29th January 2020

Steeped in tradition but challenged by AI and rapidly progressing technology, the legal profession faces challenges that require innovative teachers and curriculums to prepare students for their careers ahead.

QUT senior law lecturer James Duffy has been integral to the development and implementation of innovative teaching methods in the QUT School of Law. In recognition of his commitment to curriculum innovation, James was awarded a National Teaching Citation at the beginning of 2019, and the QUT David Gardiner Teacher of the Year Award at the end of 2019.

James Duffy is innovative and humble. Pioneering the creation of new units, LLB103 Dispute Resolution and LLB107 Statutory Interpretation, and with an interest in developing well-rounded law graduates, James is helping to pave the way for a more compassionate future-proofed legal industry.

 “My goal is to help my students become happy, healthy, and competent professionals, whether that’s in law or another discipline.”

When asked what makes a good teacher, James responds, “A thousand little things, all done well. Excellent content knowledge, interesting content delivery, and teaching in a way that is authentic to personality and values.  Much of it is learnable.  Maybe a small part involves some innate spunk.”

The QUT Law school is the largest law school in Australia (by student number) but it continues to remain agile. Recognising the need for an adaptive, compassionate, human-centred approach to law, QUT remains a leader in curriculum innovation. It has recently made the decision to make both LLB103 Dispute Resolution and LLB107 Statutory Interpretation compulsory for Law students. Other universities are starting to integrate similar subjects into their curriculums.

“The Law profession itself is steeped in tradition and very slow to change, and university law degrees reflect practice to that extent. But there are pockets of law and different areas of practice that are very cutting edge, and so parts of our law degree are adapting to this.”

When developing the new units, James consulted with judges and others in the legal profession and asked what were the key skills and abilities that graduates needed more of.  “The answers were varied, but dispute resolution skills, flexibility, commercial mindedness and statutory interpretation were all common responses.”

Embracing technology and using it to enhance the learning experience for students is also important. James has previously taught in LLB101 Introduction to Law, where he worked with Dr Elizabeth Dickson and a learning design team to create a mobile app for students. Using the app, students can walk down George Street in the Brisbane CBD, and see the different institutions of law and learn about them in a more interactive way.

“Part of the job today is guessing the job market that students are walking into in five years’ time and thinking about what they’ll need to know and be able to do,” said James, “As a teacher you have an obligation to teach both legal concepts as well as the skills that will help students add value to their role when they get into the workforce. This often requires thinking about what AI and other technology won’t be able to do, or what humans will always be able to do better than a computer. AI won’t be able to do things that are intrinsically human. This means building and maintaining effective relationships with other people, providing support and comfort to a client, and being open to the role that emotions play in all disputes.”

With an interest in positive psychology as a sub-discipline of traditional psychology, James is interested in what goes right for students studying law.  “Protecting and improving the mental health of law students and legal practitioners is important in a sometimes high-stress profession.  But a focus on psychological distress is only half of the equation.  The other half is strengthening what is already going right for most students.”

“You need to be able to think clearly if you are to work in the legal profession, and good mental health gives you the capacity to do that. Good mental health is exercising, eating well, having good relationships, these are all things that help to provide a buffer when we have inevitable setbacks .”

James says there is a lot of pressure on students to work out what they want to do as a career before they’ve even left school, but they might not know what those jobs involve on a day-to-day basis. Popular culture representations of law (such as the popular TV series Suits) can set students and the general public up to have misconceptions as to the role of a lawyer, and what working in the legal profession is really like.

“Law is ultimately, a helping profession.”

After studying undergraduate degrees in commerce and law at UQ, even James wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. After enjoying tutoring throughout his studies, and then spending two years in the Courts, working as a judge’s associate, James came back to teaching.  He then completed a Masters in Law and a Graduate Diploma in Psychology, finishing both degrees with a GPA of 7.  “Some people actually find they don’t want to practice in law and that’s okay. It can be a good thing because it means that those skills are used well in other professions too. Studying law can give you an advantage in other careers, like government, because those positions often require you to write well, speak well and be persuasive.”

“It’s a matter of students linking up what they like with what their natural strengths and talents are as a person”

James Duffy is no stranger to receiving rewards and accolades for his work, but he remains grounded thanks to his family. With a young family at home, James says even if a class goes well, his three kids; 7 years, 3 years, and 6 months, don’t really care.

As for advice for students, James thinks it’s important to view university as a time of discovery and embracing opportunities. “Treat university as a means to an end, and an end in and of itself. It’s cool to be intelligent and achieve good grades, but more important to be a good person.  If you can put together what you’re good at, with what you want to do, it gives you the best chance of doing well.”

James Duffy currently teaches dispute resolution, criminal law, and statutory interpretation.

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