Learning Law by Seeing and Doing

Law schools teach the law and how to learn the law, but not how to be a lawyer (aside from the odd course on legal ethics or civil procedure). When, then, do students learn not only how to be practicing lawyers, but good practicing lawyers?

When I entered the legal profession approximately ten years ago, I had no idea how to speak to matters in court or how to properly file court documents. Luckily, I had the very good fortune of being mentored by competent, caring, dedicated lawyers who took time out of each day to walk me through court forms, take me to court with them, to name a few and generally just shadow them throughout the day.

Before I began working at the Legal Help Centre (a not-for-profit legal clinic located in the downtown core of Winnipeg, Manitoba), I took for granted the wonderful experience that I was given as a junior lawyer. I naively believed that all of my colleagues were provided with the same experience. I quickly learned that this was not the case and that, for the most part, your strengths and abilities as a senior lawyer are shaped (and, in some cases, limited) by the mentoring (or lack thereof) that you received early on in your career.

In a small legal community, it’s not hard to watch a junior lawyer and correctly guess where and by whom they were trained. How can we ensure that all students receive the quality mentorship they need, both while in law school and beyond?

In my role as Legal Director of the Legal Help Centre, I supervise approximately 50 law students each school year. While all of our law students have the opportunity to interview clients, draft court documents, and discuss client matters with supervising lawyers, some also attend a weekly family docket court where they speak to matters and have the chance to observe and interact with lawyers and judges.

At the end of each docket, we take the time to discuss and reflect on what worked and what didn’t and why. If we watched a lawyer make mistakes, we discuss what the lawyer could have done differently. Sometimes we see lawyers come to court without their diaries, without having properly served parties, or without proper courtroom attire. When we observe a lawyer who seems unprofessional, we discuss the consequences. We’ve witnessed lawyers interrupt judges, name-call opposing parties, roll their eyes, or huff and puff when a decision goes against them.

Often times, a judge will take time after court to speak directly with the students and answer their questions. Sometimes, a judge will explain the reasons for their decisions to the students and will state what lawyers did or did not do and how that impacted their decisions. This is invaluable to students.

Leah Klassen, an articling student with Legal Help Centre, explains:

“I find the experience to be valuable, not only to learn proper advocacy techniques, procedures, and ways of speaking to the court, but also to learn what not to do in many situations. By seeing how judges react to certain lawyers, both positively and negatively, I have been able to develop my own techniques even before I have an opportunity to utilize them myself. For me, as I know it is for many students, standing before a judge is a terrifying prospect. Being able to observe court in the capacity of the Legal Help Centre has instilled confidence in me, not to mention a level of comfort when navigating a complex court system.”

We all learn from seeing and doing. Law students especially need chances to observe as well as to practice their skills if they are to become professional and contributing members of the legal community.

Law students crave clinical legal experiences, which, unfortunately, are not offered at all law schools.  Every time a law student is given a chance to observe and participate in the practice of law, learning about professionalism through practical experience, it’s not just the student who wins; the clear winner is the legal profession as a whole.

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