Law Schools, LLMs

Law School Ethicist: Just Because You Are Breaking Exam Rules, Are You Cheating?

Usually, law school finals do not produce great moral dilemmas. Most of them are open book, so you are allowed to use any information you can get your hands on. And since the whole thing is graded on a curve, “cheating” in the sense of copying from somebody else doesn’t really get you anywhere. You can use any means, fair or unfair, to get ahead.

But today we have an interesting question coming out of final exams at a top law school. A student observed another student breaking the rules of the exam. The other student was clearly breaking the letter of the law of the exam administration. But was the other student really cheating?

Our tipster didn’t report the offense, and I think that was the right call. But what would you have done?

Here’s the set-up, from a final exam administered at NYU Law School:

This morning, I was in the final exam for [redacted] at NYU Law. Electronic devices, except for calculators, were forbidden. I saw a person whom I presume to be a foreign LLM candidate (because English was clearly her second language) using a “quicktionary” to decipher words on the exam…

On one level, I saw cheating take place. But I think the interesting angle for Above the Law is: is this really important cheating? Or is this de minimis cheating not worthy of being mentioned? Or is it leveling the playing field between foreign LLM candidates and JD candidates?

The comment threads on Above the Law and Top Law Schools could be filled with nothing but able-bodied American law students bitching and moaning about special dispensations given to disabled or foreign test takers. Law school is kind of a zero-sum game when it comes to grades, and one man’s “level playing field” is another man’s “unfair advantage.”

This seems to be a pretty clear-cut case where the behavior wasn’t just unfair, it was also unauthorized. The allegedly foreign student clearly violated the rules of the exam. And really, she took a huge risk by openly violating the administrative procedures. Even if all she was doing was using Quicktionary — hell, especially if all she was doing was using Quicktionary — she risked getting kicked out of school for some basic translations. Welcome to another would-be lawyer who can’t make credible risk/reward decisions. It would have been fair if our tipster had pointed at her and made the Invasion of the Body Snatchers voice.

And yet… it is de minimis. Whatever language barrier the cheater has isn’t going to be overcome by a freaking smart pen. I’ve said this before, but if a law school exam is well-written it should be fairly immune to cheating. Law schools should be testing how you think, not your rote recollection of minutiae. In the real world, this student is going to have translations available. Hell, her multiple language skills might serve her really well when it comes to generating business. [Cue Al Pacino voice]: Let her continue on her journey. You hold this girl’s future in your hands, tipsters. It’s a valuable future. Believe me. Don’t destroy it. Protect it. Embrace it. It’s gonna make you proud one day, I promise you.

And for the more vindictive among you, don’t worry, the BAR EXAM is just a test of rote memorization of minutiae. Try pulling out an unauthorized device at the Javits Center and then try to take your exam while losing your wanted level.

(hidden for your protection)

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