Why teach?

“Why do you teach?”

Occasionally I am asked this question.

So here’s a post to just send when I get asked this question again in the future.

I teach because I enjoy being there at that eureka moment when someone gets “it” or being told that something I said, showed, or shared improved them or played some influence in their legal abilities or better yet, outlook on life. I take pleasure in the growth and maturity of those under my care and tutelage. This was not natural to me.

I discovered the pleasure of nurturing and refining nascent abilities when I truly understood why my favourite football coach, Arsene Wenger, often preferred to buy young players. One of his more famous quotes is, “We do not buy superstars. We make them.” He loved to grow and nurture young talent into superstars. I am not in the business of making superstars, but I do enjoy having a hand in inculcating future lawyers with the appropriate attitudes, values and ethics for legal practice, like a gardener planting seeds that he hopes would grow into upright trees instead of gnarly ones.

I teach because doing so gives me pleasure, especially with those truly interested to learn. I have discovered that few understand what it means to be ‘truly interested to learn’. Those who do not understand it often parrot those words at interviews and disappoint soon after. Nowadays I am not interested in listening or reading how someone is ‘truly interested to learn’ in their applications. Talk is cheap.

The thing about those truly interested to learn is there is little to teach them. They just need the right experience and challenges at the right time, some pointers, some meaningful discussions and they are off. Just let them go at it and trust them. The trust that we place in them is an important and necessary part of that learning; it gives them courage to take risk, to fail and learn from that failure. It accelerates their progress.

And the best thing about ‘teaching’ the truly interested is I learn from them. Quite frankly, with the best of them, there is no teaching, just long meandering conversations that run the gamut of everything between life, love, law, litigation and death; they become my intellectual companions. The most delightful learning between two people occurs when the ‘teacher’ is indistinguishable from the ‘student’; that is how I feel with the best of them.

I want to digress a moment to observe that some that come through me have laboured under this notion that they only ‘learn if they are taught’. That somehow because their ‘teachers’ or ‘bosses’ were crap, they somehow lost out and explains why they are ignorant and deficient in some skill. That is wrong. We don’t need a teacher to learn. We can learn from books, from observation, from discussion, from googling, from online courses and by simply thinking about it hard for a good minute for ourselves. At our level i.e. professionally qualified and experienced lawyers, we only look for a teacher when we need to be taught something specific and usually something practical. To blame someone else for our lack of learning is just tragic.

I teach legal advocacy because it keeps me close to the basics and usually, that’s what I teach. I like staying close to the basics because mastery of an area is simply understanding the basics at a profound level. “Advanced level is mastery of the basics,” wrote Ray Mancini in Zen, Meditation & the Art of Shooting: Performance Edge. Yes, sir! Teaching provides a great reminder of all that I have learned and more importantly, all that I have forgotten.

“What if your student bests you in a case?”

Great! That is high praise for the teacher i.e. me. It is a win-win.

Now the teacher must up his game. They cannot rest on their laurels. That is simply the way of life.

It gives me great pleasure to hear from my ‘students’ or colleagues something clever, intelligent or something like that that I didn’t think about under the subject for discussion. It is a reminder that humility is essential to learning and that I am in the right company.

I have seen some people who feel the need to be the smartest in the room by virtue of their stupidity, insecurity or their position which makes demands they are not equal to. Intelligence is not a zero sum game; just because we are clever does not mean the other is stupid. I hang around too many clever and sharp tongued people to get away with that. Unlike Icarus who at least took flight, I would not even get out of the cowshed around them.

In my younger days, I heard the complaint among my contemporaries about how some senior lawyers held back passing on what they considered to be their more ‘valuable’ knowledge or strategies to preserve their advantage over their juniors.

I understand the sentiment but it betrays a lack of confidence on both sides. The juniors underrate their abilities to discover new and better ways of doing their work, and the seniors do not believe they can adapt to deal with the situation. All round tragedy. The problem lies in thinking about education in terms of power – superiority and so, inferiority, instead of curiosity, delight, and growth.

“Why bother?”

This was the question I was confronted with when I encouraged a friend of mine to sign up as a legal advocacy trainer. His fuller objection was, why bother training lawyers in advocacy when it is often not appreciated by the bench and even at the Bar; lawyers win in spite of their poor advocacy? Anyway, even if we say optimistically these advocacy training courses could train 300 lawyers a year in basic advocacy, there was a long way to go. It would not make a dent.

These are good points, but I think they missed the main point.

The point is with these things – educating, making a change – we have to start somewhere. And that somewhere usually looks like nowhere at the start. And the start always looks messy, fragile but vibrant. That vibrancy is important and is what will keep it going and what we want to win out.

Legal advocacy training in Malaysia is a good thing. It is an important thing because it is about doing our work properly as advocates in court before a judge. When court work – legal advocacy for us litigators – is done properly, the proceedings are smooth, time is saved, drama is avoided, the judge feathers remain unruffled and the case is likelier to conclude as expected, if not before (gasp). This is where advocacy becomes relevant – it is the grease to the gears of a trial or hearing.

A majority of the public and sadly, even some lawyers, cannot appreciate that there is a certain degree of experience, technique and technical information required to accomplish competent, never mind, great advocacy. But this should serve as a cause instead of an excuse.

That friend of mine I mentioned earlier has since joined the legal advocacy teaching faculty and is now, in my humble opinion, one of the best trainers there. Perhaps he too has come around to thinking it about it as a cause instead of an excuse.

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Note Only for Malaysian lawyers that want to improve their advocacy abilities:

The Bar Council Advocacy Training Committee runs four different courses throughout the year (i) the Civil Advocacy Training Course (ii) the Criminal Advocacy Training Course (iv) the Appellate Advocacy Training Course and (iv) the Written Advocacy Training Course. (i) and (ii) are basic courses and is the advised route to the others.

There is also the Handling Financial Experts in Court which is not as regular as the other courses because of the challenge in coordinating an actual financial expert to train alongside for the weekend.

If you attend court cases and are expected to conduct hearings and trials, I cannot recommend these courses highly enough. I know many of the lawyers who train and many are not just excellent instructors but excellent advocates in their own right. It is well worth the fee because you would spend a weekend with senior lawyers who are not just open to questions and discussions but motivated and committed to improving advocacy standards at the Malaysian Bar. The course schedule can be found here.

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