By Chilli Pepper
Foreword from the anonymous contributor
When I wrote the ‘Law Files’ article, I couldn’t have imagined the response it’d receive from the ANU community. Both the negative and positive outcry have highlighted the strong divide on this topic - a topic which, at the time, felt relatively uncontroversial.
I’d like to quickly caveat some of the loudest criticisms of the article. Through no fault except my own, the ‘Law Files’ were conceptualised as a single repository, a holy grail of notes handed down from cohort to cohort. This was not my intention. It was a catchy title designed to describe a behavior by groups of students. I also have no personal issue with friends sharing notes between themselves (while acknowledging this can still be considered academic misconduct). The reality is most university students will do this at some point in time. Who hasn’t? University is hard. My issue was never with that aspect of sharing notes, but its perpetuation on what was allegedly a significant scale between hall students.
I also want to restate that socioeconomic standing will influence many aspects of the university experience and your quality of education. But it’s also something unique to each individual. Poor people can go to expensive colleges. Rich people can struggle at university. It’s not black and white. However, I want to make clear that high socioeconomic standing will benefit you as a university student in some way or another. The ‘Law Files’ represented to me a good way to articulate that advantage, which is why I chose to write about them.
While being called a loser on ANU Confessions wasn’t how I could have imagined writing this article would go, I was privileged to get to see a diverse and raw response to this issue. However, while the original article currently has almost 3000 views, it will not alone tell us how people feel.
With that in mind, Peppercorn has decided to delve deeper into the fallout from the ‘Law Files’ exposé, the possibilities of what the ‘Law Files’ are, and the response from the ANU community. We’ll then address questions which arose during this process, and conclude on where to go from here.
What are the ‘Law Files’?
From what we have gathered to-date, there is no direct evidence of a systematically managed, central database of ‘Law Files’ – class notes, subject summaries, exams, exemplar responses – that currently exists for each college (the ‘repository version’). An anonymous source provided us with a candid account of how file-sharing works at colleges, which does not align with the repository version of the ‘Law Files’.
According to our anonymous source, the ‘Law Files’ are more accurately described as a file-sharing arrangement between law students within study groups that may be limited to a particular college or even extend into different colleges (the ‘file-sharing version’). This likely occurs because of the limited group of students in each college undertaking law, so it is more about sourcing information and studying collaboratively in smaller subgroups or study groups in libraries, residential common rooms, etc. This file-sharing version of the ‘Law Files’ is then limited to that particular study group, rather than accessible to the entire college.
The source noted the repository version may exist for some students or groups of students (or may have existed in the past), but this more sophisticated method of studying or collaborating is completely determined by how organised a particular person in the study group is. There were ANU Confessions that flagged the existence of these repositories for a club at ANU, as well as from other colleges. These claims ranged from comprehensive notes on all compulsory courses from previous years, to cohorts which share notes between themselves, similar to how our source described. However, no one has come forward to confirm this version with us.
The source reinforced that this file-sharing version of the ‘Law Files’ is unlikely to be limited to colleges. Think of the ANU students from Canberra who went to high school together and then into the same classes - this file-sharing practice would also likely be continued by them and their study groups.
The source explained that college residents are often quite ‘driven/competitive and therefore selective with who they share notes with’. This reinforces the idea that a student-managed database is unlikely to be managed as a free-for-all, but rather for the select few who buy-in (or are invited in) to that study group. It also demonstrates an awareness of the advantage this resource creates, as it is restricted to a select few.
ANU Confessions response
The response on ANU Confessions (a good source for anonymous ANU student views) was mixed before a 5-day cool down was made due to the large volume of posts, with five general views or a mixture of these views.
1. The ‘cheating’ view
This view believes any sort of sharing of notes is cheating or academic misconduct.
2. The ‘fairness’ view
This view believes sharing of notes is not cheating, but rather unfair in this context because it privileges those in colleges with access to the ‘Law Files’ and would be more equal if everyone could access them.
Our anonymous source noted that ‘people are rightfully frustrated but unfortunately college residents having an upper hand because of networking/connections just isn’t [a] ground-breaking [perspective]... it’s not just law notes, it’s having the environment where there’s academic support and people to reach out to regardless of your degree... it’s sometimes a large part of why people choose to attend in the first place’. They added that ‘what does exist is the exclusivity and privilege of colleges in general, and [the] hype around the ‘Law Files’ is sort of a hyperbolic extension of that’.
3. The ‘realism’ view
This view believes the ‘Law Files’ is normal, real-world practice for law students because it is just note sharing and is fair game because this is what the legal profession does.
4. The ‘drama’ view
This view is just in it for the solid ANU drama.
5. The ‘IDC’ view
This view is completely ambivalent and does not care.
Aren’t there other academic perks at university beyond file-sharing?
As our anonymous source mentioned, a perk of being at college is the academic environment and support that you are given. An example is the academic teams that are built up at colleges, with some college students receiving scholarships in return for being available to help students with their academics. This basically means you have a paid, on-call academic advisor ready to help answer yours and your study group’s questions at some colleges… mind boggling.
Outside of colleges, there is Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) at the ANU College of Law, where older students give younger students a masterclass in how to do well at university. This replicates that learned, passing down of knowledge that occurs at colleges, only in a more formulaic and institutionalised way. However, PAL uses approved resources and not inherited notes and answers from older students, so it is not quite the access to model answers as the file-sharing version of the ‘Law Files’.
How is this different from other subjects beyond law?
There have been questions asked as to whether the ‘Law Files’ can be distinguished from file-sharing arrangements for other subjects. For example, STEM subjects often have rational, objectively right or wrong answers, so it incentivises students to collate, share and distribute notes and problem questions and model answers.
It makes sense that file-sharing amongst STEM students or ‘STEM Files’ also exist. Similar to STEM (remove the mathematics), law is also based around problem questions using the HIRAC method (Heading, Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion). Learning from model responses is crucial to understanding how to get a higher mark for both STEM and law, so there is an incentive to collect and use model or exemplar responses. Other colleges, such as the College of Arts and Social Sciences, will mostly examine their students using essays. As most essays will be individual, and reward students for unique responses, a collated set of notes would not likely benefit students to the same extent as STEM and law.
Law notes constitute a significant part of a law student’s resources during examinations. For law students, their exams will usually constitute a hypothetical legal scenario upon which they are expected to advise a party to the case. Unlike in CASS, in law there will often be a correct rule and a correct application. Law students need to analogise with the facts of previous cases discussed in the lectures/tutorials, as well as employ examples of judgments and reasoning from those cases to support their arguments. In some instances, those cases will contain legal tests which may need to be applied. It is often the case that these facts, reasonings and tests are not clearly provided to the students, and must be obtained through completing readings. Completed course notes ensure students do not miss any of these resources, and do not have to complete prescribed readings and lectures - being the majority of the coursework expected of students.
Do I need to do everything on my own at uni?
You are not alone at uni. You are surrounded by like-minded students with similar courses and even similar problems. Working together in study groups to figure out course content is not academic misconduct, but doing assignments, quizzes, etc. together is.
You do not need to go through university completely alone, asking for and receiving academic support should not be stigmatised. Where it becomes grey is the level of support available for some and not others, which does create inequities. This includes those who are privileged with an easier ride through university and those who are not, who have spare time to join extracurriculars, societies and internships and who do not.
If you are after some like-minded course companions to study with, have a look on ANU Schmidtposting at the start of each semester where people post about creating group chats for courses with opportunities for study groups (or you could do the callout yourself).
ANU College of Law
The ANU College of Law's Associate Dean (Education) has provided the following statement:
"The law school has advice about using other people’s summaries here: https://law.anu.edu.au/academic-integrity-misconduct
As noted in that advice, there are numerous problems with sharing summaries or using other people’s summaries. Some of these problems involve potential academic misconduct.
If the law school discovers that students have copied wording from summaries not their own into exam answers, we take action under University policies and procedures. A number of students have been subject to academic integrity investigations because they have copied material from someone else’s summary into their exam answers. Some of these students have been found guilty of poor academic practice. Some have been found guilty of academic misconduct. Students are reminded of the consequences this may have when they apply for admission to practice.
Perhaps more importantly, students should consider the ethical implications of their behaviour. What sort of a law student (or lawyer) do you want to be? One who cuts corners and uses the work of others to gain a personal advantage? Or one who thoroughly researches and understands the law, and can apply it to give advice about a dispute. It’s your choice."
ANU Law Students’ Society (LSS)
The ANU LSS have provided the following statement:
"The LSS recognises there are equity issues with certain groups on campus having access to resources, whilst others do not. While the LSS has been working with the ANU College of Law to update its exam resource database, there are further steps the LSS can take to advocate for open and accessible resources for all law students. The LSS will not be speaking for the incoming Executive for 2024, but agree that a resource akin to the Model Law Files is a reasonable initiative to advocate for and collaborate with the ANU College of Law on establishing, subject to the College's consent & co-operation."
A ‘Model Law Files’?
The file-sharing version of the ‘Law Files’ is a reality. It is debatable whether the repository version of the ‘Law Files’ exists. Since law students are actively engaging in this practice, and have been for a long time, a large portion of the criticism is about unequal access to resources. It is apparent the debate of whether it constitutes academic misconduct is inconsequential to its practice.
There is a culture in many compulsory law courses of lecturers not providing adequate notes to students. They will not provide the full answer or citation, and will paraphrase the law on the lecture slides to catch students out, which is intended to incentivise students to do the readings. This means students with access to the ‘Law Files’ save hours (and have more time to live a healthy life and do extracurriculars), compared with students who need to fill in the blanks (who may not). These lecturers seek to punish students who take shortcuts in their learning, but in reality it only punishes students without the systemic advantage of the ‘Law Files’.
Compulsory law lecturers exist to teach us what the law is and to teach us how to approach the assessments, whether that is a multiple choice quiz, a research essay, or a problem question, so that students can be admitted to practise the law. Some compulsory law lecturers do try their best to give students as much as possible in order to at least pass the course and know how to approach the assessments. The goal should not be to fail students or punish them, it should be to teach students the law.
When some lecturers take this punitive approach to teaching, they misunderstand the pressures on most students. Everyone has a life outside of university, some are working in order to be here. Putting in these invisible barriers only perpetuates the disadvantage experienced by students without access to the ‘Law Files’, rather than punishing those who are taking short-cuts like those collecting, using and distributing the ‘Law Files’.
The answer to this cultural practice should be for the ANU LSS to create a ‘Model Law Files’, available to all ANU law students. This should be subject to the consent of lecturers (likely those who we all know are interested in the success of students, rather than their failure) and/or the ANU College of Law, as well as an agreement from anyone using them to not copy these notes for any assessment and to use them for limited purposes (e.g., for study). This will aim at addressing unequal access to resources like the ‘Law Files’ and to combat these invisible barriers placed on law students.
The ‘Law Files’ exist for a reason. There are distinct benefits to collecting, using and distributing model answers and notes. Law is an academically rigorous field that is highly social and involves a lot of applied learning, with legal practice being something you can only learn in practice (hence the name) with real people and real facts. Pretending like the ‘Law Files’ do not and should not exist is not the right way to go. The best response will be to make an accessible, model version that is not limited to college students - the ‘Model Law Files’.
We hope this provides some closure on the fallout to the ‘Law Files’, for those who think it is right, for those who think it is wrong, for those in it for the drama, and for those who could not care less.