Mr. Mitchell Stocks: Practical Skills – Tough Love

Updated: May 27, 2020

Serving as office managing partner with an international law firm and Asia general counsel at a multinational corporation might be an unlikely path to university teaching, but for Mr. Mitchell Stocks, higher education is a fitting destination to help law students bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Could you introduce us to your experience as a practicing lawyer and a legal educator?

I am new to legal education. I started teaching part-time at City University of Hong Kong (City U) in 2012. A fortuitous sequence of encounters with strangers led me to the City U Law Faculty and later to become its PCLL director and now assistant dean for teaching and learning at CUHK.

At City U, I started out teaching just two small groups in Commercial Writing and Drafting, a course I eventually led. I later taught Commercial Practice and Professional Practice. These courses allowed me to use my twenty plus years of legal experience to help students position themselves to make better mistakes than I did as a new associate.

How have you incorporated practical skills into your courses?

As examples:

I refocused the commercial practice course at City U to help students develop two essential skills:

1. How to advise clients on commercial matters; and

2. How to document them in plain English.

Through an existing case study, the students explored the life cycle of a company from cradle to grave by doing what commercial lawyers do. They helped their clients transition a small business into the corporate form, drafted a shareholders agreement, hired employees, documented a joint venture with another commercial party, bought a business, borrowed money, encountered financial problems, and went through insolvency proceedings. At each step, students drafted documents based on client instructions and anticipated objections from the opposing parties in simulations of the legal world to come.

My commercial practice students also grew fond of the “trainee mistake of the week.” A slide would appear in my large group PowerPoint posing a hypothetical law firm situation which I would explore with a “lucky” student. Topics included taking instructions from a supervisor, communicating simply with a lay client, attention to detail, punctuality, law firm gossip, and social drinking.

In my commercial writing and drafting course, we focused on writing and drafting conventions and refining plain English expression. One useful exercise during large group lecture was to take pro-seller and pro-buyer versions of an agreement, compare them using the Word Compare function, and analyze the differences. This helped students see what is missing and what is added to the different forms and how that might affect their client’s interests. It also demonstrated to students, the importance of the first mover’s advantage in document drafting and, why, if there is an opportunity to draft the form, they should volunteer to do so.

How do students benefit from a practice-based programme like the PCLL?

The PCLL program is the ‘on ramp to the autobahn’. Imagine a legal journey that starts in a rural Bavarian village surrounded by dark forbidding forests, landscaped farms, and thatched cottages. Students bounce along a cobblestone street in an ox cart as they struggle to learn the black letter law.

As students progress to their second and third years, they upgrade to a scooter, encounter pavement, and pick up speed as they accumulate a body of legal knowledge and begin to put concepts together.