Stern faces and stiff competition may be the norm for lawyers on TV, but in real life collaboration, cooperation and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) are key. Peter Alexander is using innovative teaching methods to de-mystify what it means to be a lawyer and better prepare students for legal practice.
“One of the things I find startling about teaching law students is they’re so influenced by the image of the lawyer that they don’t have an understanding of what a lawyer actually does,” says Casual Academic in the Faculty of Law Peter Alexander.
“In the large law firms there’s lots of competition between lawyers in terms of promotion, but cases are not dealt with in isolation. Colleagues have case meetings where they work together and strategise on particular cases and then go away and work on their own.
“One of the fastest growing areas of law is collaborative law where, when they start a case, lawyers on both sides sign a contract to say they are going to work to try to resolve the problem. So there’s a paradigm shift where collaboration, cooperation and ADR are the way of the future.”
Earlier this year, Alexander received a UTS Learning and Teaching Citation for outstanding motivation and support of law students.
The academic, who was humbled by the nomination, says, “When I saw that people got what I was trying to do, and were benefiting from it, particularly the students, I was chuffed! Now that I’ve received the citation, it’s really encouraged me to apply for other grants, to impact on the students more and more.”
Alexander says he aims to give students “a head start” and “make them better lawyers”.
“I had to wait til I was in my early 30s before I started seeing how things tick in law. I want my students to start their legal lives with this knowledge.”
A qualified social worker and solicitor of the Supreme Court of NSW (he has more than 15 years’ experience in the corporate, commercial and community law sectors), Alexander uses his own real-world case studies and parallels between the lawyer/client and teacher/student relationships to illustrate his points in class.
“In my view, part of being a good teacher is spending time working out how each different person in the class actually absorbs knowledge. Some might absorb all of their learning at the end of the semester and have that ‘light bulb’ moment, but some of us pick up on things straight away.
“In my view, that’s got nothing to do with intelligence. It’s got to do with the methodologies we use as teachers and how those methodologies impact on the way in which students absorb knowledge.”
One of Alexander’s key methodologies, used in the Perspectives on Law subject, is holding mid-semester student self-evaluations with follow-up face-to-face conversations.
“While they’re undertaking group work in class, I wait outside and every few minutes I’ll call a person’s name. I’ll have a two-and-a-half minute tête-à-tête, or face-to-face discussion, with them about their evaluation form and we end up talking about a number of things which affect why they do or don’t participate in class.
“Very often it’s got something to do with a minor issue like, ‘I’m shy’, or ‘There’s a person in the class that I’m intimidated by’, or ‘You said something three weeks ago which made me realise that I’ve been thinking about things the wrong way’. They might also talk about things external to university – ‘I’m working three jobs’, or ‘I just lost my baby’, or ‘I’m having family issues’ – a whole range of things.”
While Alexander acknowledges his methods may be controversial to some, he says the benefits are clear: “The student becomes more comfortable with themselves and with their role to participate in class.
“I think a lot of academics might construe that as not being within their role, but of course it’s within their role.
However, he’s quick to add, “It’s not counselling, it’s just a way of communicating with the student one-on-one. You do it while the tutorial is being undertaken, in the group work mode of learning, so it’s cost effective as well.”
Anecdotal evidence shows Alexander’s methods work. “I’ve found that in the last three years where I’ve been doing this, the students have been very satisfied with my teaching and have improved their class participation marks.”
His students agree. In fact, Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Business student Chris Booth nominated Alexander for the UTS citation. “Peter has changed the way I look at law and the legal profession by showing me that it’s okay to see the law through modern eyes, and that a good answer is simple.”
“Sometimes studying law feels like being beaten over the head. The volume of work you are expected to get through is huge, almost all of it is technical and hard to read, let alone understand.
“Peter streamlines the process. He’s able to break down bulky legal principles in ways that other teachers don't seem to be able to do, or perhaps don't want to do, and then delivers the essentials in plain, simple terms. He also has a flow and tone when he speaks that just seems to carry you along. It's kind of like a Pied Piper effect and it makes everyone understand and feel part of the process.”
Juris Doctor student Robert Dillon agrees. “Where the study of law can often seem impersonal, dry and distant, Peter emphasises the impact the law can have in people's lives. He distinguishes himself as an educator by getting students to think beyond the next assessment to what it means to be a lawyer.”
This year, Alexander also applied for and received a UTS First Year Experience Grant. He says, “I’m going to continue on this path of trying to introduce methods of teaching which can assist students to absorb knowledge and learn more, and apply theory to the way they undertake their learning.
“Some of my colleagues might view me as being a ‘soft academic’ because I’m very much focused on the way I teach, my main emphasis is not research. But empathy has nothing to do with being soft; it has to do with understanding.
“I hope the way in which students see me, enables them to realise they can be themselves and still be successful. They don’t have to be this archetypical aggressive, insensitive person. Being a good lawyer is having an understanding of who you’re dealing with, it’s being a good reader of people and understanding how people tick.”