From Lawyer to Podcaster and Many Other Hats in Between: The Story of an Unconventional Career
Caroline Mandell contributed to CIAJ’s podcast channel “In All Fairness” with two series of podcasts on “Writing Skills” and “Brain Skills.”
Her biography and podcasts links and can be found at the bottom of this page.
It is said that “law leads to everything.” How did your practice as a lawyer turn to teaching writing and communication skills?
Before I started my coaching and consulting business, I spent over a decade as counsel to the judges of the Court of Appeal for Ontario. Reading thousands of factums, watching countless hours of oral argument, and editing judgments in every area of law gave me a wide lens on legal communication. I saw it all—clear and concise, dull and meandering, and all adjectives in between. What intrigued me was what made something more or less effective. Was it just a reflection of the person’s innate skill, or are there common features of good (and not-so-good) communication that we can learn? It’s the latter. I saw this most profoundly when I started teaching Legal Research and Writing at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. Guiding students up the learning curve of how to read, think, write, and talk about legal problems was so gratifying. But I knew from my experience at the Court that these are skills we need to refine throughout our legal careers. From there it was a natural step to working with more experienced legal writers—lawyers, adjudicators, and judges—on their writing and communication skills.
What is the greatest challenge you have faced along the way?
There are some persistent myths about legal communication. One is that only students and junior lawyers benefit from help with their communication skills; everyone else is fine on their own. If that’s true, why does Serena Williams have a tennis coach? Another is that plain language is only for lay people; judges will be offended if factums are too easy to read and clients will protest if contracts aren’t full of fancy legal words they don’t understand. I’m optimistic those views are becoming more outdated.
You recorded two insightful series of podcasts with CIAJ, one on judgment writing skills and one on brain skills. They have been downloaded thousands of times. Why did you choose these topics? What’s next?
The judgment writing skills series was pure wish-fulfillment on my part. I thought of who I most wanted to talk to about the joys and challenges of writing reasons, and the CIAJ made it happen. I’m especially proud of the episode with John Laskin, Ed Berry, and Steve Armstrong on the history of judgment writing education in Canada. It was such a thrill to have them all in the same (virtual) room to share their insights.
The brain skills series was an extension of the work I’ve been doing on the neuroscience of communication. There are solid, evidence-based answers to questions like how to write more persuasively and how to overcome writer’s block. Even more important, there’s research suggesting that our brains simply aren’t wired to work the way we are forcing them to. I wanted to get that information out to the widest possible audience.
Next, I want to talk about how we can incorporate neuroscience into the legal landscape we redraw after Covid. Law firms, tribunals, and courts are already rethinking how and where they do their work. Those changes should account for what our brains can—and can’t—reasonably do.
Things go fast and faster and we all seem to be more and more busy in every sphere of our lives. We feel that we have to multitask, whether we like it or not. Do you think multitasking is the way to go? Are there other options?
Multitasking is a myth. Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time. What we think of as multitasking is actually our brains switching rapidly from task to task. Not only is that cognitively draining, studies show that we perform worse on both the interrupted task and the interrupting task when we constantly switch. The better approach is to set aside dedicated blocks of time for different tasks, and to limit interruptions during each.
What’s your best tip to help reconcile a successful and very prolific professional life (entrepreneurship, teaching, podcasting, writing, etc.) and a fulfilling family/personal life?
I’m lucky to have close friends at all stages of their lives and careers, and we’re honest with each other about the ups and downs (especially since Covid hit). It feels a little less lonely and a little more manageable to know no one else has it figured out, either. I’ve also found comfort in the distinction that happiness researcher Dr. Laurie Santos draws between being happy in your life and being happy with your life. The daily grind isn’t always wonderful, but the overall experience is deeply rewarding.
Podcasts hosted by Caroline Mandell
First series of podcasts “Writing Skills“:
- Episode 1: Welcome to Judgment Writing School!
- Episode 2: Who’s Afraid of Plain Language?
- Episode 3: Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing
- Episode 4: Rethinking Reasons (and Everything Else)
- Episode 5: New Judges on the Block
Second series of podcasts “Brain Skills“:
- Episode 41: How Do Our Brains Process Information? Part I
- Episode 42: How Do Our Brains Get Things Done? Part II
- Episode 43: How Do Our Brains Decide What to Pay Attention To? Part III
About Caroline Mandell, MA, JD
Legal Communication & Litigation Consultant
Caroline Mandell knows the Canadian justice system from all angles. She began her career developing justice policy at the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General. She then spent over a decade as counsel to the judges of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, working on complex appeals in every area of law. More recently, Caroline was an adjudicator with the Ontario Health Professions and Health Services Appeal and Review Boards.
Caroline is an expert in legal communication with a particular interest in the cognitive psychology of information processing. She has taught decision-writing for the National Judicial Institute, the Society of Ontario Adjudicators and Regulators, and for individual administrative tribunals, courts, and judges. She is also a litigation consultant, helping litigators craft winning arguments in difficult cases. Caroline has taught Legal Research and Writing at the University of Toronto and is one of the most popular instructors in Osgoode Hall Law School’s professional LLM program.
Caroline has a JD and an MA from the University of Toronto and was called to the Ontario bar in 2005.