school to others, though it seems to me that “Canada’s great small law school” is often undeservedly overlooked in favour of law schools to the west. Operating in the shadows of these heavyweights, other law schools may also deserve a second take. I appreciate today that but for the University of New Brunswick I would not feel the sense of satisfaction and confidence that smoulder as I prepare to enter the legal profession. Much credit goes to my professors and peers at Ludlow Hall.

On the first day of classes in 1L, my foundations of law professor, Dr. Bell, introduced himself to the class as the Virgil to our Dante, navigating us through the fiery hell of the first couple of weeks of law school.

In hindsight, I am not certain if the alarming metaphor was referring to the subject matter or the institution or perhaps even a combination of both. With each subsequent course, my professors and instructors helped to navigate our way through the murky waters of the law like a trusted compass.

At UNB, without the aid of teaching assistants, professors, and practising instructors exclusively teach, evaluate, and frequently meet with students outside of class.

Many made learning the law less of a grind in their own unique way. Professor Howard Kislowicz, equally humorous as he is smart, offers to slow down his engaging lecture during administrative law at first sight of any student with “roller coaster face.”  Professor Anne La Forest induces goosebumps among students, or at least this one, with tales of her years in practice. Dennis Klinck can help make sense of even the most complicated evidentiary principle by re-approaching it to benefit a perplexed student. And professor Hilary Young makes class feel like a conversation with her back-and-forth lecturing style.

A small law school with comparatively lower tuition inevitably means comparatively fewer resources and UNB law’s non-teaching staff complement is lean. However, by my observation and experience, they collectively punch well beyond their weight.
Sleuthing librarians help to locate that needle in a haystack case critical to your argument and the career services team helps each student to land the job with plenty of pep talks along the challenging way.

When I arrived on UNB’s campus in the fall of 2013, I knew no one. Correction: I knew the spirited and articulate admissions officer, Wanda Foster. Perhaps it’s the east-coast community-minded spirit, the natural huddle response to the pressure of law school, or the admissions committee’s iron-clad filtering methods that screen out jerks, but the friendliness of UNB students was quickly apparent.

In 1L, upper-year students were at the ready to help, listen, or just flip over their CANS. On the first day of school, I still recall the advice from then Law Student Society president, Will Russell.

“Your classmates are your colleagues, not your competition,” he said. “When you leave here, these will be your best references. These will be the people you rely on when you have problems and when you find work. Be generous. Be courteous. Be kind.”

By and large, we were. And we paid it forward. All this despite the harsh fact that, at the end of the day, we are competing for a limited number of those coveted grades above the average.

This precious sense of community also withstood some solid challenges. Last year, the UNB Faculty of Law was under the spotlight and shrouded in controversy after the new dean and several professors took leaves of absence.

Amid the tension, students did our best to go about our business and got a preview of the tumultuous conditions in which our future clients are likely to find themselves, desperate for our help. Did we disagree? Sure. Did we argue? You bet. But we began practising the new skills of zealous advocacy and active listening taught in classrooms and documented in casebooks.

The experience helped to strengthen our fortitude and our bond.

Getting through law school wasn’t just due to professors, study groups, and intellect. As I learned, my partner, family, and friends were an antidote to the toll that law school’s “act like everything is normal” standard took.

A law student’s loved ones are the shoulder to lean on as we face the pressures of rapid lectures, a multitude of reading, evaluation by ranking, and the paranoia they collectively foster. And we leaned hard.

Loved ones own a piece of the parchment of a student’s Juris Doctor. Though they didn’t attend school with us, families, spouses, and friends are an important chapter in the story of our law school experience.

As my plane descends towards Pearson Airport, a brilliant pink sunset slices across the horizon. Applying the old sailor’s phrase “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight,” I am optimistic of what the future holds.

In my final Ab Initio column, I wish to thank my peers who inspired my columns, my subjects who gave perspective, my editors, Gail Cohen and Jennifer Brown, who gave my words sparkle, and my readers who provided motivation.

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