Joanna Harrington's Interweaving of Research and Practice Honoured With Hon. Tevie H. Miller Teaching Excellence Award

Law professor emphasizes writing skills for successful legal careers

Helen Metella - 23 September 2019

A real-life perspective, infused with insights gained from a 20-year career as a legal academic in an ever-changing field, has helped law professor Joanna Harrington earn the Hon. Tevie H. Miller Teaching Excellence Award, the Faculty of Law's teaching prize for full-time faculty.

Offering a foundational course in international law, as well as upper-level seminar courses in advanced areas, Harrington encourages students to develop their legal writing and research skills as if they are already employed in the job to which they aspire - as an articling student at Justice Canada, a lawyer with an NGO, or a clerk for a judge of an international tribunal.

"No one in practice asks you to write a term paper, so why not use a law school paper to write a briefing to a minister, a memo to a senior counsel in your department, or a position paper for an NGO?" said Harrington, a globally recognized expert in international law.

Approaching papers in this way gives students a pertinent writing sample that they can include with a job application. Harrington's project-management approach also helps reluctant writers "get past the getting-started problem," she said.

By reminding students that any paper will be rewritten, and that it's fine to tackle a document by writing the middle section first, Harrington also teaches students that creating legal documents, section-by-section, happens more often than not.

"When they go into practice, they will be working with others and working on one part of a document for someone else to review it while they're writing the next section," she said. "My experience in government was that your words are always going to be revised by another."

Harrington says her students describe her as very enthusiastic in class. She explains that her love for the utility of law comes through. Her teaching is also infused with the benefits of a diverse academic career, including time representing Canada at the United Nations. Collaborations with NGOs, consultancy work with outside counsel, and the testing of new ideas at research conferences have also given her a breadth of possible scenarios to use in her courses

Harrington recently created a new course in International Dispute Settlement to give law students interested in alternative dispute resolution an international option. The course covers non-legal means of dispute resolution, such as negotiation, mediation, conciliation and inquiry, as well as international arbitration.

"Many clients do not want to go to court, and this is particularly true in international affairs," she said. "Governments do not want to engage in judicial settlement because it's expensive, it's time-consuming and it's uncertain."

In International Human Rights Law, Harrington has created a simulation, in which students take on the roles of state representatives to a UN working group. They negotiate the content for a new human rights instrument, with Harrington seeing many similarities with the international negotiations in which she has participated for Canada.

Over two decades, Harrington has increased the visual component of her teaching. She uses photos, maps, newspaper clippings and video in class, including clips sourced from the CBC's online archives and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

As her seminar courses wind up, her students are asked to develop a three-minute "elevator pitch" about their paper topics. As with the three-minute thesis challenge for graduate students, Harrington sees this as a great way to instil practice-relevant communication skills.

"Somebody might ask you, what's the key point of your legal memo, but they won't have the time to read the full report," said Harrington. "We also find judges imposing stricter time restraints on counsel, with interveners in human rights cases at the Supreme Court of Canada limited to five minutes. That's the pressure that students will find in practice, but in the classroom, we dial it down and the elevator pitch has become a fun way to end a course."

Harrington will receive her Hon. Tevie H. Miller Teaching Excellence Award on September 25 at 5 p.m. in CN Alumni Hall.