Tim Tyler, a counsel in V&E’s International Dispute Resolution and Arbitration group, has never forgotten a bit of wisdom that his University of Texas law school professor shared with him years ago.
“He told me that most lawyers are basically teachers,” Tyler recalled. “There’s always somebody you have to explain a fairly complicated problem to.”
That comparison began to resonate more deeply with Tyler a little over a decade ago, when he himself began teaching at his old stomping grounds. He’s one of several attorneys at the firm who balance the practice of law with the art of teaching. Some, like Tyler, are adjunct professors at law schools while others serve as guest lecturers.
“I would encourage every lawyer who likes teaching to do it,” said Robert Seber, a partner in Mergers & Acquisitions and Private Equity who leads a class on public and private governance of oil and gas at New York University Law School. “It’s interesting and very enjoyable to engage with students.”
Here are six insights from Seber, Tyler and their V&E colleagues about teaching future generations of attorneys.
“Teaching keeps you in the explaining business and the active listening business.”
1. The preparation can be intense.
Designing and teaching a semester-long class can be as time-intensive as preparing for any big case or handling a large transaction, if not more so. “The most challenging thing is just to take the time, as you prepare a particular class, to think your way through very carefully about how you’re going to present the material in a way that it will resonate with the students,” said Tax partner Gary Huffman, who teaches a class in advanced partnership taxation at Georgetown University Law Center’s LL.M. program.
In his two decades of teaching the class, Huffman said he’s found that students have different levels of experience and knowledge, so he tries to tailor each class to ensure he’s meeting students’ needs. “When we start a new semester, I go around the room and talk to each of the students about their experience level and what they know and what they don’t know and gauge the approach to the class from that,” he said. “It was a little tricky at first, but I think after 20 years I’ve got it figured out.”
2. Professors learn along with the students.
While attorneys who teach can draw from their day-to-day work in making their lesson plans, they also must learn about and present issues that they haven’t been involved in. “I learn an enormous amount just from reviewing developments to update lectures,” said Jim Loftis, head of V&E’s International Dispute Resolution practice and also an adjunct at UT. “It is probably the best way to keep up to date with what’s going on in your corner of the profession.”
Learning and teaching a legal subject that’s rapidly evolving is different than, for instance, teaching geometry. Just ask V&E Labor and Employment counsel Chris Bacon, who actually taught high school geometry before becoming an attorney and, later, an adjunct professor at the University of Houston. Bacon’s class focused on sexual orientation and the law. “High school geometry is based on Euclid’s elements, which was written by a Greek guy many, many years ago. The math doesn’t change,” said Bacon, who taught the class until 2015. “But as we all know, the law involving sexual orientation and gays and lesbians changed very quickly. It was very exciting to teach the class because I kept learning. Every time I came back for the next semester, the law was different.”
Bacon added that often he learned directly from the students themselves, some of whom could offer personal perspectives on LGBT legal issues, from a student who was discharged from the military for being gay to students who weren’t allowed to bring their same sex partners to prom to a transgender student familiar with discrimination. “I taught many students who took the class because it was about them,” he said. “They offered unique insights.”
3. Discussions don’t always come easily.
In seminar classes in particular, professors are often stewards of discussion and debate. But Seber found that it was challenging at first to convince law students to speak at all. Seber had also taught at NYU’s international affairs program, where he found students much less reticent. Why the contrast? It eventually dawned on him that his law students might be more risk averse. “I think they were more concerned about embarrassing themselves in front of the other students,” he said. “They seemed to be worried about saying something that wasn’t correct.”
Now Seber is careful to offer reassurance to would-be wallflowers. “I tell them at the very beginning that there are no right or wrong answers,” he said. “It’s about expressing your opinion.” Seber’s other strategy is to ask provocative questions on timely subjects such as fracking in the U.S. or reforming the energy industry in Venezuela. Such questions may prove irresistible to some students in the class. “Once one or two students express their views, it’s easier to get the rest going,” he said. “And as the discussion progresses, I may throw in additional questions, or I might encourage them to look at different aspects, so it’s really an analytical exercise.”
4. Time management is crucial.
As any professor will tell you, teaching even one class requires more than the few hours a week you might spend in the classroom. For practicing attorneys who juggle teaching duties with client work, it’s important to “be realistic about the time commitment involved,” Loftis said. In addition to the time professors must spend preparing for each class, professors must also spend time grading papers and exams. “It’s always very time consuming because you want to make sure you give people the grade they really deserve,” Huffman said.
For some attorneys-turned-adjuncts, the time commitment becomes much more manageable when they share the load. Loftis, Tyler and another attorney team up to teach a class in investor-state arbitration at UT. They take turns leading classes, and they share the work of designing the curriculum and grading papers. “Because of travel schedules and other things, it’s difficult to commit to 14 Mondays in a row during a semester, so we give each other backup,” Tyler said. “We’ve taught the classes so many times together now that we can hand them off to each other pretty easily.”
For attorneys who don’t have the time to commit to adjunct posts, guest lecturing is an attractive alternative. V&E Pro Bono Counsel Ellyn Josef has lectured at professional responsibility classes at University of Texas, met with UT student groups and has addressed students via Skype at Stetson Law School in Florida. “It works better with my schedule,” she said. “I try to do it as much as I can.”
5. It’s fun.
Though the law is a serious business, the law school classroom can be a lively, playful place.
“Interacting with students is a lot of fun,” said Loftis, “particularly when you find yourself out on a Socratic limb and the class starts chuckling. So, it also helps supply you with humility.”
Sometimes the fun is planned. Seber, for instance, makes a point of hosting sessions focused on mock negotiations of a private equity term sheet. After the often spirited negotiations produce an outcome, the class celebrates its work with drinks and snacks. “A good time is had by all,” Seber said.
Other times, the students themselves add playful elements to their work. “My students have great latitude in choosing the topic for their paper,” Seber said. “A few years ago, a student wrote a paper on ‘The Social Cost of Carbon of a Round of Golf.’ He calculated in detail the carbon emissions created by taking the Presidential motorcade to Joint Base Andrews, flying on Air Force One to Hawaii, and then taking another motorcade to the golf course.”
6. The rewards are immeasurable.
The experience of teaching may contribute to attorneys’ success outside the classroom. As mentioned earlier, teaching helps lawyers achieve a deeper knowledge of legal developments and cases relevant to their practices. But it also often leads attorneys to refine the skills necessary for professional success. “Teaching keeps you in the explaining business and the active listening business,” Tyler said. “Leading a discussion requires taking a student’s remarks, tying it to other points in the course, and presenting a further development for more discussion. It makes you a lot more capable of explaining things clearly and quickly and going to a level of granularity or generality that is appropriate to an audience. If you can’t explain it to students, then you probably can’t explain it to an arbitrator or a juror or a judge.”
Perhaps the most gratifying part of teaching, however, is the chance to have a real impact on the development of future lawyers. Josef, for instance, savors the opportunity to instill an appreciation of pro bono work in law students. “I feel like if you can get them to understand the responsibility of giving back while they’re in law school, it’s something they will continue to do forever.”
No matter what subject they teach, V&E attorneys say there’s a special satisfaction in seeing students truly absorb their lessons. “It’s always a joy to see how many students really get it and do a terrific job,” Huffman said.