Parenthood changes a person. For a decade now I’ve spent an hour or more each weekend at a horse farm, watching my daughters take riding lessons. Watching them learn the craft of riding has led me to reflect on how I teach the craft of law.
Chad M. Oldfather, Virginia 1993, is the associate dean for research and a professor of law at Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee.
My daughters have come far. They’ve advanced from struggling to steer to riding complex courses of jumps approaching four feet high. Progress has been gradual, and at times almost imperceptible. But so much of what once required great effort they now do entirely by feel.
Accompanying them on their journey has allowed me to watch instruction from the beginner to the Olympic levels. Two things have struck me. First, the consistent return to fundamentals. Second, how poorly words capture the knowledge being passed along. Phrases that first appear in the instruction of intermediate riders seem never to be displaced. The emphasis changes. But the learning takes place through another channel, through repetition and correction. The skills are too subtle for verbal formulas.
There’s an easy parallel with law. What takes effort as law student and new lawyer becomes intuitive. Experiences from one case or transaction provide insight into others that at first seem unrelated. We develop, then sharpen, what Professor Karl Llewellyn called “situation sense.” We begin to appreciate what Justice Holmes meant when he wrote of confronting seemingly hard cases but finding that “when you walk up to the lion and lay hold the hide comes off and the same old donkey of a question of law is underneath.”
I teach mostly in the first year. Lately it occurs to me how little I remember of what I thought I was learning in my own first year. It’s a haze of peppercorns, foxes running across wastelands, and a heightened sense of the dangers of not unplugging the toaster.
What takes effort as law student and new lawyer becomes intuitive. Experiences from one case or transaction provide insight into others that at first seem unrelated.
It would be foolish to suggest that I learned nothing. But it turns out that what stuck was less the doctrine and more the underlying ideas. I acquired more “knowledge how” than “knowledge that.” I started to learn, as the saying goes, to think like a lawyer. It’s a process involving the development of intuition and feel, much like learning to ride a horse.
I have not abandoned teaching “knowledge that.” We study criminal law using Wisconsin materials, and my constitutional law class features all the standard cases. But I have become more mindful of, and explicit about, the fact that I am teaching “knowledge how.” I have tried to adapt, in ways that are often as much about attitude as they are about technique, the best of what I have seen in the world of riding instruction. More fundamentals. More repetition.
None of this is revolutionary, or even unique. I have not solved all the challenges confronting legal education in our changing world. But I believe that I have found insight, and wisdom, and a window into becoming a better teacher, in an unlikely place at the side of a riding ring.