Those who can, teach

If you stayed long enough in a law firm to supervise others, or if you came back again in your later years as I did, you will know how hard it is to teach.

Let’s be honest. Marking up a piece of work and giving it back for a junior to amend takes more time and energy than simply doing it all yourself.

But we teach our emerging lawyers because it matters. We teach them because it is a way of making them a part of ourselves, which in turn makes them part of a profession. We teach them because we were all taught.

A profession is a calling. It carries duties to others above duties to self. And part of the ethos of our profession is that we teach those who are rising up so that they will be worthy of our ranks.

Everyone learns by doing. Everyone learns by watching. Everyone learns by listening, by seeing and by touching.

As junior lawyers, we study partners like our favourite athlete.

We think about them after hours. We analyse their every word, their look, their emails, their silence. We watch every partner we can see, everyone we come across, and are often tongue-tied and nervous in their presence. We listen to their phone calls with clients while we sit at our desks, and take down every word they say in a meeting.

We sometimes choke back tears at the hint of criticism. We always read everything into an absence of words or instructions.

And one day, we write a letter, brief or a pleading and there is no red pen. I still remember that glorious day myself. I floated back to my office both overjoyed and in a sea of doubt. Was he distracted today? Had he really read it? Would it be back to half a page of deletions tomorrow? But when we finally believe that we have actually learned what they were trying to teach, we finally know we’ve got something to offer.

Unfortunately, most of us experienced far more than mere instruction via red pen and benign neglect. While we can all remember the shining lights of our experience as junior lawyers, most of us also remember incidents of cruelty. Not unlike the experience of school, training as a lawyer is a luck of the draw. Some senior lawyers love to teach, some do not, and some believe in survival of the fittest in a trial of fire.

But instead of focusing on what went badly for us in firms, what if we said thank you to those partners and lawyers who helped us be who we are today?

Is it possible that if we recognised the role of teaching, and rewarded those who did it best, that we could transform law firms into beacons of not only intellectual learning but human kindness? What if we taught, institutionally, not only how to write, how to think and how to find the answer, but how to treat each other fairly and respectfully?

We don’t have to thank those who laid the metaphorical cane on thick, who think that hazing and cold showers and 4am roll calls are the only way to build character.

But what if we said thank you for the things that some of our bosses actually got right?

And what if by doing that, our good teachers stood a little straighter?

And what if, by thanking them, we gave some other lawyers a reason to try harder?

Imagine if some firms pledged to nourish the nascent lawyer and built this into their business model. Imagine if firms no longer accepted lawyers who still believed in a ‘baptism of fire’, in ‘throwing them into the deep end’ and ‘if it was good enough for me it’s good enough for them’.

Imagine the firm that starts to produce lawyers who remember their time with fondness and gratitude. Imagine if lawyers only left their firm to scale greater heights instead of running away from unhappiness.

Imagine how loyal every lawyer would be to the firm who nurtured them, grew them, sheltered them, and gave them wings.

I’d work for that firm. I’d hire that firm. Wouldn’t you?


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