Teaching Non-Lawyers

In the last few days I’ve been at two gigs involving teaching about law to non-lawyers. It is an eye-opening and highly recommended experience.

Last week I was on the faculty of the annual Summer Doctoral Programme sponsored by the Oxford Internet Institute and this year hosted in the U.S. by the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School. (That’s “Programme” as they spell it and “Center” as we spell it.) SDP is an intensive two-week seminar for doctoral candidates from all over the world studying the internet through a range of methodological approaches and disciplinary perspectives. Almost none are lawyers. This week I taught cyberlaw topics at the annual Institute for Computer Policy and Law, cosponsored by Cornell University and EDUCAUSE. It’s aimed at professionals responsible for IT infrastructure in higher education, mostly librarian-types and computer-types. Again, few are lawyers.

Teaching in these settings is quite different from doing it in law school or presenting Continuing Legal Education courses to practicing lawyers, which I’ve also done. Among the fun challenges: my audiences in these two venues knew quite a lot about specific law applicable to their field. A doctoral student studying the social construction of privacy thinks deeply about its legal construction. A techie who runs course management software for a university has learned a lot of copyright rules. But they were not always familiar with basic legal concepts like the difference between statutory, judge-made, and regulatory law, or the interplay between state and federal requirements. More importantly, some of what they thought they knew was wrong. And there were some huge gaps. For example, I discovered that very few attending the higher ed IT event knew about 47 U.S.C. 230, a crucial immunity provision that generally protects from liability those who provide open online fora for user contributions, as many of their schools do (recent cases involve everyone from MySpace to Wikipedia). Finding the right level of specificity without assuming too much (correct) background knowledge was tricky.

Another challenge is finding reading material that is sophisticated yet accessible. Many cases are fine, especially if you edit them to cut out procedural folderol irrelevant to your main point. But appropriate secondary analysis is hard to come by. Most short summaries are too facile for these crowds. But most legal scholarship ventures way too far in the other direction. For the privacy session, I used Privacy in Atlantis, a great journal article by Jerry Kang and Benedikt Buchner in the form of an imaginary and sometimes humorous Socratic dialogue about the definition of privacy. For the IT folks, I used Larry Lessig’s Code (Version 2.0) and also told them about James Gibson’s sharp analysis of doctrinal feedback in IP law from the Yale Law Journal this spring. (Gibson’s punchy prose and straightforward presentation made it highly quotable, and I hope many in the audience will now go back and read the whole piece)

When the audience is composed of legal academics, lawyers, or law students, there are comfortable assumptions and expectations. Teaching non-lawyers can keep us on our toes. (Blogging has some of the same positive effect.) Overall, the experience was a great antitdote to excessive retreat into the shell of legal academia. And now I can return, refreshed, to my natural summer habitat, crafting law review prose.

[Cross-posted at Concurring Opinions]

2 Responses to “Teaching Non-Lawyers”

  1. The experience of teaching non-lawyers is a great aid when you try a case to a jury. I handled some patent trials, and was fortunate to have had experience as a professor of electrical engineering. It was amazing to see how many patent lawyers were intimidated by the prospect of having to explain matters to lay people.

    I have recently tried to teach non-lawyers about what lawyers do, particularly in an effort to get the public to better understand lawyers’ practices. In “Judging the Lawyers” I place the reader in the postion of a juror, and examine the primary complaints that the public has against lawyers; at the end of the “trial”, the reader is asked to log onto http://www.judgingthelawyers.com and submit a jury verdict. My feedback is very limited at this point, but a number of my lawyer friends say that even though the arguments are addressed to lay persons, they expect that many will find it too complex. But it was a great experience to try to present the pro and con arguments on issues such as how zealously should lawyers represent their clients, when does the duty to the client conflict with the duty to the legal system (the court), and is there a conflict between lawyers’ billing and their duties to clients? I hope to get some good feedback over the next year or so.

    Ted Preston

  2. commendable of you