Bringing law and business expertise into the classroom

Building on more than 30 years of experience as general counsel for leading global financial institutions and as a regulator in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Ari Gabinet is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute and a legal expert in residence at Brown University. Watson recently spoke with Gabinet about his career and his experience teaching Brown students.

Your career sits squarely at the intersection of business and law. Which were you interested in first?

I was completely ignorant about business when I graduated from law school (it’s ironic that I got the highest grade in my graduating class in Corporations!). My interest was in law first, mainly in litigation. I’m a third child and love to be the center of attention and wanted to stand up in court and try cases. I happened to wind up at a Wall Street firm, so the litigation was all about business. I was 20 years into my law career when I finally decided I wanted to be in a position that gave me a managerial role and allowed me to be part of a business strategy team.

You've helped multimillion-dollar businesses navigate change and growth and overhauled a large regional office of the SEC. How does your experience translate in the classroom?

Working for the SEC is a mission, and I thought most of the people in the Philly office were there at least in part out of a desire to do challenging work in the public interest. So I got enthusiastic about the mission. I talked to the whole office about our values and about the SEC’s role in protecting investors and promoting the markets. I shared my excitement in a visible (and maybe embarrassing) way. I articulated the goal that the office be a place that people looked forward to coming to and emphasized that my goal was to have an office that brought credit to the agency – and that I was not successful in my job unless they were successful in theirs. I set about putting structures in place to create trust, teamwork, and excitement based on shared values. 

That translates directly to the classroom. I take a certain amount of risk to try to communicate what I think is so exciting about the subject. I teach material that is unfamiliar to many, and my class is two-and-a-half hours long, so it had better be entertaining, and fun. I use interactive learning techniques like mock trial and the Socratic method. Just as when I addressed the Philly office staff for the first time, I have to not be afraid to be myself and show that I really care about … corporations and financial regulation. So I’m loud, excited, totally engaged – and exhausted when class is over.

The atmosphere of a classroom, like that of a board room or a courtroom, changes all the time. It’s critical to be sensitive to those changes. After speaking to juries, judges, courts of appeals, boards of directors, and conferences with thousands of lawyers attending, I’m comfortable trying to get the sense of an audience. But the classroom is so small, the attention so focused, and the judgment of young people so pitiless, that I am nervous each time I walk into class. Nervous, but prepared. 

You place a lot of importance on leadership. How do you incorporate that into your teaching?

One of the ways I see leadership is as an obligation – the obligation to inspire and create the conditions for, achievement.  How do you do that with really smart people, people who believe in their own intelligence and their own judgment and are naturally skeptical?

First, be completely convinced of the value of your shared objective and convey your excitement about it. 

Second, encourage people to come to their own conclusions. You can have an end in mind – a legal principle, for example – but you want to create ways for people to reach that principle through their own mental processes. Listen carefully, ask questions that encourage thought, download the materials, not the finished product.

Third, honesty and sincerity are hugely important. Really smart people instantly detect and detest insincerity. If something goes wrong, own your own failings – so that they see that it’s OK to make a mistake on the way to learning.A leader’s confidence and trust inspires the team to be confident, to both trust and be trustworthy.  As a teacher, I have to do the same. I am not afraid of making mistakes and want the students to know it’s OK. How else to do you make progress?

You've been teaching at Brown for three years. What have you learned from your students?

I’ve learned not to take anything for granted. Every class is different, and teaching approaches need to be adapted all the time. I’ve also learned to appreciate the weird thing it is to be a college student: they are grown up, smart, and challenging, but at times also fearful, intimidated, and unsure. Teaching them is a challenge and a privilege, and an exercise in empathic thinking. 

Further, I’ve been amazed at how diverse their intelligence is. It's amazing to me that students from all different concentrations and backgrounds excel in my class. I’ve also learned that being around them can make you feel desperately old and out of date, so it’s better not to try to be hip. 

Finally, I’ve learned they really like Corey Brettschneider’s constitutional law class!

You're developing a new course for the International and Public Affairs concentration that will focus on analytical thinking and writing with respect to issues of law and regulation. Can you say more about that?

Yes, I call it Legal Methods for Public Policy. I advised a couple of students on research papers that involved complex issues of law.  A lot of the “advising” was helping them understand legal language – the convoluted language of statutes, regulations and judicial opinions; the tangled skeins of legal argument; the ins and outs of procedure; and why seemingly small things matter so much in the law. 

This new course is a capstone seminar for students who want to write about a public policy issue with a major legal component. The first half of the semester is in the classroom; the second half is writing. We will have an introduction to civil procedure – how cases get from complaint to trial to appeal, and everything in between – and an overview of the basic types of legal argument. We’ll do some trial and oral argument simulations, using the cases that we read.

Then we will take a few high-profile Supreme Court cases, and read the briefs – not the decisions – deconstruct the major arguments of the parties, and have oral argument in class.  (I’m hoping to have Brown alumni who do this for a living come and share their experiences.) Only after we do our own oral arguments will we look at what the Supreme Court decided and why.