How Art School Made Me a Better Lawyer


How Art School Made Me a Better Lawyer

During my youth I was always drawing and making art. I was also passionate about access to justice and keen to acquire skills I could lever to help redress wrongs and contribute to system change. I perceived art and law as divergent pathways, and I chose law.

In my mid-thirties I took a break from law and studied at Emily Carr University. I focused on film, video and performance art. When I returned to legal practice, I was surprised to discover that art school had made me a better lawyer.

Art School Taught Me to Collaborate

Film and video-making are collaborative. You need people on camera, lighting and sound. You need actors. You need help to transport equipment and prepare the set. You may need assistance to edit sound and imagery. Most of us found the element of the practice that was our strength, and we relied on classmates to bring their talents to our projects.

In contrast, law school is highly competitive and individualistic. There are medals, scholarships and exams. We compete for coveted articling positions and clerkships. This approach does not adequately prepare us for the practice of law, which requires us to play well with others. Lawyers work with students, associates and paralegals; we must understand our strengths and collaborate with colleagues, who bring other skills to a problem. Emotional and professional survival also requires us to build a community of practice.

Filmmaking Taught Me the Craft of Editing

I was an excellent paper-writer throughout university; however, art school taught me economy and nurtured my love of editing. Filmmaking is expensive. Every second of imagery and sound increases production costs. You must distil your story to its critical core elements. Returning to legal practice I discovered there is almost always a shorter and better version of a text. That process of whittling the material to fewer words has become one of my favourite aspects of the writing journey.

Art School Taught Me the Value of Finding the Narrative

Like filmmakers, lawyers are storytellers. We weave people’s experiences and legal jurisprudence into a compelling argument. To do so, we must centre the ideas that will pull in the listener and identify the ideal flow of information. This is true not only of oral advocacy, which is more obviously performative, but also of drafting. To persuade or be understood, you must keep your reader engaged.

Art-Making Taught Me to Consider my Audience

“The crit” is a core element of the art school learning process. We endure grueling group critiques of all our creations regularly. This practice forces us to reflect on the impact of our work on the viewer. There is no art without an audience, particularly in the context of film.

A good lawyer is a chameleon. Every assignment requires us to consider the audience and tailor the language to suit that listener. Legal jargon that is powerful in court creates barriers in client relationships, where plain language is usually ideal.

Art School Enhanced My Ability to Think Visually

Law school teaches us to trade in words. However, the practice of law is full of diverse learners. Many people are visual learners, and imagery can be an effective tool for clarifying complex concepts. A sketch of a court room may reassure an anxious client, and a diagram of succession can help a potential beneficiary understand their rights. The challenge of translating legal concepts into pictures is one of my favourite parts of public legal education.

Legal culture emphasizes continuing education. There are many ways to enhance our skills. Art school began as an exciting detour, but it made me a better lawyer. I encourage you to look in unexpected places for meaningful professional development — and joy.

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