As I wrapped up my last class at Robson Hall last week, I remarked to that whip-smart group of 1Ls that I hoped they had learned at least half as much in their two terms of Legal Methods as I did in the teaching of the course. This was my first experience teaching in a law school setting and looking back, I know for certain that I learned more than I likely imparted.
You may recall that last fall, my stated intention as I went back to law school as a sessional instructor was to keep a record of my experience through this blog. If you’re a keen reader of Slaw, you may even have noted it’s been rather a long while since I last posted on this topic or any other. I could make excuses, but suffice to say that the experience was much more time and energy consuming than I expected, leaving little by way of “free time” for blogging.
In this post, I want to share a little of what I learned while teaching a keen group of first-year law students about legal research, writing and advocacy. While I did learn more about those subjects, the lessons that will stick with me are more about the future of law and the legal profession.
Lesson #1: Don’t judge a book by its cover. While at first glance, first-year law students appeared relatively homogenous, a closer look revealed an incredible variety of backgrounds and experiences. Over time, I learned from their comments and questions, assignments and worries that they brought a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, hopes and dreams into law school. Some had prior careers and were returning as mature students to the academic life, while others were fresh from their undergraduate work. Some were coming from “legal families” while others had no prior experience with lawyers. The sea of sameness I saw at the beginning of the year soon evaporated into a field of uniquely interesting individuals.
Lesson #2: Don’t believe everything you read about Millennials. Quite a number of my students were not born when I was in law school and are within the much-maligned cohort of the Millennials. Yet, I didn’t see much evidence, if any, of the negative traits most often referenced in articles about the enormous challenge of managing this generation. I noted that my students were kind, caring and considerate of one another. They showed me that they are hardworking and self-motivated. One might argue that the typical law student is the exception to the rule, but there is no typical law student (see Lesson #1.)
Lesson #3: Real life stories are a bonus. The required curriculum for Legal Methods covered a lot of ground, some of it more than a little dry and dusty. That, plus the fact it is a Pass/Fail course sometimes made it challenging to engage the interest of students in the lecture topics. But I noted that engagement was never an issue when they were hearing stories of the realities of law practice, whether from my own personal archives or those of guest lecturers. I heard from students over and over again how much they appreciated hearing the tales of lawyers who had been in practice. I remember feeling the same when I was in law school. I hope that whatever lies ahead, law schools will continue to draw on the expertise and experience of practising lawyers for this very reason.
Lesson #4: Everyone likes feedback. Some, but not all, of my students were keen to seek my input into drafts of their assignments. This was feedback I willingly provided, in hopes that it would make the end product stronger. I tried to also provide detailed feedback on the assignments themselves in hope, again, that it might make a difference in a subsequent submission. I heard at course end from a few students that they appreciated the extent and timeliness of the feedback I was able to provide. I like feedback too and was grateful that they took the time to let me know that my extra effort was valuable to them. It feels good to be appreciated, at every stage of your career.
Last lesson: The future is bright. This class left me hopeful for our profession. My students genuinely seemed interested in law as a helping profession. They clearly want to make a difference for others. They are motivated to succeed but don’t all define success in the same way or even in any traditional way. And their wide range of backgrounds means that the profession as a whole will benefit and broaden when they enter it.
I’m going to miss these students but I know many of us will cross paths again, especially those who remain in Manitoba after graduation. That’s one of the (many) benefits of lawyering in a small place – there’s no shortage of opportunities to connect and reconnect whether through legal profession events or community, culture and sport.