In the previous post I described how, as a TA in my third year of law school, I drove my 1Ls to tears with my harsh critique of their initial writing efforts. Which is sort of ridiculous, because I knew nothing about legal writing by the time I graduated from law school. Yale Law School then—and as far as I know, now—does not stoop to offer a comprehensive lawyering skills program to its students. Because if you were brilliant in your analysis of Chaucer in undergrad, why in god’s name would you need to be taught how to write a summary judgment motion? You’re smart enough to figure it out.
Instead, the job of teaching legal writing was pawned off on unqualified 3Ls like myself, who knew a lot about the Bluebook and about the proper tone for discussing legal precedent (that is, authoritative, all-knowing, distant), but knew nothing about why we were considered “good” legal writers or how to convey that information.
That was in the Fall Semester of 1997. In the Fall Semester of 2007, I began teaching my first Legal Writing class here at DU. In the interim I had clerked for a judge who was a wonderful writer and teacher, worked in private practice with demanding senior attorneys, and served again as a staff attorney for judges who no longer actively mentored me (that attention was properly reserved for their chambers clerks), but who had very high standards for the work product I gave them and expected to not have to substantially revise my efforts.
In short, in the interim I finally really learned about legal writing and a bit about mentoring—although my mentoring in private practice was generally of the histrionic, hyper-critical variety. Still, even that questionable approach successfully instilled in me a blinding lust for precision and visceral hatred of error.
When I arrived for the first day of teaching, I was passionate about writing, and passionate about making my students good writers. But more than anything, while I was reflective about the methods I would use to teach my students, I was not reflective about the values associated with that method.
In particular, I was conscious of being a “young,” female, first-year teacher. Other professors and administrators often mistook me for a student (perhaps more for the relatively casual style of dress I wore at the time than for my youthful visage). Not yet comfortable in my own teaching skin, one of my primary goals from the moment I walked in the classroom was to establish my authority. Because I was no John Houseman, I knew my students would not presumptively grant me that authority. Instead, I would have to establish authority through KNOWLEDGE. That is, making it clear that, despite my relative youth, I had nearly a decade of experience on them and I knew things they didn’t. So there.
I did not question whether “authority” was a quality I should strive for. I knew nothing different. Perhaps my undergraduate education at a cozy liberal arts college had provided me with a different set of references, but that experience had been washed—no, burned—away by the experience of law school. I knew only the hailed figure at the front of a large classroom, literally and metaphorically unapproachable because of his vast experience and knowledge, or, alternatively, because—while close to my age—he was impenetrably brilliant. (Sometimes “she.” Rarely, however.)
In my first year of teaching, I was ambivalent about the social dynamics accompanying these forms of authority, but on some level convinced that authoority was necessary to effectively transfer knowledge. As I gained my footing, I came to realize this was not the case.