Since last fall, I have enjoyed the privilege of teaching undergraduate students at the George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, criminal law, ethics, and perhaps a bit more. I had never taught the mostly 18 and 19 year olds students I now had for three hours every Monday afternoon. Until August 2014, I had been a practicing attorney for nearly 25 years, but had given frequent Continuing Legal Education Lectures to rooms-full of distracted and/or annoyed lawyers who were forced to listen, or face professional discipline.
I was pleasantly and consistently surprised at the group’s awareness and keen moral compass as we discussed immigration, privacy and gun control, for starters. I approached the class, I was repeatedly told at the end of term, from a different angle. Only once in 14 weeks did I stand stoically, lecturing from prepared notes and visual aids. Rather, in the classic law-school, Socratic method, I led classroom discussions. I often felt like Phil Donahue (without the gray hair or microphone) as I stomped up and down the rows of seats to challenge answers, opinions and positions. I crossed-examined my kids. I made them stand at their seats and tell me their names and from where they came. I pushed them away from their comfort zones whenever possible and punctuated my lessons with stories of my cases and clients. Apparently, these criminal justice majors were eager for true stories of murderers, rapists and muggers from their defenders.
For our final exam, I tried to offer a challenge like no other they had faced during their academic careers: a mock trial where they would play all the parts in a homicide trial: prosecutor, defense counsel, police, judge and jury, etc. I broke the group into three teams and provided the exact universe of facts and potential testimony to each group. The judge swore in the witnesses and advised the jury of the applicable law for our secret jurisdiction. To say the students’ response was overwhelmingly positive would be an understatement. In fact, as the first group began, and the trial took off, I texted my wife and two daughters, almost the same age as my students: “They get it. They really get the trial. It’s unbelievable.”
The comments contained in e-mails and within their final papers were better than any fee I ever received as an attorney: “You are the best professor I have had at GMU and this is the best class,” said one. “What else do you teach? I want to sign up for everything,” offered another. Gratified beyond words, I am preparing to teach the Spring term, truly excited to begin and feeling like I must challenge myself out of my own comfort zone too.