Pretty much every organization that serves the public and sees itself as having a mandate to educate is starving for new content, and if not new content then new content providers. Libraries, drop-in and community centres and social service groups usually welcome anyone prepared to provide a seminar and, best of all, they’ll do the advertising for you.
Providing public lectures, seminars and workshops is an easy and fun way (I was going to say something more bookish like “stimulating” here, but it really is fun) to improve access to justice that will take a minimum amount of time out of your day. Although the community organizations you’re working with may have preferences as to the topic of your talk, they will rarely have any other requests or requirements, which leaves the design and format of your talk entirely up to you. Want to run your talk as a group discussion? Go for it. Want handouts? Have handouts. Prefer to just lecture? Lecture.
The range of things you could talk about is unlimited and could include:
- an introduction to legal disputes and the means by which they are resolved;
- starting and defending a claim in court;
- landlord-tenant law, including dealing with roommates and subleases;
- basic criminal law, including citizens’ rights and obligations when interacting with public and private security services;
- family law, including the entitlements of new partners and extended family members like grandparents;
- making a will and the basics of the probate process;
- immigration, including the obligations of sponsorship and what happens when a family relationships break down in the immigration process; or,
- the importance of the rule of law in a civil democratic society.
The potential formats for your talk include:
- a standard classroom-type lecture, in which the seats are aligned in rows facing you (this lets you maintain maximum control over the flow of your talk and discourages interruptions);
- an interactive seminar format, where the seats are arranged in a circle so that everyone can see everyone else (this really encourages group discussion);
- a small-group workshop format, where your audience is seated at small tables (this encourages smaller conversations at each table and lets you assign group exercises); and,
- a completely unstructured format, with no pre-established seating arrangement and perhaps no chairs or tables at all (this discourages perceptions of formality and encourages a free-flowing conversational approach).
Really, common sense is the only limit when it comes to how you design and manage your talk. The same principle applies to the range of the community groups you might speak to; for me, this has included immigrant settlement groups, public school teachers, my local libraries, battered women’s groups, law librarians, financial advisors, family and youth support groups, family justice counsellors, LGBTTQ groups and so on.
Some groups, like the Battered Women’s Services Society in Vancouver, have taken the idea of the public lecture to the next level and organized a repeating series of lectures on subjects relevant to their target population. If I recall correctly, BWSS runs its lecture series twice a year and the fourteen or so sessions are run by lawyers who write their names on a sign-up sheet. Each lecture is run on the seminar format, with the women seated in chairs around the perimeter of the room and lawyer at the front with a flip chart and a handful of markers. Topics include legal resources for battered women, an introduction to family law, starting a law suit, service, interim applications, trial processes, varying orders and so forth. Some of the volunteer lawyers provided handouts for BWSS to distribute; here are screenshots of a few of mine:
It won’t take much by way of creative effort to come up with a program of lectures similar to what BWSS has put together; if you’re working with a reputable group, your most significant challenge will not be recruiting lawyers to volunteer but securing a space that’s available for the dates you have in mind. On the subject of recruiting lawyers, in 2011 I was trying to sell the British Columbia Provincial Court on an early education intervention pilot project which would, among other things, require lawyers to provide biweekly talks on family law subjects and court processes. After spending only a half day on the phone, I found enough lawyers willing to donate three hours of their time that the lawyers would only have to volunteer twice per year!
I have always enjoyed giving talks to the public. (BWSS is a great organization to work with, by the way.) It is a very different experience than giving a continuing legal education presentation to lawyers or judges; the people you speak to always ask interesting questions and aren’t worried about whether their questions are good or bad, they’re genuinely interested in learning about the topic you are presenting on and are grateful to have had your time. Public talks also have the side benefits of humanizing lawyers for a sometimes skeptical population and enriching our involvement with the community.
If you decide to tackle this sort of project, which I do heartily recommend, here are some tips and suggestions.
1. Book the date for your talk well ahead of time. This will give the community group as much time as possible to advertise your talk, which might appear in newsletters and calendars, or be posted on a website.
2. Plan your talk with the needs and interests of the demographic group you will be talking to in mind. You want to keep your audience engaged, not bore them gormless.
3. Talk with the community group about the format you plan for your talk and room set-up, and whether you have any special needs such as white- or blackboards, flip charts, overhead projectors and the like. Be aware that even basic presentation aids may not be available; I bought my whiteboard, markers and easel at Staples.
4. Dress casually for your talk; don’t be a stiff in a suit.
5. Always use plain language, and be sensitive to the language skills of your audience. Think about how you will explain difficult legal concepts; in my experience, analogy and metaphor are extraordinarily useful tools.
6. Always explain that the information you are providing is general information and not a substitute for proper legal advice, and that you are not giving legal advice. Make sure you have a list of pro bono legal clinics, legal aid offices and other resources to provide to your audience.
7. Bring handouts. People like them, it gives them something to take notes on, and it gives them something to take away to remember your talk. Talk with the community group ahead of time about whether they may keep and distribute copies of your handouts.
8. Decide in advance how you will handle questions. Remember that you can provide legal information without providing legal advice, but you do need to be careful about how you frame your comments.
Finally, you should also decide whether you wish to use your talk for promotional purposes. This is your choice, of course, but my policy has always been to begin my talks by explaining that although I will provide my contact information if they wish, I will not be accepting clients from the talk. When people asked why, I explained that I simply preferred to keep the work I did for profit separate from the work I did for my community for free.
John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. The Institute is a federally-incorporated charity established in 1987 and is affiliated with the University of Calgary.