From the courtroom to the classroom

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I was once a litigation attorney.  When I left that job and began teaching economics I noticed many similarities between what happens in the courtroom and the classroom. Teachers and attorneys have similar goals: to communicate in a way that promotes a sustained and positive change in the thoughts and actions of their audience. As a result, I found that many of the tricks I picked up preparing arguments before a judge were also useful in a classroom. 

Here are five of them:

1)   Convince the audience you are worthy of their attention. 

Students, like judges, would often rather be elsewhere, and many of them will not pay attention to you unless you immediately give them a reason to care about what you are saying. Usually, you become attention-worthy by either convincing the audience that what you are going to say promises to be useful or by convincing the audience that what you are going to say promises to be interesting. I have found that convincing my audience that I might be interesting or useful is very different (and usually easier) than actually being interesting or useful (see point #4).

2)   Remember how you learned. 

Judges and students are usually hearing your argument or ideas for the first time. I have been a better lawyer and teacher when I have remained aware of how I initially came to understand those ideas and used that experience to better understand what my audience is thinking. What will they want to know? When is the logical time to tell them? What questions will they ask? How do I respond to those questions?

3)   Focus your message.

The essence of your message must be clear and obvious. Judges and students are more likely to ignore me when I present a laundry list of information that is not united by an easily articulable common theme. Staying focused means that one concept is often sufficient for a single class or courtroom argument, and it rarely works well to go beyond three. Commentary is fine, but I always ask myself whether it clearly relates to the main themes. 

4)   Make it easy for the audience to remember important principles

Learning has little to do with memorization, but learning comes easier when the subject is memorable. Therefore, it helps the audience when important principles are reinforced using techniques such as repetition, primacy and recency. 

A vivid image or good story is also memorable and often more educational than an elegant theory. Economists occasionally miss this point. The real world never fits our theory very well so we make up examples that do fit (our hypothetical firms produce "widgets") and in the process we make ourselves boring and irrelevant. In the legal profession there is an adage that it is better to have good facts than good law, and this has a corollary in economics. 

Being entertaining is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a quality teacher or good lawyer, but it can help. It doesn't mean you have to be fun, only that your material has to be fun. If it is not inherently fun, I believe we need to make it so.

5)   Don't be a jerk. 

The correct amount of deference and humility is essential in both the courtroom and the classroom. Although both attorneys and professors are assumed (often incorrectly) by their audience to be experts, neither can afford to let this perception lead to arrogance. If I respect my audience and be honest about my weaknesses (which is very different than pointing them out) I find I gain credibility that, in the long run, makes me a more effective communicator.


Of course, being a college teacher is not the same as being a litigator (thankfully) and I don’t want to suggest that the skills translate directly. There are three particularly important differences worth noting:

1)   Judges shouldn't have to think too much.  Students should have to think a lot.

In the courtroom you want to make it as easy as possible for the judge to decide in your favor and one way to do this is to limit how much they need to figure out on their own. In the classroom you want to highlight ambiguity and complexity, all the while promoting a desire in students to figure things out on their own.

2)   Attorneys reason back to front. Academics reason front to back. 

Attorneys begin with a conclusion, usually predetermined by their client's needs, and then they backfill their rationale by collecting theory and evidence to support that conclusion. Teachers start with a question and help students understand theory and evidence so they can reason toward their own conclusions. 

3)   Litigation is adversarial. Teaching is collaborative. 

I am a strong believer in the adversarial legal system, but confrontation and competition does not usually work well in the classroom. My classes seem to operate more effectively if they are safe environments where students' mistakes (and mine) have a low cost. This sense of being in it together is one of the main reasons I have found my teaching career to be so much more fulfilling.

Steve Holland

Steve Holland

Steve Holland, Luther associate professor of economics, has taught in the Economics and Business department since 2005, focusing on the topics of microeconomics, environmental economics and public policy. He was traveling and teaching in the southeastern European nation of Montenegro for the 2012-13 academic year as a recipient of a Fulbright award. Some of his course topics at Luther include intermediate microeconomic theory, principles of economics, environmental economics, and law and economics.

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  • September 12 2016 at 3:01 pm
    Most enthusiasm for adversarial teaching techniques is inherently contradictory: it's based on sentimental recollections, but it's about disdaining the touchy-feely approach. With the pushback against trigger warnings, we can count on a resurgence of adversarial advocacy, for similarly self-justifying reasons.

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