Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Paper Free Semester Project - Rules

If I'm gonna go paper-free next semester I'll need to lay down some ground rules, I'm also going to have to have a think about what tools I'm going to use. So, first things first the rules . . . .   

1. No printing, of anything, no cases, photocopies, essay drafts, nothing.
2. If I'm doing any group work, and the group needs anything I give it to them electronically.

So far so good, now comes the tricky part, can I make any exceptions? Does buying books count? I like buying course books, sorry that's not true, I like having a copy of at least one of the major textbooks that go with my course (parting with my hard earned cash I don't like so much). So, do I make an exception to the rule and let myself buy one book per class? Or, do I just tough it out and use the library for all my research and reading? I'm pretty sure most of the Scottish legal textbooks don't come in kindle format (yet), so I'm faced with a dilemma. 

My gut feeling is that I can't really claim to be paper-free if I'm buying two books, each of which is the size of a yellow pages, per semester. With that in mind I'm gonna try to go book-free too. This should mean more library time, which can only be a good thing! Should I or could I have any exceptions to my rule? Thinking my way through a typical semester the only place where I think I would absolutely need to print anything would be when I'm preparing my bundle for the Judge at a moot. So there it is the rules in a nutshell, no paper, no books, the only exception is at a moot. I've got my rules, now I need to have a think about the tools, watch this space . . . 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Same Sex Marriage, go on you know you want to!

Following a recent bit of chat on twitter where I found the 140 character limit, well, limiting I thought i'd do a wee blog post about my feelings on same sex marriage, so here it is, in a nutshell. I can't help but think that the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church are just plain wrong about how same-sex marriage could be damaging to society. Their desire to protect and defend 'traditional' marriage strikes me as ridiculous and is to my mind a fine place to start.

As far as I can see, the idea of traditional marriage is dying in this country and rightly so. Women are no longer given away by their fathers in any real sense of the word. Traditional marriage was about transferring ownership and responsibility for the poor hapless woman, from the hands of her father to those of a new man who could take care of her, look after her finances etc. Then there's the ceremonial traditions, how many modern brides can claim that their white dress reflects their virginal purity? This is all before getting into the fact that marital rape was only properly outlawed in Scotland in 1989, I'll say it again folks, 1989! I could go on citing many examples of what 'traditional' marriage is, and what is represented by the various parts of the wedding ceremony along with the legal status of the participants, but what I'm getting at is that the idea of traditional marriage is not a good one. 

What does make sense, and good social policy is to recognise what marriage means now, and why people get married in this day and age. I've had the pleasure of attending five weddings this year along with a civil partnership ceremony. All of which were beautiful and all of which I was glad to have been a part of. Having seen so many friends tie the knot recently and having big conversations with the happy couples about their aspirations, hopes and dreams I can honestly say that all the couples I'm friendly with have married for love and the desire to have a lifelong companion. None of them married for any reason other than a firm desire to be together, forever, sharing their lives by forming their own little family unit. This is right and true and decent and good and powerful and a thing to be encouraged. 

This is not traditional marriage, there were no dowries, or transfer of estates. None of the participants lost their virginity on their wedding night. All of them lived together prior to their wedding, and all of them made an informed, adult decision to commit to a life together through thick and thin, for the rest of their days. This is not traditional marriage, this is modern marriage and it is a beautiful heart-warming thing. Why then would we as a society have any problem with allowing every consenting adult in the country to make this decision regardless of gender or sexual orientation?   

The opposition from religious groups tends to centre around a few key arguments, which strike me as misguided, ill informed nonsense and feels like they're clutching at straws.

First comes the idea that allowing same-sex marriage could put off heterosexual couples from getting married. This is my favourite, because it's so ridiculous it's actually laughable. I can't imagine any couple, ever, when planning to make a lifelong commitment to one another, living in a society where civil partnership is lawful, giving even a nanosecond’s consideration to what any other couple is up to, or allowed to do in law, regardless of their sexual orientation. Couples getting married, do so thinking only of each other and their future together, nothing else!

Then there's the idea that the 'equality agenda' is out to get the church and they'll eventually be forced to marry gay couples. No one can be compelled to perform a marriage ceremony, and the new legislation won't change that. Anyway, what couple in their right mind would choose to be wed by a dour faced, disapproving homophobic priest being forced against his will to perform a ceremony? C'mon now guys get real! 

If I'm honest, as a heterosexual man I'd like the option to enter into a civil partnership with a woman. I like the idea of deciding to spend my life with someone and having the ability to enter into a relationship which is legally designed to be a relationship of equals, a partnership. There are parts of the world today where marriage is akin to slavery, with the woman becoming for all intents and purposes the property of her husband, while that's no longer the case in this country I'm not too keen on carrying on the tradition. 

All that said I’m just scratching the surface, however I can't help but think that anyone who wants to make a lifelong commitment to their partner in a loving, consensual adult relationship should absolutely be allowed to do so, in addition it should not only be endorsed by the state, but actively encouraged!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Paper Free Semester Project

It's that time of year again, the time when consumerism goes wild in the celebration of that most beloved of holidays, Christmas! I love it, love seeing family, love the big get together and the meal, the odd whisky or two with uncle Dave, the younger family members playing with their new toys and the whole family getting cosy in front of the TV watching a DVD to round it off. This year however thoughts of Christmas gave way to thoughts of technology, picture the scene, it's pay-day, late November, and I realise there's Christmas shopping to be done, gifts to be bought and the likes. So in order to make sure I get through it all, without forgetting anyone, I whip out my mobile and quickly create a tick list on my "Due Today" app, get dressed and head to work. On my tea-break I pull out my phone and am reminded of the shopping that needs to be done, so I pop open my eBay and Amazon apps, and within 20 minutes, I've got though about a third of my Christmas shopping. The experience made me smile, and made me think about one of my favourite gifts from last year, my Kindle, and just how much time I've spent using it this year.

Reflecting on my much loved Kindle, along with how useful I find my recently acquired smart-phone and the fact that I've started taking lecture notes on my netbook, I've had a wee thought. Can I get myself through the rest of my law degree without printing off another sheet of paper? I'm betting that I can, especially with the help of some hi-tech toys. So here it is, my challenge to myself, the paper-free semester Project. I'll run a wee thread in my blog about how I get on, and the tools I use to do it! Wish me luck . . . .

Monday, 28 November 2011

Apparently I'm a Slasher . . .

Rumour has it that if you can categorise yourself like this: Student/croupier/mooter/partner/swimmer you might be a slasher too! This idea and it's dramatic name, (believe me I don't feel like a baddie in a low budget horror) caught my attention recently and got me thinking. I've done a lot of different jobs in my life for a lot of different people, in environments as varied as casinos, cruise ships, offices and luxury hotels, I've been a sales manager, croupier and auctioneer and now find myself ½ way through my law degree, working full time to pay for it, all the while trying to have some kind of life. It's not always easy, in fact it gets quite hard at times!

It's for this reason that I try to find ways and means of making it easier. Why make life any more difficult than it has to be, right? Saying that I didn't need to go back to university, or take on any of the extra responsibilities that I have and they all make life more difficult than it has to be, I digress. With all these fun little extras not to forget the major events such as work and Uni how do we best become a successful 'slasher'? (Believe me when I say I'm wincing every time I use the term, it's almost as bad as saying I'll be taking a 'proactive approach' implementing 'blue-sky' thinking, I'm not a fan of management speak, it all strikes me as a bit Orwellian). So my top tips for successful slashing, or to use a less scary adjective/metaphor, juggling, are en-route, it's all about being organised and having a bit of self discipline.

Once upon a time I had a busy job and a fancy pda machine, I relied on it for everything, one day it broke and my life collapsed. On that day, or at the very least on a day not long after (when the tears of rage and the pain of loss had subsided) I rushed out and bought myself a wee paper diary. Which was awesome, paper doesn't crash, lose your files etc, etc. This was how it went for a good few years until a few happy months ago when I got my first proper smart-phone. I now have in my pocket at all times the perfect tool for keeping on top of everything. With the use of a few cracking apps, I find myself able to organise my life and also get some degree of reading and work done away from home and on my breaks at work, happy days!

The apps I'd most recommend are:
  1. Polaris Office: lets you read and edit documents spreadsheets and power-point files
  2. Wordnet: an excellent free dictionary app
  3. Sugarsync: Lets you send and pick up your files from any computer you use,
  4. Due Today: An excellent to do list app, which also lets you set reminders
  5. Touch Calendar: A brilliant calendar app which can bring together existing calendars into a single diary allowing you to edit them.

I find that with these few programs along with the standard email and internet options available with most smart-phones today it's very easy to keep track of everything and make sure you're on top of all your responsibilities. The only occasional problem is battery life, for that reason I’ve almost always got a USB cable with me that'll let me charge my phone from any computer with a USB port.

Anyhoo, busy busy, off to work then I've got an assignment to submit!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Procrastination, Dusty Tomes and Hi-Tech toys

Having a few minor computer problems and struggling to find the motivation to work at home has seen me actually drag myself out of the house this week in order to go to University. That's right, no Westlaw, no printing things off, no reading cases from a computer screen or kindle, I've actually been in to the library, found the law section, and blew the dust off of a few good old fashioned books . . . and I’ve quite enjoyed it.

I posted earlier this year about the difference between live lectures and webcasts, and the idea that going to Uni should be about going to Uni. It seems I’ve been a little lazy, I’d been going to lectures but not spending a great deal of time anywhere else on the campus, which I now regret immensely! Spending the time in the library, reading the cases from the musky old books makes me feel a great deal more connected to the material. I must confess that it’s a new experience for me to be able to smell the material I’m reading, there’s something very warm and a great deal less sterile about reading  cases and journal articles on paper, old, old paper as opposed to the screen of my (much loved) kindle

I must stress at this point my love of technology, I’ve got a fancy top of the line android phone, and later this month I’m planning on ditching my netbook in favour of a tablet/netbook hybrid machine, I love cloud storage and Spotify. I’ve dabbled in Linux, was the first of my friends to own a kindle, do most of my shopping via the eBay app on my phone and am a bit of a tweet deck junkie. I’m just starting to think that Marshall McLuhan’s much quoted ‘the medium is the message’ is becoming more and more true today. We’re more and more excited about the fancy phone and the fact that it can do cool things than we are about the value that those things can bring to our lives. I’ve been reading You are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto by Jaron Lanier and think some of his ideas are brilliant, for example, by endlessly re-tweeting the opinions or stories of others you’re nothing more than a mirror, reflecting the thoughts of another. Lanier is a champion for the creation of original content, which is something I whole-heartedly approve of.  

I suppose what I’m getting at, without trying to overly romanticise things is that reading law, reading anything for that matter is about communication. The tools we use to communicate are more and more often becoming hi-tech, and it’s easy to get lost in the joy of the toy rather than find the time to really engage with the material. I’ve found that by switching off the screen and reading from the dusty, musky book, which doesn’t have any functions other than the communication of information, I’ve gained a little something. 

That said, I did write this while I was supposed to be working on an essay and if you’re reading this you’ll probably be doing so from a screen . . .

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Once more into the breach dear friends . . .

All good things come to and end, and the relaxing summer spent away from University, exams, stress and study definitely qualifies. I find myself thinking about my summer; the weddings I've been to, the changes I've seen at work, the chaos in the news, riots in London and various events in the wider world. All this serves to remind me that maybe it wasn't such a relaxing summer, maybe without Uni to go to I manage to fill my life and my time with other things, things every bit as engaging as Uni.

During term time I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure I'm up to date with reading, webcasts etc. I also try to find time to pick up extra curricular activities; mooting, volunteering, blogging. This is all done against a background of working full time (to find the money to pay for the degree) and trying to find time to spend with family and friends. This summer the grand plan was to look ahead to the subjects I'll be taking next term and do a little pre-season training to give myself a head start . . . didn't happen. So I found myself on Monday, with three weeks till term starts, feeling a little guilty about not have done any work over the summer then came the eureka moment. I realized that It's all good, there's no problem, term doesn't start for THREE WEEKS, I'll just do what everyone else does and study during term and not beat myself up about it!

I'm now feeling all kinds of glad about having had a summer which although not quiet had a distinct lack of academic stuff. Having not spent a lot of time with the books I'm feeling pretty well rested mentally and looking forward to the new term. Roll on Domestic Relations and Commercial Law . . .

Monday, 2 May 2011

Greenday, undergraduate studies and the Dunning-Kruger effect

What links the three things mentioned above? A pop-punk-rock band, trying to fill you brain with new ideas for the first time and a theory of cognitive bias? For me they all came together recently when thinking about my upcoming exams.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the name given to the phenomenon where by people who have very little skill, talent or ability think they're actually quite good at something, while those with skill,talent or ability often think of themselves as less competent than they actually are. The bottom end of this scale is why, year after year we see utterly talentless x-factor hopefuls genuinely surprised at their failure. The idea behind this, is that the incompetent lack the knowledge and understanding to recognise how bad they are while those in the know recognise just how much they don't know!

There's a Greenday song called knowledge, the chorus of which repeats the lyrics 'all I know is that I don't know nothing' with a jaunty pop-punk feel. I like it, it often pops into my mind when I'm studying, because I know for sure that I don't know nothing, I know something, of course I do, I go to class, take notes and I'm sitting studying. the question is do I know enough? This is the point where Dunning-Kruger raises its ugly head, because the more I learn the more I realise how truly massive the subject is and accordingly just how much I don't know. The fear kicks in, I work harder and the cycle continues. I think the nature of under-graduate study is such that because you're constantly being introduced to subjects for the first time and having to fill your head with them, fully aware of the fact that there are others who've devoted their whole life to these areas and you're only scratching the surface it's very easy to feel overwhelmed by it all.

But it's all good, it works for me, on more than one occasion I've walked in to exams, worried that I didn't know enough, or hadn't developed a full enough understanding of the subject, only to be pleasantly surprised when results time came.

I suppose the moral of the story is don't let the fear creep in too much, get the work done and you'll get through, it's worked for me so far . . . .

Friday, 15 April 2011

It's just not the same in real life . . .

If like me you fancy becoming a lawyer when you grow up you've no doubt seen a few TV shows or films over the years which have made it all look like great fun. It's hard to deny the appeal of being a lawyer like the ones on the telly, especially the fun ones like Denny Crane or Allan Shore from 'Boston Legal'. I do however sometimes wonder if there's any value in having a fictional lawyer as a role model? The more I learn about the law, both academically and from a practical point of view, the further away those fictional lawyers seem.

I'm sure that's due in no small part to geography and status. The life of a senior partner in a fictional American law firm like 'Crane, Pool and Schmidt' is no doubt very different to the life of a partner in a real world Scottish firm.That gap widens even further when looking at the life of a newly qualified lawyer or trainee. The TV shows are cool, sexy, funny, edgy and even a little political from time to time but do they have anything to offer over and above pure entertainment?

I think there are a few things to be taken from the fictional lawyers out there. Lets start with the TV show Boston Legal. Who wouldn't want to have at least some of the attributes of Denny Crane, the septuagenarian senior partner of a law firm who has been massively successful in business and has never personally lost a case? OK maybe a little far fetched and too much to hope for. I very much doubt that there are any lawyers out there who've had fifty years of practising law, during which they've never lost a case, but surely it's something to aspire to as a lawyer working in an adversarial system? Personally, my favourite fictional lawyer is Atticus Finch, from Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mocking Bird. Intelligent, hard working, honest to a fault, full of integrity and compassion, a man of high moral standards who is unwilling to break the rules while being faultlessly professional.

I may an idealistic law student and somewhat naive but I often find something of interest in the fictional lawyers I encounter. The legal tales they populate may not always give a solid reflection of how the law works, what's likely to happen in real life, or even what's possible within the bounds of the law, however these characters often have some attributes which I feel I could learn from.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Keeping the balls in the air . . .

I like to juggle, I can bust out a pretty tidy mills mess for any juggling enthusiasts, but like many of my hobbies it's taken a back seat over the last few years, specifically from September to May. My University course runs form September to May, coincidence? I think not! In order to pay my way through the LL.B I'm working full time. I'm worried about having a CV that's not brimming with legal experience so I'm trying to pick up as many extras as I can. To that end in my 1st year I volunteered two afternoons per week at a law firm, in 2nd year I joined the mooting society and made the quarter final of the internal competition, hurrah! The thing is, it's not easy, being committed for so much of my time is, well, time consuming!

In essence this post is about time management and motivation, for me the two are closely linked. It's hard to get anything done when you're not motivated, and with so much to do in so little time it's also hard to get anything done without being organised. When I'm organised and have a schedule I feel a lot more motivated, It's circular.

I learned a lot about time management a few years ago, I was working for a large company in an incredibly entrepreneurial environment. I often found myself working 65+ hours per week and doing a wide variety of tasks, from conducting seminars and talks to having meetings with clients and organising my staff. The biggest thing I learned, and this probably won't come as a massive surprise, was the importance of a well kept diary. As smart phones were in their infancy, I used a palm pilot, an electronic diary/organiser which was fantastic, until one day it crashed. I was utterly lost, from that day forward I've been a big fan of using a paper diary. The battery never dies, it'll never crash, and it's a lot cheaper to replace if you loose it!

When I've got a pretty full list of jobs demanding my attention, and I'm trying to work out what one to do first I try to always go for the one I want to do least, that awkward niggley one. I do this because getting it out of the way can be very liberating as the sense of dread is gone and the rest of the jobs feel much less of a chore! Another legal blogger Michelle Hynes calls this swallowing a frog, a name which I quite like!

I like to try to work/study with other people, which is yet another thing to organise. The benefits of group study are massive, it can often allow you to see things you'd miss on your own as well as help your understanding through discussion and interpretation of other peoples perspectives, but that's not all! I find it's a good motivator, I don't like being the one who's shown up empty handed so before a group session I'm more likely to get some work done. Also I'm quite competitive and I think my study buddies are a little more high flying academically than me, so it forces me to raise the bar on myself to keep up.  

And that's it, don't procrastinate, keep a good diary, work hard in good company and you can't go too far wrong! 

Friday, 25 March 2011

Do lawyers really help people or do they just help themselves?

It's a big question and it's been asked by the SYLA and WS as the starting point for their writing competition.

While I don't plan on entering the competition, the question did get me thinking . . . .

Do lawyers really help people or do they just help themselves? To me the question suggests that while lawyers think they're helping people, or tell themselves they're helping people, in fact they might not be. Or maybe they know full well what they're doing and like to present to the public the face of respectability when they're really a bunch of mercenaries. A collection of sharp suited, quick talking, arrogant, over educated, overpaid profiteers hell bent on squeezing every last penny from the difficult situations which they are called on to resolve?

Wait a minute, surely they're not all like that? Isn't it a bit harsh to be grouping lawyers together like that? Would we find ourselves asking the same question of another profession? Lets apply the question to another group who have to train for many years to be allowed to practice and see how well it fits . . . .

Do Architects really help people or do they just help themselves? Surely they're not interested in helping people to live in the home of their dreams! All they want is the big fat cheque at the end of the job and the respect of their peers! It seems to me like the question simplifies things a little too much.

The motivation of different individuals for entering a profession can vary considerably, as such their eventual area of practice and method of doing business will vary. In answering the question with reference to lawyers, is it fair to draw comparisons between a newly qualified procurator fiscal (criminal prosecutor), working for the state, with an ideological stance about keeping criminals off the streets and helping society, with a media lawyer who has 25 years of experience in helping celebrities sue newspapers and newspapers to know where to draw the line when printing gossip?

Surely there are as many different types of lawyer as there are types of legal work and the choice of field may have some correlation with whether or not the lawyer is interested in helping other people or their own selfish ends. It's not too difficult to imagine a child, with a child's understanding of the world wanting to be a prosecutor, locking up the baddies, or being an employment lawyer, helping people to keep their job or be treated fairly an employer. What's a little harder to imagine (for me at least) is that same child wanting to be a tax law specialist, coming up with clever ways for large companies to decrease their tax liability.

There are many examples of lawyers whose careers demonstrate a desire to help people, I need look no further than Glasgow, my home town, where we have the Legal Services Agency and the Govan Law Centre. LSA provides free legal advice in a number of areas along with having a dedicated mental health team and refugee department. This is a law firm working with vulnerable groups day in day out, it's hard for me to see how lawyers in this environment could be accused of not really helping people and just being out for themselves.

How about the often demonised, ambulance chasing, personal injury lawyer? Surely they're just out to make a few quid from the suffering of their clients at the expense of the poor sod who caused the injury? Maybe so but I'm sure their clients aren't too bothered when they receive their compensation cheques!

Is it not the case that any successful relationship (business or otherwise) should be mutually beneficial? I certainly think so. While the lawyer may always have to focus on billable hours, ultimately billable hours means time spent working for the client, which translates to helping the client achieve their goal. Surely this comfortably creates, in most situations, a win win, whereby the lawyer helps herself by helping her client.

These are just my initial thoughts, feel free to comment,

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Lets have a look at what you could've won . . . .

In a disappointing and painful event this week my partner and I were knocked out of our University's internal mooting competition. In an epic quarter final battle we fought valiantly and won our case on point of law but were however defeated in the moot. To the victor goes the spoils, in this case the opportunity to pass to the semi-final of the competition, competing at the sheriff court in Glasgow. The defeated team takes with them the bitter sting of failure, oblivion, pain and ultimately death, OK I'm over egging the pudding a little but I really hate loosing!

For anyone not familiar with mooting, a moot is a mock courtroom competition where the competitors are given opposing sides of an appeal case to fight before a judge. As the law may be on the side of one of the teams the outcome of the case isn't the deciding factor in who wins the competition, what matters is which team fought the better case. This is judged based on the quality of research, professionalism, presentation, understanding of the law and ability to respond well to judicial questioning. In essence some of the the complex skill set required of the competent QC or Advocate.

The appeal of mooting to a law student is easy to understand, it gives us the opportunity to have a go at being Perry MasonDenny Crane or Ally McBeal, standing up and arguing a case. That's what it's all about right? Maybe, it's certainly what made me want to give it a try, but what I've found is that there's so much more to it than that. The benefits of taking part in the competition go far beyond having a go at fighting a case and adding something to the CV.

My involvement has taught me about teamwork, and boosted my research skills. It's boosted my confidence in public speaking and court etiquette. For the first few moots I was very nervous, by the time I reached the quarter final however, I found my confidence had grown and I was much more relaxed in delivering my submissions and dealing with judicial scrutiny. By taking the competition seriously, I managed to reach the quarter final which meant lots of research. With the Quarter final place came a trip to the Supreme Court in London, where we were given the opportunity to sit in on two cases (watching senior advocates at work), and then meet and ask questions of Lord Hope. I've also met a great deal of highly motivated, intelligent hard working law students who I hope to count among my colleagues in the not too distant future.

While I was disappointed not to have made it to the semi final, the nature of the competition means that there can be only one winner, and 'my friends across the bar' certainly deserved to win on the day. Not only were they professional, articulate and knowledgeable, but I must concede that they had a little more flair than I as well as being more polished in their presentation. So while my partner and I could've won a semi-final place, based on the things I've learned and the people I've met, I genuinely feel like I'm a winner overall for having taken part, a strange feeling for someone as competitive as I.

Will I take part in the mooting competition next year?

In the words of my favourite Californian politician . . . . I'll be back!

Friday, 4 March 2011

What did you learn?

Why are Americans so keen on high school and college sports? Is it because of the joy of physical activity? The importance of staying fit? or does it run a little bit deeper?

Last year I watched Randy Pausch's last lecture and loved what he described  as the 'head fake', the idea that while you're focused on learning one thing, really you're being taught something else. Pausch gives the example of high school football, saying that the 'head fake' about playing football, is that while learning all the key skills for the game such as throwing, catching, running etc he also learned teamwork, tenacity, the importance of a good work ethic and a great deal more ('Don't complain, just work harder' is probably my favorite). Pausch's 'head fake' is what some have called the hidden curriculum and it's something which I believe runs deep at law school.

Are we expected, as law students to ace every exam and retain all the information from each of the many areas of law we've studied, emerging from our LL.B as experts in a variety of areas of the law? It'd be grand if we could, but I think that's not really the point, especially when so many of us won't go on to become solicitors/advocates and those who do will no doubt specialize in one particular field. Don't get me wrong, the LL.B course is full of great content about the law which I'll go on to use, but I think the skills learned on the course are every bit as valuable as the knowledge gained.

An example of this is 'Legal Methods', one of the classes which I had to take in my first semester of first year, here we learned about the all important distinction between obiter and ratio, how to reference correctly and the structure of the court system in Scotland and the UK. To me however, the real lesson of the class was how to read a case and how to think critically about a judgement.

Joining the mooting society is another area with a hidden curriculum. The key skill to be gained form mooting is that of 'Advocacy', learning how to construct legal arguments and submit them verbally in a court setting. Which is fantastic, but for me the real value in joining the mooting society is the positive impact it's had on my research skills. Before mooting I didn't know how to find hard-copies of cases and journal articles, (I was shamefully reliant on Westlaw), now I actually prefer using the law reports and journals found on the shelves of the library. Another massive bonus from the mooting society is working closely with a partner on a legal issue, something which I've had no direct experience of so far on my degree course.

In a world with an increasingly turbulent employment market, the more value we can find and transferable skills we can learn and be aware of the better. I strongly believe that there is a great deal to be learned from law school over and above 'black letter' law, and wherever I decide to go with my LL.B I'm sure I'll be adding more to my CV than just my academic qualifications.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

When to start building a CV?

So you wanna be a lawyer huh? You do realize you're not the only one. Why should we give you the training contract instead of the 100 other applicants? While speaking to a newly qualified lawyer friend, she told me about the perils of looking for a training contract. I'm 2-3 years away from my diploma year but I've become very aware already of the fact that it's tough out there and getting tougher. When being introduced to a friend's wife for the first time recently, and discovering she was a lawyer I naturally picked a conversation about law, when she found out I was a student, with a sad glint in her eyes she said 'hopefully by the time you graduate there'll be some jobs again!'.

I'm a naturally optimistic person, but I think Thomas Jefferson hit the nail on the head when he said 'I find that the harder I work the more luck I seem to have'. With this in mind at the start of my LL.B I decided that if I was planning on looking for a training contract at the end of my degree I'd be more inclined to 'get lucky' if I put the work in to building a strong CV from the outset. I've maybe got a slight advantage as a mature student, by having more experience in terms of trying to get what I want, but realizing that to make that happen you often need to 'bring something to the table'. So what have I done and what am I planning to do to build my winning CV?

Well, firstly I've tried to think about the experiences I've had in my work life which relate to being a lawyer and the types of transferable skills applicable to law:

Sales roles: dealing with clients directly, explaining the contracts, persuading them of the best course of action.

Management roles: Working effectively within a hierarchy, delegating responsibilities, passing on key information to team members, dealing directly with other businesses.

Being 'Staff/Class Rep'; Dealing directly with senior management, understanding the needs of those you represent and communicating them effectively.

Then comes the process of trying to find other things to boost the CV:
While attending a charity event during my 1st yr, I happened to meet and get chatting to a lawyer who runs a small criminal defense firm, after a relatively short chat he told me to email him and arrange to pop in for some work experience. I went on to volunteer for six months in his firm 1-2 afternoons per week, this was a great experience where I learned a great deal about the actual day to day running of a law practice.

Other ways to gain experience include: Law Clinic/Pro Bono work, Citizens Advice etc

I also try to stay up to date with developments in the legal landscape, I do this by having a number of links on my web browser to favorites such as The Law Society Journal and The Firm, I have a wee look at these as I'm checking my emails in the morning. In addition I follow the twitter feeds of a number of people who regularly blog on legal  news, such as Guardian Law, (I'm not a big fan of traditional newspapers).

This year I've joined my University's Mooting Society, and I'm glad to say my partner and I have made it to the quarter final of our internal competition, which brings with it a trip to the Supreme Court. In my mind the benefit of mooting is two fold:
1. It forces you to go and research an area of law you may have little or no experience of.
2. You then have to defend your opinions and research to a 'Judge'

I'm planning on trying to add to my CV year on year, and make a point of choosing the electives which will give me the best chance both at diploma and beyond, (as far as I'm aware you can't be an Advocate without having studied Roman Law).

In a competitive market I can't help but think the jobs and diploma places will go the best applicants. Becoming the best applicant means making an effort to think of the bigger picture from the outset by developing a plan to build a great CV along with the self discipline to implement that plan.

'Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets with planning' - Thomas Edison

If anyone has any suggestions for other things I could do to boost my chances of success please get in touch, I'm all ears! (Any Malcolm Gladwell fans'll know what I mean when I say I'm chasing after my 10'000 hours.)

Monday, 21 February 2011

Modern Learning: Webcasts v Lectures

In this day and age of facebook, youtube, blogging, twitter and online shopping, should  students, at real brick and mortar universities, be happy with lectures being delivered by webcast/podcast? I find my university course is increasingly reliant on webcasts and podcasts instead of traditional lectures. Is this an example of the university and lecturers making good use of their time and resources or is it simply an example of lecturers distancing themselves from their undergraduate students?

There are a great many benefits to having instant access to your class lectures online, many of which are obvious:

  • Working through the syllabus at your own pace
  • The ability to re-wind and re-watch lectures as often as possible
  • Creating your own personal lecture timetable
  • Having access to lectures during revision periods
  • Choosing your own study venue
  • Being able to pause your lecture to take better notes

But how about the down side? Are there any reasons not to embrace the webcast lecture?
My personal experience of classes delivered by webcast lectures has been mixed.

Some of the downsides of webcast lectures include:

  • No opportunity to ask questions
  • It's easy to become complacent, 'I'll watch my lecture tomorrow'
  • It can be easy to rely on the lectures rather than books
  • Creates distance between the student and lecturer

In a time where we are becoming less and less physically connected with people and living more of our lives online, surely there's an argument to be made for going to University, being about going to University? Having the physical experience of interacting with the academics, who's life work has been the study and understanding of a chosen field. Surely part of what makes University learning so valuable is the access students have to great minds with whom they can interact and not just read about. It's this distinction which has marked the different experiences I've had with webcast lectures.

When properly implemented, webcast lectures are excellent tools which save time for everyone and are massively accessible; it feels pretty good to be able to listen to your lectures while out for a jog or on the train to work. The problem in my mind comes when these lectures are used as a substitute for actual contact with the academics . . . . you can't ask questions of a podcast (and expect answers).

The best class I've taken, which was taught largely by webcast, was supported by regular meetings with the professor responsible for the class during which we were all encouraged to ask questions and discuss the ideas from the online lectures. These sessions proved invaluable, as the class knew they were coming and as such they were like progress markers. Everyone would aim to have covered a certain amount of the syllabus in time for each meeting.

My least favorite class employing webcasts was one in which there was zero contact with the class leader (the professor responsible for more than half of the class material). This lack of contact and structure lead many of my classmates, myself included to become disheartened. Morale was low and there was no-one to pick us up, or offer a helping hand upon which we could rely. Without contact, and the opportunity to tap into the wealth of knowledge of the lecturers first hand there is nothing to separate going to university and taking a correspondence course.

My overall feelings on online lectures/podcasts can be summed up quite neatly as follows. . .

Are podcasts and webcasts here to stay? YES
Do I like them and see them as valuable? YES and YES
Are they helpful and flexible tools for teaching and learning? Definitely

In addition to all this I think it's very important to allow students regular access, via lectures, tutorials or Q&A sessions, to the academics responsible for designing their curriculum. Without the access to the academics and the opportunity to ask questions and seek clarification, our understanding will never reach its full potential.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The brain drain, my tips for massive memory . . .

I found myself, during my first semester studying Criminal law, a subject which is, by its very nature dependent on case law. As such for my exam i decided to learn as many cases as possible. For each case I wanted to learn the names of the parties, the year of the case, the court in which it was heard, and the key details. By the time my criminal exam rolled around I had over 150 cases committed to memory along with all the relevant details. Did I achieve this by endless hours of repetition? NO! I learned my cases by making use of a number of techniques I had learned through my interest in magic.

Yes magic, card tricks, David Blaine, rabbits and hats, magic. More specifically the type of magic practiced by Derren Brown http://derrenbrown.co.uk/ . I used the kind of techniques taught by the aforementioned Mr Brown, to memorize the order of a deck of cards, or a long list of numbers, the only difference being that I used them for my studies. The key to many of these memory techniques is tapping in to the way our minds and memory already work, by using vivid pictures (don't worry, you don't need to be able to draw), association, and mnemonics. I don't know anyone who has ever learned to read a musical treble clef who doesn't remember that Every Good Boy Deserves Fun, nor do I know of any native English speaker who isn't painfully aware of the 'i before e except after c rule'. These are examples of ways the human brain finds it easy to remember things, following this thinking I try to make everything in my studies easier for my brain to remember, simple (stay with me people, it's worth it I promise!). Many people see mind-maps as a fantastic and underused tool (have a look at  ) I see the easy to learn memory techniques below in exactly the same light.

Remembering Numbers

I found the most useful thing to remember numbers (such as the year a case was reported) was to use a mnemonic system. The system I used works by turning numbers into letters, those letters into words and those words into pictures. (Please believe me when I say this is a great deal easier to do in practice than it is to explain).

Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mnemonic_major_system

Remembering Cases

To Remember specific cases I'd Build a single vivid picture in my head in which each detail represented something key to the case, for example: Donoghue v Stevenson, I could picture my freind Donna, holding a garden hoe (Donna + hoe =Donoghue), riding the back of a giant snail but feeling sick (to remind me of the facts of the case), talking to my work colleague Ms Stevenson (who doesn't know donna, similar to the defendant) and is looking straight at her (forseeability), and is holding a giant lego man (lego man = 1932, as per my mnemonic). This ridiculous, exaggerated larger than life image is easy to remember, in fact I don't even need to try because by picturing it once or twice, VIVIDLY it sticks in my mind, even makes me laugh! I do this for each case I need to learn. In order to remember anything at all I try to convert it to a vivid, exaggerated, absurd image that way it's more likely to stick in my mind!

Putting it all together

Tying my 'Case Pictures' together I used a 'loci' system to arrange the cases I'd learned in order, grouping them by the area of law they were relative to. This technique relies on taking a trip in your imagination around a familiar route (like your walk home), and placing images which are representative of the items you're seeking to remember along that imagined route. So each 'Case Picture' would get tagged in my mind to a spot along a familiar journey. I could imagine my trip to work, at my front door, I'd imagine the Donoghue v Stevenson picture above, at the bottom of the steps I'd visualize my next 'Case Picture' etc etc untill I had a few cases for each area of the syllabus. . . job's a good un!!

Similar to the mnemonic number system this is a lot easier to do than it is to explain and is massively effective!

Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loci_Method

But it all seems a bit contrived, doesn't it?

My personal experience of using the above has been nothing but positive, these are all techniques which took no more than an afternoon to learn properly and have been with me for years. I can honestly say I've used them in one form or another for every exam I've sat in the last few years and they've never failed me, consequently I've never failed any of my exams. I introduced my study partner to them and she swears by them, they've also helped my teenage cousin with her standard grade exams. If you've ever wished you could go in to an exam, meeting, speaking engagement with more concrete information in your head and less notes, these techniques are perfect.

Further Reading

Derren Brown was, in a former life, a law student and in his excellent book Tricks of the Mind, he includes a chapter on memory where he details at length the techniques he used to memorize large amounts of quite dry information. I found this chapter invaluable, it outlines, in greater depth, everything I've mentioned above and more. While the techniques in Derren Brown's book were things I'd come across elsewhere, 'Tricks of the Mind' puts them together in the most concise, useful and entertaining format I've ever seen. It's for this reason that I'd highly recommend it.Buy it on amazon here

I hope you find some of this useful, I certainly did and use these techniques regularly, any questions feel free to get in touch or leave a comment!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The academic 'warm-up': pre-entry at University of Strathclyde

In 2008, having decided to make an effort to go back to 'school' in my late 20's and having no recent academic history upon which to base an application, I found myself on the pre-enrty certificate course at the University of Strathclyde http://www.strath.ac.uk/cll/alp/access/. This excellent course was, to me, the perfect way to return to the academic world, perfect for a number of reasons;

1. I only had to commit to a single 2 hr lecture per week on a Thursday night.
2. The course would allow access (dependent on performance) to a wide range of courses, from history to economics, business or law.
3. The mode of teaching was in the style of University lectures, as such it helped prepare me for what was to come academically.
4. The course was extremely affordable, £200 for which I could receive funding from ILA Scotland, http://www.ilascotland.org.uk/ILA+Homepage.htm, (The fees are £300 for the 2011/2012 academic year)
5. On  a personal level, it really helped to develop academic confidence.

The course tutor was a fantastic, approachable, slightly paternal figure called Dr Bill Wurthman, a brilliantly helpful man, who really helped make the whole process feel extremely exciting and gave a number of lectures on general topics such as study skills and what to expect form the course.

The structure of the course was simple, the academic year was split into 3, short 7 week semesters, during each of which we had a number of classes to choose from. Each class was assessed 50% by an assignment and 50% by a final exam, much like many of the classes I'm doing now on my degree course (sorry If I've spoiled the ending)

My strategy for success was simple, the LL.B had the highest entry requirements, I'd aim for that and if I fell short I'd re-consider my options. In order to gain a place on an LL.B course it was necessary to study English & Law, along with one other subject. So, I was tied to English and Law, for my third subject I had the option of Psychology, Politics or Sociology. I opted to study Sociology and couldn't have been happier with my decision!

Sociology was the subject for semester one, I was keen and a voracious reader and loved every minute of it. I was delighted to feel my brain stretching out in wonderful new directions (an experience which I hope will always fill me with joy),  as I learned about Max Webber and positivism, Marxism, Durkheim and all manner of other things. I was literally jumping for joy when I received my marks for my assignment, (an essay on the reasons for the gap in educational attainment between the social classes), a more than respectable 74%. It had begun, the bug for learning was upon me!

Semester two brought with it the study of English in the form of poetry and short stories. I enjoyed the departure from the hard facts and scientific approach that came with studying a much more artistic subject. Similarly to semester one I found myself learning a lot. One of the key things in this semester however was having to read that which I wasn't as interested in. Building up the self-discipline of doing the homework on a short story which I didn't enjoy often meant reading it a multitude of times and picking out important features and techniques used by the author. (An exercise not dis-similar to reading cases for a law class and finding the all important ratio)

Semester three was law, and for the first time I became aware that it's not all 'black and white'. This single concept, the idea that 'it's a little more complicated than that' was a revelation to me as a lay person (another moment where I felt my brain stretch a little). It fascinated me, I was interested to learn about the court system, the constitutional ideas that hold the UK together (my chosen essay topic), the ideas of common law, statute and roman law. One of the ideas that really caught my attention was the Declaratory Power of the High Court, a power to declare an act illegal, in effect creating a new crime after the fact, a power I was glad to discover which is un-likely to ever be exercised again.

Following all this was the exam, a two hour exam, where we had to answer, in essay format a question on each of the subjects we had studied. The Exam was yet another new experience for me, having to sit a blind exam, in which I had to write three essays, in two hours, on three completely unrelated subjects filled me with a touch of the fear (I'm planning on blogging on study skills at a later date). The fear was due in no small part to the fact that two of the subjects were those studied 3-6 months before the exam. An exam which I'm delighted to say I passed and passed sufficiently well to earn myself a place at the University of Strathclyde's Law school on the LL.B course.

I feel like the pre-entry course taught me a great deal, and not just in the academic sense, I learned about budgeting my time, how to study and prepare for exams, how to read and really try to extract as much as possible from the written word. In short I learned and started to develop skills and ways of thinking and communicating which have really helped me in my undergraduate work.

Also, I made a fantastic friend who's helped me a great deal with my studies so far (she got in to the LL.B too). The support of a friend can be massive, they keep you going when morale is running low and help you to see your coursework from a different angle, widening your perspective and ultimately helping to develop your understanding. Thanks for all your help Study Buddy!!

So, I say to all those who are contemplating a change of direction and going back to school as an adult learner 'go forth and do', there is a wealth of things to be learned in the big wide world, organisations who'll help fund you, friends to be made and confidence to be gained.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The longest journey begins with a single step . . .

Long long ago (2008) in a galaxy far far away (a finance office in Hamilton), a young (27 yr old) man sat quietly contemplating his future. Having worked in a multitude of roles (Croupier, Sales Manager, Art Auctioneer, Account Manager), at home and abroad, self employed and in corporate environments, and with the 'credit crunch' looming ever nearer, bringing with it the prospect of redundancy, the young chap in question decided to take steps to try to ensure himself a more stable life. A life where he could use the many skills he had learned along the way, in tandem with his intellect and tenacity to forge a career for himself in a respected profession. With this in mind he decided to return to the world of education.

His initial investigation into the academic landscape of the West of Scotland brought to his attention an evening course ran by the University of Strathclyde designed to help adults to return to education.  The pre-entry certificate course (http://www.strath.ac.uk/cll/alp/access/) seemed to be the perfect solution, as for a mere £200 (£300 in 2011/12) and the sacrifice of one night per week, for a mere eight months, our protagonist was promised the opportunity to earn a place studying at Strathclyde University in the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

So, with a spring in his step and a smile on his face he cheerfully applied for a place on the pre-entry certificate course and to his delight was accepted. Contained within the initial literature was the promise that if a student achieved a sufficiently high grade for the course (65%) and had chosen to study the correct subjects (Law & English & Sociology/Psychology/ Politics), entry to the LL.B course at Strathclyde University Law School was highly likely. While entry was possible to study a wide range of other subjects none of the others on offer demanded such a high pass mark, so with this in mind our protagonist decided to aim for entry to the Law School, reasoning that if he could earn a place studying law he was assured entry to any other course.

In order to fund his new adventure the young man was reliably informed by the good people of Strathclyde University that he would qualify for an ILA account.  "What's that?" he asked with eyes like saucers, and was delighted to discover that a mysterious benefactor (ILA Scotland: http://www.ilascotland.org.uk/ILA+Homepage.htm ) was prepared to finance his academic adventure, now all that remained was to go to school and fill his head with the knowledge that would propel him onwards to a degree course  . . . .

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Brave new World?

So, what's happening here? In short I suppose I'm responding to a blawg written by another mature student in Glasgow, who's a few years ahead of me in terms of her law career. The quite impressive Michelle Hynes who's blog I read regularly http://legaleaglemhm.wordpress.com/, looking for hints and tips along with a little chat about what I've got to look forward to over the next few years.

I feel it'd be a little rude to write my first post without introducing myself, My name's Drew and I'm the 2nd year of my LL.B, at Strathclyde University, doing quite well so far and generally and genuinely enjoying being back at uni. I feel like studying law is something which I wouldn't have found myself doing straight from school, I possibly wouldn't even have been capable of it, (not academically more in terms of my level of commitment and self discipline).

Anyhoo, it's my plan  to document my journey from the start of my 2nd academic life, (beginning a few years ago) when I decided to return to higher Education, right up to the point of Graduation and beyond out into the big wild world of law, be that as a Solicitor, Advocate, Academic or something entirely different. If all goes well and time permits, I'll discuss my classes, learning techniques, motivations and anything else which seems relevant. Hopefully someone'll find it of use or interest . . . .