This is a question I’ve heard many times, when people are trying to figure out if they understand what they’re studying. It seems pretty clear to me that if you have a good grasp on a subject, you should be able to explain it to someone without the relevant educational background (maybe. I’m sure there are some things that are too complicated to explain in this way). Perhaps it’s my historical training, but I really enjoy weaving what I’ve learned into a narrative and helping others to understand. Once in awhile I plant seeds that lead to greater interest.
I do have one living grandparent (grandmother, in fact), but due to distance and time zone constraints (I live in the UK, she in Australia) we don’t speak that often, and when we do it’s usually about other things. But, as I’ve mentioned before and my last blog post was about, I volunteer with the elderly in my local community, and in some ways that’s become like having lots of grandparents. (I should note, in what follows, where I relate anything that might identify a person, I have specifically gained their permission to discuss them on my blog.)
I’ve found over the course of this academic year that I’ve had lots of opportunities to explain bits and pieces of the law to the group I volunteer for (usually in the context of “what have you been up to this week?”). There’s one man who likes to pretend that any woman who goes near him is going to hit him (which might sound horrible: in context, it’s a running joke, he’s a great guy, and it’s actually really funny). I’ve weaved into the banter the difference between assault and battery, that battery can be as little as mere touch. I also at one point explained to him the definition of theft while pretending to steal his cake (I certainly appropriated the cake- I picked it up and took it out of his reach for about a minute- but I didn’t intend to permanently deprive and I gave it back to him. He asked me what he would be guilty of if he stabbed me with his fork. Again, to be abundantly clear, this was all very funny). I should point out, at the risk of stating the obvious, that things like this are very much about knowing your audience: with this man, it’s funny, and he gives as good as he gets. With other people (even those who’ve enjoyed the banter) this obviously risks upsetting them (I have explained the low limit of battery by gently touching several people on the shoulder, but in an entirely different tone). On a much less risky level, I’ve explained, among other things, the distinction between joint tenancy and tenancy in common (it did rather help that I went directly to volunteering from my property law lecture on the subject that day).
Conversations like these certainly help me cement the details of the law in my mind (and I found myself silently linking the case law, where applicable, to the issues I was explaining to the individual or group). But they’re also an engaging topic of conversation, in ways that I find explaining Greek history, mythology, etc often isn’t (I’ve explained to the same group that Poseidon is not only god of the sea- we were talking about oceans- but also horses and earthquakes. There was interest, but certainly not sustained interest). They’re more than a topic of conversation in some instances.
I think telling older people about the law can be empowering for them. A very specific example. One of the oldest ladies in the group I work with is very sharp and intelligent, but doesn’t have the formal education of some. (When her husband’s academic peers used to ask her what she’d read- for those outside the UK, this means “what did you study at university?”- she’d reply “Mills and Boon, darling.”) A few weeks ago she called me over, and started asking me questions about Brexit and the issue of what rights European residents would have once the UK had left the EU. She was quite concerned about it. I asked her what she knew about Brexit, and it turned out relatively little. So I explained Article 50, the Miller litigation, and what I knew about the discussion on European residents’ position. I made it quite clear that I’ve not studied EU law yet, I don’t know all the details, and it’s all pretty complicated, but also that what I was telling her I was very sure of. While the issues she was asking me about are absolutely concerning, her fears around this topic were much, much larger than was warranted given a little bit of information. I was able to reassure her. (I didn’t paper things over, don’t get me wrong, but I gather she was slightly concerned that it would affect my residency. I’m an Australian citizen, so it would not.)
There are, of course, downsides to explaining the law to older people (or probably anyone). In a group context in particular, it’s pretty important to avoid ugly political discussions, and discussions of the law can lead there rather quickly (particularly on criminal law). There are certain topics that I don’t/ won’t talk about for fear they might be distressing (I’m not sure what I’d do if directly asked, particularly about a live issue like Brexit, but I think on balance, there are certainly some issues where giving people knowledge could actually make them feel disempowered, because it is a bit scary and there’s nothing they can do about it). Although I’m always very clear that I’m a law student and what I’m saying is for interest and is not legal advice, I do worry that some people will take it as such anyway (and I’m not sure what I can do to mitigate that problem, to be honest, apart from continue to reiterate that what I say isn’t advice, and that if they’re concerned they should see a lawyer or law clinic).
Additionally, there’s the issue of confidentiality where pro bono work is concerned. I know that I could simply not talk about said work at all, but this is difficult with a group that’s often quite invested in what I’m doing, particularly at points when I’m working quite hard on a case. I don’t know exactly where the line is with confidentiality, how much you can or can’t say, but I’d rather be a long way away from the line, on the right side, than the alternative. So far I’ve talked in generalities about the work I’ve done, how difficult I’ve found it, my sympathy for (potential) clients, etc. The closest I’ve come to identifying anything is saying what area of law or institution is involved (so, e.g., “I’m working on a housing law case”. I should note I’m going further online and not even saying what area of law it was: the case I’m thinking of wasn’t housing law). There’s always a risk in conversation that things will slip (although for me it has not). And there’s also what you do about people who ask questions. The man I mentioned above keeps asking me questions about my pro bono work, a long time after I’ve been done with it. Things which might be OK to say, might not be, but I’m not sure so I’m never going to say. It’s become less frequent than it was, but every so often he’ll say “hey Amy, which company was it that that person had a problem with?” (This wasn’t related to the not-housing-law case. I’d named the company type – which again, I’m not doing here) and will even try to get me to eliminate companies so he can figure it out. It is a joke, and I enjoy giving him non-answers (recently I gave him a list of companies that exist in Australia but not the UK and said “it isn’t any of them”). But I can see that with a different dynamic those kinds of persistent questions could be quite stressful, and, again, something might slip.
The final thing to point out is that this is very much about knowing your audience. While I think there’s enormous mutual benefit in explaining the law to older people, this only works if you’ve got an established relationship or have been specifically asked to do it. Although I very much hope that my group enjoy and benefit from what I tell them, I am pretty sure that their main interest is in their relationship with me (and therefore law is mostly “the thing I’m doing”).
So, as just noted, I think that it’s a great thing to be able to explain the law to others, both for law students and for those who are taking it in, despite the risks and downsides. What do you think? (As always, please do comment: I’d love to hear your thoughts.)