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Law students at the University of Toronto have been hit with one-year suspensions and notations on their official transcripts for inflating marks from practice exams when they made summer-job applications to corporate law firms.

Thirty students, nearly one-fifth of the law school's first-year class, have admitted misrepresenting their December midterm grades. Law faculty Dean Ron Daniels imposed the penalties on eight of them yesterday. The rest will be dealt with by May 10.

The ruling could delay by three years some students' getting jobs in the profession. It also will expose them as cheats to faculty and fellow students because they'll disappear from law school for a year.

Lawyer Clayton Ruby, representing 17 of the students, acknowledged their wrongdoing but called the dean's punishment harsh and cruel. "He could have been far more creative, and sentenced them to pro bono legal services for the summer as a means of compensation for the community."

The affair has created considerable debate in Toronto legal circles. Both practising and academic lawyers have said the incident results from systemic problems at the law school. "We've suddenly got 30 bad apples. It doesn't happen that way," said one U of T law professor who asked not to be identified. "There's an explanation for this that goes way beyond 30 people."

The exams were understood by faculty and students to be helpful assessments, rather than progress benchmarks, of how students were grasping the principles of law four months after entering law school. The results were not designed to become part of their permanent record. The law school's academic handbook refers to them as "fail-safe tests."

Professor Jim Phillips said normal grading rules did not apply and the December exams tended to be marked lower. "We were trying to show them where they are."

Late last year, after being told that corporate law firms were putting pressure on the school to show them the December exam results, the law school's faculty council voted unanimously against the marks being made officially available to prospective employers. Competition for corporate law-firm summer jobs is intense. "Once you get one," one of the 30 students said, "you're considered set."

But when Bay Street law firms sent recruiters to the university in January and told students they would not be considered for summer employment unless they submitted December marks, the dean and his faculty apparently made no protest. One of the students disciplined said yesterday that Dean Daniels himself asked for December marks when recruiting a student for a summer research job.

The law school issued no transcripts of the December marks. Students said they were told by law school administration personnel simply to write their marks on a piece of paper and submit them with their job applications.

Two of the 30 students said they were told by an official in the dean's office that if they misrepresented their December marks the law school would never verify them. Dean Daniels, for reasons the university has not explained, recommended that those two students face a formal disciplinary hearing in front of the university provost. A formal hearing can result in expulsion.

There will be no comment from the dean until all students have been dealt with, university spokeswoman Susan Block said.

The students given their punishment yesterday were stunned and angered by its severity, although they readily admitted they'd made a big and inexcusable mistake.

One, who cried after meeting with the dean, said she probably would leave law forever. "I've never done anything like this in my life," she said. She had entered law from graduate school with an exemplary record. "You'll be a second-class student when you come back" from the year's suspension.

Another said of the dean: "He's really killed us." The year's suspension, he said, would trigger the requirement that he start repaying his student loan, and the transcript notation would delay by two years his getting a job, for a total delay of three years.

Applications for articling -- the apprenticeship year with law firms after graduation -- are normally made at the end of second year. However, the transcript notation would remain in place until three months after graduation, which normally occurs at the end of third year. Add in the suspension year and it means punished students cannot apply for articling with a clean transcript until five years after entering law school.

A third student said the sentence was what he expected. He said he would do some useful work and fit in some travel for the year. "I'll be damned if I'm going to let the dean screw up a year for me." What he had learned from "watching the dean and his corporate law friends," he said, is that he did not want to be a corporate lawyer.

One of the two students ordered to appear before the university provost, said she cries constantly, has lost weight, suffered sleep disorder and has been seeing a psychotherapist.

She said she had studied hard for the December exams but -- believing in the "fail-safe" rubric -- she had tried to be experimental in her exam answers. She got a bad mark in torts. Until the corporate law firms declared they wouldn't offer summer jobs to anyone who didn't submit their December marks, "I didn't realize [the exams]were going to determine my future in this way." She added: "I want to make clear what I did was wrong. It does not excuse my behaviour."

The 24-year-old student said she has wanted to be a lawyer since she was 4. "It's so hard. I expect so much of myself."

First-year student Jill Evans, who did not apply for a Bay Street job, circulated a petition among her classmates asking the dean not to impose harsh punishment. The 30 students who misrepresented their grades were asked not to sign. Eighty of the remaining 140 students did. "I circulated it to let them [the 30]know they had our support and weren't alone," Ms. Evans said. The school's faculty council is looking for a better way to deal with the December exams.