‘I Fear That I Was Too Ready To Treat The View Of The Experienced As Gospel’

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Ed note: This is the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes.

I have spent thirty years as an ‘academic’ – whatever that means – as a teacher of law and as part of a team founding a number of legal projects, including what is now a major law school.  Some of these ventures were successful, others not, as is often the way in life, writes godfather of legal blogging Charon QC

It was made very clear to me by a rather abrupt chambers clerk many years ago that it would not be possible to combine a career in academe with the rigours of being available for work in chambers. I had to make a choice.

I chose to teach law, inspired by the knowledge of how not to teach law acquired by recent experience on the Bar Final course – which was, in the late 1970s, right at the very pinnacle of astonishingly bad teaching. Thankfully, things have since changed for the better.

If I knew then what I know now, I am fairly sure I would have been less persuaded by that clerk’s view, and have made a stab at both teaching and practising law. I regret not having had experience of legal practice, and suspect that I would have enjoyed a career at the Bar. On the other hand, the choice I made has led to many years of pleasure, and some of worry, so I do not complain. Still, looking back, I fear that I was too ready to treat the view of the experienced as gospel. I have since learned to be more sceptical of those who claim experience and knowledge.

I relay this simply to encourage those at the start of their careers to be robust in their thinking and not to fear error. “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think,” said Socrates. He was right. Instead, we can reveal knowledge; we can explain our own interpretation of that knowledge; we can encourage our students to look deeply into the subject; and above all, we can encourage them to think and engage in discussion. That dialogue, between student and teacher, between lawyer and judge, accounts for a lot, including the development of the law.

My last ten years of law blogging and podcasting – my writing at times sensible, and on occasions verging on the insane – has taught me to be more eclectic in my reading and thinking; to embrace art, history, science, philosophy and sociology as I observe the legal condition. If I knew then what I know now, I would have made better use of my time to explore these areas at university. Certainly, I thoroughly approve of those students who do a non-law degree first and then do the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) as a foundation for practice. All law and no play does, I think, make Jack/Jill a rather dull lawyer.

I end with an anecdote. Fifteen years ago I was giving a seminar on the law of contract and drafting to a group of trainees from a magic circle firm. A very wise and experienced partner started proceedings by saying that a good foundation in contract law was essential for all members of the firm, because 90% of their work was based on contracts and drafting.

But that was just the starting point, he added. The firm did not need ‘legal technicians’, the partner explained, rather lawyers who could advise clients not what the law prohibited – that was easy – but what it could permit, or be persuaded to permit. If I knew that way back then, I am sure I would have been better served.

Good luck and, as I rarely give advice (not being of a Moses disposition), I end by quoting Douglas Adams: “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

Charon QC is currently touring Britain as part of his Vin Rouge Law Tour, compiling a digital legal doomsday book as he travels. Look out for his vintage red Jag in a town near you in 2013.