Being a lawyer, I begin with a disclaimer: the title of “Venue Management Law School” is somewhat misleading. When I created this course in 2008 for second year students of the Academy for Venue Safety & Security, I did not intend to teach statutes or other legal rules. Because most of life is an open book test, if you can look something up, I think you should.
Instead, I had two primary goals. First, because words have legal significance, I give venue professionals some basic vocabulary to understand what their lawyer is talking about, if the lawyer can be roused from his or her swanky office to visit. Second, I teach how to look more closely at the risks you accept every day so you can do a better job managing those risks.
There is precedent for the arrogance that makes lawyers believe we can teach non-lawyer venue professionals to think. About 140 years of precedent, in fact. Since the 1870s, American legal education has used the case study method to teach students to look differently at factual situations than lay people.
In many law school courses, the “law” itself is pretty easy. Much of my first year at Boston College Law School was spent wrestling with tort law, which has only four elements and is measured by the standard of “reasonableness”—one may as well try to catch smoke. My first year Contracts course had only three elements, and my professor explained that one of them could be anything, even a “peppercorn,” whatever that meant. It often seemed that law school was hard just to keep even more people from becoming lawyers.
Quite unconsciously during three years of often maddening (and expensive) education, law students learn to spot the legally significant issues in any scenario. This is the process that I tried to compress into a single day of Venue Management Law School.
Charles Kingsfield, the fearsome professor of Contracts in the movie, The Paper Chase, gives his first-year law students the following explanation of the true nature of the education they are about to receive:
We use the Socratic method here. I call on you, ask you a question and you answer it. Why don’t I just give you a lecture? Because through my questions, you learn to teach yourselves. Through this method of questioning and answering, questioning, answering, we seek to develop in you the ability to analyze that vast complex set of facts that constitutes the relationships of members within a given society. Questioning and answering. At times you may feel that you have found the correct answer. I assure you that this is a total delusion on your part. You will never find the correct, absolute and final answer. In my classroom, there is always another question, another question to follow your answer. Yes, you’re on a treadmill. My little questions spin the tumblers of your mind. You’re on an operating table. My little questions are the fingers probing your brain. We do brain surgery here. You teach yourselves the law, but I train your mind.
In my own less terrifying way, I too try to train students’ minds. During Venue Management Law School, we use the case study method to apply the childishly simple legal concepts (how hard could three or four elements be?) to venue-related mishaps that I rip from the headlines. Each year I add fact patterns for us to dissect because the news provides us with so much material. I simply create new slides to help tell new stories.
Unlike Professor Kingsfield, I do not use the Socratic method. With my last name, I was usually the first student called, before I had a clue that I was on an operating table or how my brain was being probed. I don’t like to make my students feel dumb—I aim for Uncomfortable.
My method relies heavily on the concept of schadenfreude, which means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. When I explain this concept, I show a slide from the old Peanuts cartoon strip of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown as he is about to kick it, causing him to land flat on his back. He’s hurt and embarrassed. We laugh. If it can be done in comics, we can do it in my class.
Over the course of the day, I plan to discuss about 10 different fact patterns, all of which are disasters that happened to someone else. I try to create a safe environment in which we collectively explore the risks that were ignored, the training that was not followed, plans that were not made, the communications that broke down. Although I know the facts of each scenario, adult learners don’t need a lecture. Rather, I act as facilitator of a wide-ranging discussion, prodding students with my little questions to spin the tumblers of their minds.
Invariably, the discussion follows its own meandering path. This is intentional on my part. (Beware, I am about to pull back the curtain.)
Sooner or later, just about every student begins to consider these stories of mayhem in the context of their own circumstances—their own venues and the events they host and the resources with which they can deal with the resulting risks. Even while we continue to pull apart the strands of some other venue’s misfortune, students begin to apply the legal concepts themselves. This is the magic.
I begin the day by asking most of the questions. If I do my job well, the students are raising most of the questions by the end of the day. They learn to spot the legally significant issues on their own, and I just direct the traffic.
I could not provide a lot of answers even if I wanted to. I do not run a venue, I’m just a humble lawyer. Given that limitation in my own background, the most I can do is to help you ask better questions, to teach you to probe more deeply into the risks you face back home, so you can do a better job addressing those risks to avoid loss of life or property and the legal trouble that usually follows.
Professor Kingsfield concluded his speech this way:
You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.
I don’t know the precise cranial contents of my Venue Management Law School students. But I do know that after just one intensive, tiring, stimulating day, every student is a little better equipped to think like a lawyer. FM