Articles By Melissa Green

How to Think Like a Lawyer

Law School

“If you wish to be a lawyer, attach no consequence to the place you are in, or the person you are with; but get books, sit down anywhere, and go to reading for yourself. That will make a lawyer of you quicker than any other way.” ~Abraham Lincoln, Letter to William H. Grigsby, August 3, 1958

As May turns to June law students all over the country are starting their summer jobs. For many, this is their first exposure to a job in the legal field, and the differences between learning the law and practicing the law are rapidly becoming apparent.  So what do law schools teach students, and how is it different from what attorneys do in practice?  More importantly, if the study and the practice of law are so different why do students spend three years in school before entering the workforce, only to begin their education anew?  The answer is simple, law school teaches a student “how to think like a lawyer,” and the ability to grasp this foundational concept is paramount to the practice of law.

Initially, the study of law in America was trade based.  The process involved finding a mentor and working as an apprentice for up to seven years.  There was no formal education involved, but the mentor was expected to provide the apprentice with “assignments,” such as reading relevant legal precedent and writing legal briefs.  As formal education evolved, however, so too did legal education.  Beginning in the mid-1800’s students began attending universities to learn legal theory.  After completing their education students turned to their employers to learn the practical skills necessary to be successful attorneys.  While law schools today offer more practical curriculum (such as clinics, externships, and legal writing classes) than ever before, the focus of legal education remains the same: teaching students how to think like lawyers.

Learning “how to think like a lawyer” is rough work.  To begin, it requires reading piles and piles (and piles and piles and piles) of cases.  Law students, especially first year law students, routinely spend up to 40 hours per week preparing for classes.  When they are not reading, law students attend classes.  Most law school classes are taught using the Socratic Method.  (A process which involves a professor asking a student a series of questions about increasingly complex and ever changing fact patterns in order assist the student in applying the law they have learned.  If you have never heard of the Socratic Method you can learn more from watching classic law school thrillers like The Paper Chase.)  Fortunately, most modern professors use a modified version of the Socratic Method which includes some lecture and some time for questions from students.  Nevertheless, it is understood that at any given time the professor may turn to a student and begin grilling her on what she learned from the reading.  Each class concludes with a final exam.  The classic final exam asks students to respond to hypothetical fact patterns in essay form.  The goal is to read the fact pattern, spot the legal issues, and apply the law learned throughout the semester to the facts.  Thus, at the conclusion of law school a student understands how to “think like a lawyer,” because she has learned: how to read the law; how to discuss the law; and how to apply the law to a set of facts.

Learning to think like a lawyer provides the foundation to practice law in three ways.  First, having spent three years studying the law a new lawyer knows how to dive into a legal text without feeling intimidated and without taking two hours to read a seven page case.  Second, in light of all their time spent discussing the law (in a highly stressful environment), a new attorney knows a great deal about communicating regarding legal issues; attorneys refer to this type of communication as advocacy.  Finally, by learning how the law applies differently depending on the facts a new attorney has developed the logic and reasoning skills imperative to the practice of law.  However, these things are simply the foundation of practicing law.  In practice, (most) attorneys don’t spend hours reading cases and discussing them, and they certainly do not have time to assess hypothetical situations in order to reveal the minute differences in a given area of law.  This is where law firm training comes into play.

After a student has learned how to think like a lawyer in law school she learns how to practice law at a law firm. In practice an attorney’s day to day tasks vary greatly depending on the type of law they practice.  There are so many different types of law that it would be impossible to learn the ins and outs of each particularized area of practice in school.  Accordingly, new attorneys entering private practice learn these skills from the attorneys they work with.  This process is strikingly similar to the mentor process that predates American legal education.  For example, as an intern at The Wladis Law Firm this summer I have read a variety of contracts and observed numerous real estate transactions.  The training is meant to help me learn how to write contracts and participate in real estate transactions, but it is important that I observe seasoned attorneys first because, despite having completed two years of law school, I have not yet learned how to practice the law.

For a number of years there has been a great deal of debate regarding whether law students learn enough practical skills in law school. Part of this debate stems from the fact that new lawyers are not very productive; in fact, it can take a year or more of training at a firm before a lawyer begins to generate a work product that is profitable.  However, learning how to think like a lawyer has to come first.  It is this training that prepares an attorney to enter the legal world with a basic understanding of the logic and reasoning skills required to practice law.  Further, it is only through the rigor of legal education that a student learns the answer to every legal question imaginable, “it depends.”

 

Photo credit: http://www.blogto.com/city/2013/06/the_photos_of_the_week_june_1-7/