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?
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.
After graduation and upon entry to the PCLL, students hit a dead stop. Before them is the onramp to the autobahn. In two short semesters, students must accelerate from zero to 160 kilometers per hour to safely merge into the speeding traffic.
The question is how to thrive and survive and not get ran over?
Yes. In these two semesters, we must help students learn to apply the black letter law to do something useful for someone. It is not enough just to know the law, students must apply it to help others.
The key is to help students understand law’s human dimension. How can you explain difficult concepts in simple terms a lay client will understand? What are your client’s, goals, hopes, and fears? What are the goals, hopes, and fears of the other parties? What do you do when your position is refuted? How do you reach a compromise?
We should test students on the positions they take. Why are they taking them? What legal and non-legal interests do they serve? How is the other side likely to act? What is their alternative position and how will they argue it? How aggressive should they be and what implications will that have on how the other side will respond over the course of a long-term negotiation and contractual relationship? These are some of the important considerations on which students are unlikely to be focused unless they are guided to ponder them.
This is the behavioral side of the law that teachers might begin to instill in students. And it’s never too early to start. LLB and JD students would also benefit from time spent developing these practical skills in selected classes.
In short, the early days of practicing law is about figuring out how to survive and thrive, it’s about how to be perceptive, how to be empathetic, how to present well. The whole point of the PCLL is to provide to those who work hard a smooth and successful transition from learning black letter law to applying it during a training contract or pupillage and beyond.
What is your teaching philosophy?
I want my students to think for themselves and to learn by doing.
I am driven by my experience as a practicing lawyer. Most students who come through our programme are interested in practicing law. Thus, I am trying to prepare them for legal careers.
So, when I give feedback to students on their work, I am thinking about what I would be saying if they had presented this to me as a partner in a law firm. Of course, feedback must be modulated for a student’s level. Expectations should be higher for PCLL students than for first-year LLB students.
But it is never too early to highlight issues that are likely to cause students problems in any future work environment. To me, any encounter with students may be a teachable moment. If a student is late for a meeting, we will talk about punctuality. If they are struggling to express themselves well in plain English, I will suggest that they visit the English Language Center or various English-language learning websites for help. The students may feel uncomfortable, but they will remember the “tough love” and learn from it.
Finally, I want my students to be excited about what they might accomplish with their law degree and to have grand expectations of themselves, but to understand that the legal workplace can be an unforgiving place. I want them to use their law degree and PCLL certificate wisely, to learn the black letter law and practical and behavior skills necessary to merge successfully onto the autobahn, and to enjoy the ride.
By Vivian Chen