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.
To be honest, I rather hate nostalgia for being self indulgent clap trap allowing too many people to live in the past lamenting decisions which cannot now be changed and the consequences of which cannot be undone. That said, it’s not like I’ve never made mistakes, writes Nottingham Law School reader in legal education – and former ‘law teacher of the year’ – Rebecca Huxley-Binns…
I cherish some of my mistakes because without them I wouldn’t have learned. So what have I learned? I think, if I had my time again, I would try to take the journey of education slower, to enjoy the moment, to enjoy the experience of learning, and not see it all as a means to an end. As an undergraduate, I think I approached law too much as rules to be learned by rote, and not as I see it now, as a dynamic living subject which affects every aspect of our lives, with principles and policies, and incommensurable conflicts.
I became a teacher before I became an academic. I picked up some part-time, personal tutoring during my Law Society’s Finals year (yes, that is how old I am; I took the course which predates the Legal Practice Course, by 20 years). Teaching, then, was to raise beer money. I taught GCSE French, A-level English and Ilex (now CILEX (Chartered Institute of Legal Executives)) trusts. Then when I couldn’t find a training contract (there was a nasty recession, you see), I picked up some A-level and GCSE law teaching, then more, and more. And then I applied for and got a full time teaching post in a wonderful and very good quality sixth form college, Franklin College in Grimsby. There I was a teacher, and I loved it. But I didn’t get the intellectual challenges that I needed. I didn’t get asked the questions I couldn’t answer, and rarely did I get asked questions that I had to think about, so I raised the quality of my CV considerably by writing articles and books and attending conferences. Long story short, in 2002 I was appointed an academic law lecturer at Nottingham Law School.
Teaching – particularly teaching jurisprudence – has awoken me, belatedly, to the joys of learning. I now love asking questions, and analysing those questions more than even the answers (assuming they are any “right” answers). In a related way, my job has also shown me the importance of thinking – a skill which came to me very much after I graduated. Now I make time and find space to think. A ponder is good for the soul.
If you are struggling for something to ponder try this. Taken collectively, the main cases studied by law students at undergraduate level resulted in a 50% failure rate for the parties involved. So why do on earth do so many people go to law? The answer lies in the stories behind the disputes. But too often we focus on the outcome – the rule – because that’s what’s on the exam.
Rebecca Huxley-Binns is reader in legal education at Nottingham Law School and the ‘law teacher of the year’ 2010.