What learning to become a lawyer taught me about PDs

Lessons gleaned from hours and hours of sitting in on boring talks on discrete (and often irrelevant) areas of law

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It seems like a lifetime ago, but I used to be a banking & finance lawyer.  I sat in on hours and hours of PD sessions - here are some of the things I noticed. 

Learning to be a lawyer / (teacher)

One of the great things about working for a really big multinational corporate law firm is that they had a spectacular training and development program.  We spent mornings, lunchtimes, afternoons and evenings in classes that ranged from the basic (How to write contractual clauses in the firm's style) to the niche (How to create whitewash documents for related company loans).  These classes were taught by lawyers who had forged their careers in these niche disciplines and could provide us with practical advice and technical know-how.  These lessons were augmented by the work that you were doing day-to-day.   

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I learnt most of what I knew on the job.  I learnt how to draft contracts by drafting lots of contracts.  I learnt how to interview clients by spending hours interviewing clients.  I learnt how to not be terrified of speaking to judges and barristers by speaking to judges and barristers (although I'd still be terrified if I had to make a court appearance ...).   If I didn't know anything, I'd ask a colleague who I trusted.  If they didn't know, I'd turn to internal resources or google.  My friends who are newly minted teachers have learnt how to be better teachers by teaching, by finding mentors who they trust and can turn to for help, and by having a wide network of friends (teachers or otherwise) who act as soundboards.  

  • How might we use harness our communities to help teachers become the best that they can be?

While I was grateful for this training, this legal professional development program succumbed to a lot of the same problems I have witnessed in teaching professional development programs in Australia.

We learnt information months (or years) before we actually needed to use it. We often forgot the learnings well before we had to apply that knowledge.  

  • How might we make learnings relevant and accessible at the point in time when we actually need to apply that knowledge?

My firm took a scatter gun approach.  We learnt about all of the different areas of law that the firm practices.  In one day, you might have training on unfair dismissal (employment law) and a discrete section of the corporations act that impacted banking regulations.  This breadth and depth of knowledge was useful to the extent that it allowed you to see how your discrete area of practice fit into the wider picture.  However, at times, the sessions didn't feel relevant or practical (and like a waste of your lunchtime).  

  • How might we use PDs to link different subject areas and make a case for how learnings in one subject area can deeply impact and better another subject area?   
  • How might we make our subject area accessible and relevant to someone from a different subject area?

Lessons weren't optimised for engagement.  Working at a law firm, by days would often be 12+ hours long.  Trust me, on these days I didn't feel like spending my lunchtime learning about a discrete area of law that I would probably never actually use.  Looking around any PD, people were often on their phones / looking at emails  / looking completely disinterested.  Dry topics don't need to be taught in a dry way.  Make the informant useful, relevant and engaging and I might actually remember it.  

  • How might we optimise PDs for engagement?

The most memorable PD's I went to were the war stories.  Lawyers would honestly open up about the mistakes they had made - the court deadlines missed, the disastrous mistakes made by tired brains at 3am in the morning, the lapses of judgement.   In a culture that is allergic to risk / failure / admitting to mistakes, these PD's were revolutionary.  They were also few and far between.  These sessions not only helped you realise that your colleagues and mentors were human, but it opened a dialogue about mistakes and how we could collectively learn from them.  This risk adverse mindset is also found in education.  

  • How might we use PDs as a way to incite cultural change / reframe the values of an educational institution?   
  • How might we use personal, vulnerable, humble stories as a way to cut through and engage? 

The power of precedent is a really pervasive mindset in the law.  A problem (or a similar problem) has always been solved before.  To the largest possible extent, you should take this old solution and apply it to your new problem.  A lot of our PD sessions were about finding this previous solution, rather than equipping us with the skills to come up with a new solution.  This is not dissimilar to institutional teaching - lesson plans are recycled and handed down - core curriculums are set - standardised tests are enforced.  While this brings beautiful efficiency to both professions, it makes it incredibly difficult for individuals to agitate for change and to bring new ideas into the system.  

  • How might we use PDs as a way to equip teachers to use tried and tested solutions where necessary and the confidence to try something new when the tried and tested isn't working? 


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Photo of Moss Pike

Love the ideas you've shared here, Jes, including the breadth of the HMW questions! In particular, I'm looking at optimizing PD for engagement and designing for behaviors we want to encourage. I've seen the power of compelling stories and love the ones you've share from your experience. How might we create a system that does something similar for educators, by using the power of story to celebrate risk and build empathy? I hope that we can continue to build on at least some of these questions, as we move into our "Ideate" phase on TG!

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