Teach What To Whom?

When my son was young, he was fascinated by cooking. Alton Brown was still doing his cooking show, and he adored the chemistry element of food, a scientific approach to cuisine. It didn’t hurt that he also had a peculiar palate for a kid, preferring the French preparation of snails and organ meets to hot dogs.

Whenever Dr. SJ cooked something interesting, which was fairly regularly, my son would be her sous chef, learning how to cook from someone who knew. It was a paradigm: someone with skill and knowledge would teach someone with passion and interest, but who had yet to become accomplished. 

What happened to this paradigm? 

At the Puddle, a few recent posts have struck me as scary. It’s unclear whether they would be better characterized as crazy or stupid, or maybe just a reflection of a shift where the basic paradigm was turned on its head, but it was plainly wrong.  In the most recent post, a new lawyer, Sybil Dunlop posts A New Lawyer’s Guide to Teaching a CLE.

I’m teaching a CLE with a colleague today, and I’m excited about both the topic and the presentation. Teaching a CLE, however, can be a lot of work. I have heard  more senior attorneys wonder if the non-billable work (creating the materials, the powerpoint, and the presentation) is worth it. Will the CLE help their reputation? Their business? I have no idea, but I can speak first hand to benefits new attorneys can reap when they jump into the CLE-teaching arena.
Look, ma! I’m teaching a CLE!!!  It’s not that she has no concerns, curiously raised by “more senior attorneys,” but none of those concerns have anything to do with the paradigm.

Are you working on an excessive force case? Now is the time to sign up to teach a qualified immunity CLE. This method has the advantage of honing your skills in a necessary area as well as motivating you to create the best possible CLE materials (they can double as case research).
There was once a time when a lawyer, burdened by humility, would think (and perhaps even say aloud if asked) that they were not yet qualified to teach other lawyers to do something that barely knew anything about.  There was a shameless quality to the hubris of assuming that they could teach before they achieved any mastery, a reputation for expertise.  What could they tell another lawyer when they were first testing their own ability to survive the crucible of court?

Gone. There is no reflection, no concern whatsoever, about whether the least knowledgeable person in the room would be the one standing in the front doing all the talking. Of course, given the opportunity to manufacture a bio as a teacher of other lawyers, qualifications be damned, it’s good for the n00b, Dunlop explains.  And isn’t that the most important thing about teaching?

Similarly, Randall Ryder at the Puddle wrote a post a while back about  how not to impress your law school professor, which related that he was an adjunct instructor at a local law school. Given the many, and sound, concerns about the relevance of law school to practice, many have put adjuncts on a pedestal, actual experienced practicing lawyers who can share what they’ve learned rather than just the obtuse theory that scholars adore. Cool, right?

But then, Ryder posted his reflections on his experience at the conclusion of his  first year of practice. Huh? So you were a law school adjunct when only months before you were still paying tuition and praying for a decent grade?  This is the experienced, practicing lawyer that upon whom students rely, with all of twelve minutes in the trenches?

Ryder’s pontifications caused me to think about another Puddle regular, Josh Camson, whose plan was to live-blog his first year of practice. It was an interesting concept provided it was presented as a window to his journey, but instead it quickly turned into punditry, Camson telling others what to do and how to do it, even though he had yet to figure out whether he would be successful or a spectacular flop in full, public view. 

Camson explained the other day that he  no longer takes telephone calls from clients, using the Alexis Neely method that sent her into bankruptcy. Important lawyers, apparently, are too busy to take calls from clients, and instead schedule times to return calls at their convenience, thus showing clients who is more important.  Camson told of how this freed up his time in his new practice:

When we first opened our firm, we got a thrill every time the phone rang. But now that we’ve built up our client base, the phone rings a lot. Of course it’s not just clients. It’s opposing counsel, officers, and so forth. But the phone rings constantly.
How wonderful that he has so many clients who think so well of him that they are thrilled to await his return call when he finds the time. Being a criminal defense lawyer, Camson’s rocket-like success is inspiring, especially when compared to another new lawyer whose career crashed and burned when he took on a murder case as his first jury trial. Camson would never do anything that insane, that unethical, that disgraceful, which is why his experiences are worthy of attention.

Even after 30 years of practicing criminal defense, I take client’s telephone calls if possible. If I’m next to the phone, I pick it up myself. The people calling are the people who have entrusted me with their lives, and I consider it an honor and duty to defend them. I’ve never been so special, so important, that I can’t answer a phone.  But then, I’ve never gone bankrupt either, so what do I know?

In a couple of weeks, I’m off to Memphis to do a CLE for the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. I’m never satisfied with the CLEs I teach, always thinking I could have been more interesting, and at the same time, failed to cover as much ground as I hoped. Even though I try to limit my presentation to a very narrow slice of law, I feel constrained to not tell the fun anecdotes that make things interesting for fear that I will leave something important out.  Too many years, too many experiences, too many problems seen and too many answers learned can do that to a lawyer.

It strikes me that lawyers with 5, 10, 20 years experience feel the same way I do.  On the other hand, I can’t imagine how a first year lawyer feels giving a CLE, where everyone In the room knows more than they do. And yet, there is neither shame nor humility in taking the podium.


15 comments on “Teach What To Whom?

  1. AP

    I read Ms. Dunlop’s post. I would have liked to post a comment there but unfortunately I couldn’t find an emoticon for “one tear rolling down my cheek.”

  2. SHG

    If there was such an emoticon, I fear it would have been interpreted as a tear of joy.

  3. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    Then Greenfield, you don’t know the actual definition of a fool, do you?? A fool is somebody who doesn’t know what I learned 10 minutes ago . . .

    And this post, for some odd reason, causes me to hearken back to my 11-year-old nephew telling me, now 15 years ago or so, that, “You’re an idiot with a CAPITAL ‘E’!!” . . . LOL

  4. RAFIV

    Wait! You mean I have spent thousands of dollars and dozens of hours sitting in CLEs to increase my knowledge base when I should have been teaching them instead? Why did I waste all that time and money when A quick Westlaw search (c’mon, I pay for it anyway), some power points and voila! I am an expert. Hell I can even add my teaching credentials to my Avvo profile and boost my rating. /facepalm

  5. Jill McMahon

    Take out “‘s Guide to” and it becomes something of an oxymoron. Also, it would be a perfect example of “Those who can’t do [yet], teach.” Re: cooking:last from the past from Scientific American: “The Physics of Sauce Bernaise,” ca. 1970s pub. date.

  6. Jill McMahon

    Add: “The Physics and Chemistry of a Failed Sauce Béarnaise,” Scientific American, December, 1979.

  7. SB

    First, setting aside the brutal lack of self awareness at the root of your complaint, where are the mentors and bar folks pumping the brakes? It takes more than one person to put on a CLE.

    Second, why would young attorneys stake out highly complex, trial oriented areas of law? Legislative/regulatory updates in the transactional context can be valuable, particularly when a few mentors have vetted their work, without the downside of looking like a git.*

    *I’m assuming A) reading comprehension and thoroughness are not issues and B) they have mentors.

  8. SHG

    This goes back to the ongoing complaint about CLE providers, who want warm bodies and either couldn’t give a damn about competence or can’t tell the difference.

    As for mentors, that raises another painful issue, where young lawyers seek out mentors who rub their tummy and tell them how fabulous they are rather than guide them to become mature and responsible lawyers. It’s not that there aren’t great mentors available for young lawyers, but that’s not the sort of mentor they want.

  9. Jordan Rushie

    Does anyone else think it’s strange that I can get Marc Randazza, Eric Turkewitz, or Scott Greenfield on the phone without needing an appointment, but not Josh Camson…?

    Perhaps I didn’t realize Camson’s time was so much more important than that of his clients and colleagues.

    And Scott, c’mon, there is only one lawyer in the country who would be so unethical, immoral, and cavalier to take on a murder trial as his first jury trial. We’ve already been down that road once. No one else could possibly be that stupid.

  10. Carolyn Elefant

    I suspect that the reason that Josh isn’t able to personally answer his phone whereas his more senior colleagues often do is because as a newer lawyer, he is probably handling 5-8 small matters for every one large case that his other colleagues handle. A non-volume practice affords the luxury of personal service for which clients will pay more. If you’re handling a lot of clients, scheduling call backs is really the only way to serve all of them – otherwise you will spend more time playing phone tag than anything else.

  11. SHG

    When I was a young lawyer and carried a greater volume of cases, I answered calls from clients. It wasn’t a problem. Is it different now? Is this a reason or an excuse? Notably, when a lawyer answers calls from his clients, the “phone tag” issue doesn’t exist because the call has been answered.

    On the other hand, 30 years ago there were no cellphones, so it was substantially harder to return calls. Today, with cellphones being ubiquitous, it’s far easier and phone tag is far less of a concern. So we’re back to the original question of why answering calls is a problem for Josh when it wasn’t a problem for us old guys?

    But to Jordan’s point, the grandiosity of Josh’s “I refuse to take client phone calls and will only speak to clients when I decide to call them at my convenience” attitude that’s disturbing. That’s not about logistics, but self-importance.

  12. Jordan Rushie


    I am also a young lawyer, one who takes on smaller cases to keep the lights on. And I still answer my own phone. If I can’t take the call, I either let it go to voicemail or I tell the client “I’m right in the middle of something but your call is important. Do you mind if we chat later this afternoon so I have time to address your concerns adequately?”

    Really, it’s not hard – even if you have more than three clients.

    Josh, I’m sorry, I meant to say “Mr. Camson,” believes that his time is more valuable than everyone else’s, apparently because a failed and bankrupt lawyer told him so.

    The only way I can see this working for a criminal defense attorney is if all your work is court appointed. In which case, I guess you can treat everyone like crap and bask in light of your self importance, blissful that you’ll never have to muster the discipline to hit the “do not disturb” or “ignore” button on the phone ever again. Because you’re way too important for that.

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