William Twining: IALS Workshop in his honour

by Paul Maharg on 24/10/2010

Gave a paper yesterday at IALS, U. of London.  It was given in a workshop held in honour of William Twining, one of the finest legal educationalists we have in these isles.  I first came across his work after my two years of a postgrad LLB degree at Glasgow University, 1990-92. 

Those were two years of relentless lecture courses, grinding through basic Scots law qualifying subjects.  Having taught adults for 6 years before the LLB, and done a DipEd before that, I was not impressed with most of with it (bar the inspirational lecturer or two).  William’s work, which I’d not encountered at all in my previous life as an adult educator, appeared rarely if at all, and then probably only in the depths of the ‘Suggested Reading’ sections of handouts that none of us students read because there was a list of 80 Conveyancing cases to be read for the next lecture.  When the two years were finally over I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to practise law or go the academic route; but if academic life meant teaching the way I'd just experienced it, I knew what my decision would probably be. 

Over the summer I was in GU Library looking up something else (to do with Thucydides, for an access course I was teaching part-time, if I remember) when I came across the title ‘Pericles and the Plumber’.  Odd, I thought.  Still he had to be doing something with his time, in between running Athens & giving fantastic speeches that would mould political rhetoric for the next two millennia (OK, Thucydides had a hand in it, too); and blocked drains & water supply, though they don’t feature too much in the speeches, must have been as important in fifth century BC Athens as they are anywhere else.  Only when I gave it a second glance did I realize it was about legal education. 

What an article.  Written as his inaugural lecture at Queens U Belfast, and published in 1967, it’s as relevant today as it ever was because it gets right to the heart of perennial legal educational concerns.  And for me it opened the gates.  I’d already come across a few pieces, on legal skills and the like, but they seemed thin stuff.  William’s article proved was possible to talk about legal education as if it were branch of the legal academy – indeed as if it were part of jurisprudential inquiry, which in a vague, unformed way I always knew it to be.  It spoke to my condition, as the Quakers put it. 

But if I were going to apply for academic jobs in law what would I research and publish on?  ‘I sought a theme and sought for it in vain’ – Yeats’s ‘Circus Animals’ Desertion’ came to mind; but I didn’t want to end up with the bitter resignation of that poem.  At one interview I tried banking law – it didn’t impress the panel or me, frankly.  At the next two I tried legal education, and at the second attempt got the job.  But what would I write about?  Borne out of my Glasgow legal ed experience, how to improve legal education, clearly.  But how?  Glasgow University came to mind again – this time, the Glasgow Education Dept DipEd classes I took in the early eighties: in their radical educational theory they provided the answer.  Education ought to be a transforming process, and the ways this could be achieved and what the results might be for all involved in the process — that would be my theme.  It has been ever since.   

William’s work, in that early article and in subsequent books and articles, has been a touchstone of quality and analytical thinking for me throughout.  I may not always have agreed with him, but he has always stimulated my own thinking, and sometimes opened up new areas of thought.  His biography of Karl Llewellyn, first published in the mid-seventies, introduced me to aspects of legal realism I simply knew nothing about, as well as to the American scene (to use the phrase in Henry James’ sense) more generally.  Blackstone’s Tower was a masterly and ironic tour of English law school culture; even in his book on globalization and legal theory (and with a background in the USA (Chicago & Yale), Khartoum, Dar-es-Salaam, Queens Belfast, U of London and elsewhere, who better to write on it) he couldn’t resist ending with legal educational matters.  His style is deceptively easy, disguising an extraordinarily agile analytical approach that’s never fossilized intellectually, is always open to possibility.  Legal education, it should be said, too, is only one of many areas of analysis that he has contributed to in important ways.  His final response to the papers given in his honour was as penetrating as always; but what I'll remember is the warmth of the affection for him throughout the event.


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