Learning to Teach or Teaching to Learn?

Picture of teacher in a class

Mensa celebrates life-long learning. I’ve recently had to think about learning, simply because I have been called upon to teach. 

I have a student-at-law articled to me for a year, with three months left to go. This young man has graduated from law school and has passed his bar course. The rest is up to me. All I have to do is spend a year teaching him to be a lawyer. Easy peasy, right?

Just as soon as I figure out how to cram 33 years of law practice experience into a year and distill it all into a set of lessons, I’ll be all set.

Some parts of the teaching job are not that hard. Drafting, client interviewing, cross-examination, research – all of these are teachable and learnable skills, and progress can be measured consistently. Over the last few months, my student’s writing has been returned with less red ink and the positive feedback from clients is building. Even these measurable skills take some thought and planning, though. People learn in different ways. Personally, I learn everything the hard way. No textbooks, videos, or online assignments work for me; only experience teaches me anything in a lasting way.

I’ve been an online course facilitator for the Alberta Bar Admission course on and off for about 15 years. I’ve marked a heck of a lot of student assignments. I’ve seen some students pass in a so-so assignment, get written feedback, then integrate every bit of that feedback seamlessly into the next – very impressive – assignment. Obviously that method of learning works for some people. I also teach a portion of the Newfoundland and Labrador Bar Admission Course, which does not have an online component but involves students attending seven hours of lectures every day for seven weeks. Oh, with a few half-day exams thrown in to keep them on their toes. That method works well for some people and less so for others. I suppose every method has its pros and cons.

Other parts of this teaching-a-twenty-something-to-practice-law gig are really tough. Some topics have no textbook or outline, such as ethics, integrity, professionalism, self-confidence, resilience, tenacity, and resourcefulness. How am I supposed to teach these things? There’s no operator’s manual for this stuff.

To figure this out, I looked back at how I learned the attitudes and habits that helped shape me into a lawyer. I had some excellent mentors along the way who modelled the future for me by their own behaviour. I watched their approaches and evaluated the results. Of course I had plenty of opportunities to observe the wrong way to do things, too. I had to trust that I had at least some measure of common sense and intelligence, as well as the courage to walk away from shady practices.

I’ve made my journey sound pretty organized and focused, but I’ve made as many mistakes as the next person. Maybe more, if you really want to count. If you have friends who are lawyers, take them out for a beer sometime and ask them about their most embarrassing moments. You’ll hear stories of showing up in the wrong courtroom or forgetting that your client is in jail or being yelled at by a judge. I’ve got my stories (and no, you won’t see them in this blog. Ever. All I can say about that is a good sense of humour is essential to the job.) That’s part of the learning experience, so maybe it’s part of the teaching experience, too.

In a way, I think teaching my student is a lot like being a parent. You figure out what kind of person you want to raise and you show them through your own actions how that kind of person lives and works. That’s the approach that I’m taking, anyway.

Picture of teacher in a class

3 Responses

  1. Lynne

    Raising the Bar so to speak…

    What you write about applies to so many professions.

    I like your style and how you elevate your profession and the people in it. Your young student is fortunate to have you as a teacher/mentor.

    Integrity. I know you can’t teach intregrity, but being surrounded by it has a way of rubbing off onto others.


  2. Hi Webeye,
    I completely agree that integrity rubs off on other people, and so does its opposite. Society has interesting ideas about lawyers and what we do and who we are. I have been approached several times over the years by individuals who want me to help carry out transactions that range from questionable to downright shady. I’m sure most lawyers have been approached this way. I feel as though I have to teach my student (and the other young people who work here) how to stand up for their personal integrity in a professional manner.

  3. Hello: This is a cognitive glue stick of applications. Being in Ontario in the GTA, the lawyers here may be very different in gestault than those in places of less than 1000 – 2000 souls. Inviting a lawyer in the GTA out for a beer in time of vicious Wuhan virus may be as dated as getting in a quick chat with a lawyer at the next barn raising. What can you teach and how when disruptive philosophies are sweeping in from over the border, and you see GTA lawyers drowning in the cognitive opiods from foreign jurisdictions?
    Estate law is a particular dark matter reality in law. See July 22, 2020: When is a disruption minor or major concerning interim distributions. How does one agree to a needed property sale and get a legal pre-committment to an interim distribution, especially from agitated siblings. You know that such siblings will or must find issues and/or a fuss spot. So, where do I find an experienced estate stick handler as an accessible handler. Other than at the highest hourly rates in the Dominion. Clues and tips are welcome. Perhaps someone has a GTA “tipsheet” to handicap the GTA legal runners? Thank you…

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