Teaching Law

Monday, 23 January 2012

Professionalism and Sustainability in Lawyering

I have not long returned from the beautiful city of Vancouver in Canada, having attended the eighth International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability.  What has been interesting about the conference has been the capacity of quite diverse academic and professional disciplines to converge in terms of their theoretical approach.  That is to say, each presenter at the conference offered the opportunity to re-imagine an aspect of our world in terms of sustainability.

One aspect of thinking about sustainability that struck me in particular from a number of presentations is the dimension of what I'll call professional thinking.  For example one speaker discussed the effect of sustainability assessment tools in architecture competitions on the design of sustainable buildings.  Her point, as I understood it, was that a more 'checklist' approach to architecture may detract from a more wholistic or qualitative approach.  The latter approach would take into consideration factors that could impact (positively) more completely in terms of sustainability or eco-design.

Another speaker discussed the role of tertiary education in teaching our teachers.  Amongst his points was that our graduates need humility and gratitude: teaching involves gratitude for the opportunity to serve and is humbling in the recognition of the centrality of the teacher's role.  Such attitudes, in conjunction with a keen sense of community, lend themselves to a philosophy and approach as a professional that embody interconnectedness and engagement with both community and the natural world - preconditions for educating youth in and for sustainability.

Both these discussions resonated in terms of legal education and indeed the practice of law.  The revision of the LLB at my own institution involves embedding sustainability as an overarching concept: a lens through which to learn the content mandated by our professional bodies.  But importantly, it also provides a pedagogy or a strategy or approach for teaching that aligns with what I took from the two discussions above.

The legal profession in Australia has for some years been asking why so few women are partners in private practice; why there are so few non-metropolitan practitioners; why (law) student wellness is such an issue; why there are high reported rates of practitioner mental unwellness...

Based on these now well-known issues, there are moves in legal education to incorporate different ways of teaching law: methods of teaching that encourage resilience, a reflective approach to practice and self-management.  These intersect with a greater emphasis on ethics - a move away from a traditional approach to ethics as a set of professional regulatory rules, to a more embedded approach that incorporates also 'soft' skills in communication and a more qualitative understanding of the nature of professionalism.  It seems that the academy and the profession is in agreement about the need for a new approach (see eg here).

And so to what I took from the speakers at the sustainability conference.  If we continue to teach our law students rules without context, and abstracted legal reasoning without attention to self, we run the risk of leaving a profession that is unsustainable. One which cannot support the justice system and serve society. One in which it is not sustainable for individuals to continue to practise.   Sustainability is a complex concept and poses particular problems for lawyers who prefer to have a tight definition; and who see sustainability in law merely in terms of environmental regulation.

Sustainability is much more than this.  It relates to our world and our place in it.  It relates to law as justice in both human, environmental and ecological terms.  It relates to our profession and to society; practitioner and client.  It relates to our personal and our professional self.  All of these aspects are inter-related and it is our responsibility to educate professionals who have the capacity to understand this and to experience these facets in a wholistic way.

Knowing laws does not make a professional and as with criteria for an architecture competition, adherence to a checklist of laws will not address wider and contextual issues that represent the essence of lawyering.  As with teacher education, humility and gratitude embody the intersection of personal and professional, or two sides of the same coin.  Our students deserve the opportunity to engage in their development during their study of law, and our profession and society deserves graduates who have this capacity.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post, Kate. I am reading Paul Maharg and Caroline Maughan (eds) 'Affect and Legal Education' at the moment. Much of what it has to say intersects with the issues that you have raised in this post.

  2. Thanks Pleagle. I've not seen this book but would be interested. Have written on pastoral care in legal ed (with others - JALTA 2010, LER 2011) and touched on affective aspects of learning.