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How to Teach Law Without Even Trying

By William Tetley, Q.C.

I started practicing law in 1952 and in 1968 was elected to the National Assembly replacing Eric Kierans as the member in the Assembly for NDG and Minister in Bourassa’s first Cabinet . Eventually, eight years of politics burned me out, but I had no idea of what I might do, when in 1976, at the end of an Inter-Provincial Conference in Toronto, I had two hours before the plane left, and I went into the law offices of McMillan Binch, who were old maritime law friends. One of the partners (Arthur Stone, presently of the Federal Court of Appeal) asked me to read a judgment of a case that the firm had lost. Should they go to appeal? I had kept up my reading of law reports at night during my eight years in politics, and when I read the judgment, I said right away that they should appeal. (They did and won two years later).

I was introduced to the young lawyer who had lost the case, and he was pleased with my opinion, as the firm was doubtful about appealing. He added that next day he was leaving to start a new career as a professor of law at the University of Toronto. (He was Robert Sharpe and years later he became Dean and later still a judge of the Ontario High Court and is now in the Ontario Court of Appeal.) It struck me at the time that if he could teach, then I could teach. I immediately telephoned McGill Law Faculty, asked the name of the Dean, was told it was Brierley. I thought it was Jim Brierley, with whom I had practiced, but learned it was his younger brother John, who invited me to lunch that day at the Faculty Club, where he offered me a job on the spot.

Teaching at McGill has been exhilarating and much more difficult than I thought it would be.

I started my first year of teaching with four different courses. Today, new professors usually start with only two courses – "teaching with training wheels", one old timer calls it. I was in effect teaching a course on the civil law of sale, a course on admiralty law, as well as course on consumer law and another on insurance law. The latter two subjects were based on statutes that I had adopted over a five year period as Minister – the Consumer Protection Act and the Insurance Act. But there is much more to a statute than is known to the Minister. The Minister appreciates the broad legal consequences, but not the nuances. For three years I worked painfully over those courses, bringing them up to scratch, while the course on Maritime Law and the course on Sale were just as difficult.

My first day of teaching was not auspicious. Before I could begin my lecture, a student who represented a faction in the student body got up and raised some point about the method of teaching, which was being raised in every class in the Faculty. In fact a general Faculty rebellion was in progress. The students wanted input into what and how the professors taught. Another student then raised the other point of view and there were more shouts and murmurs, until one student asked me what I thought about the question, "based on my great experience as a teacher". I innocently explained that I had no opinion, as I had no experience as a teacher, this being my first lecture. The whole class broke into laughter and howled and cried for three or four minutes. I was mortified and to redeem myself I added, when they quietened down, that I had taught Sunday school for eleven years. This caused another five minutes of hysterics and mayhem and when it subsided, the whole matter seemed forgotten. They no doubt thought I was beyond redemption. I proceeded with my lecture and the rebellion passed me by, while other professors were subject to contestation for a week or more.

The "Socratic" method of teaching was another challenge. I had been told that I was supposed to teach by that method, whereby the professor asks a student a question, which elicits an answer and then skilfully he asks another question and so on until "eureka" the truth is arrived at. The problem is that very few professors have the skills of Socrates, while very few students are modern day Platos or Aristotles. After three or four weeks of teaching, I decided to give the Socratic method a try, but my style was more cross-examination than gently leading the student on and the first student, a very serious lady student, eventually broke into tears. The class fell silent and it took one or two lectures to recover a sense of compatibility with the students. Now I ask questions around the room, but don’t badger individual students unless it is someone who enjoys a debate.

William Tetley, Q.C., B.A. (McGill) professor, McGill University Law Faculty and Counsel to Langlois Kronström Desjardins

E-mail: william [dot] tetley [at] mcgill [dot] ca (William Tetley)
Web: http://www.mcgill.ca/maritimelaw

Prof. Prof. William Tetley, Q.C., practiced law from 1952 to 1968, in what is now Fasken Martineau, DuMoulin, was in the Quebec National Assembly from 1968-1976 and from 1976 to the present has taught law at McGill University. He is Counsel to Langlois Kronström Desjardins of Montreal and Quebec City.

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