I've been in practice for a number of years now and brought with me the perspective of a non-traditional, second career lawyer. If you've read my book "Law School Labyrinth" (Kaplan Publishing, 2009), you know that I was in business for almost twenty years before I took that great leap into jurisprudential bliss.
Okay, there may be a better word than "bliss", but I can't come up with it right now. Nonetheless, I have certainly enjoyed law practice and would recommend it to almost anyone.
That said, there is certainly a school of thought that perhaps law school isn't worth the tuition or more importantly, the student debt load. And although I agree that law school tuition has gotten out of hand, I would argue that school tuition in general has gotten out of hand. Beginning with private school tuition, to undergraduate and graduate school tuition, the cost of education has skyrocketed. But the economy hasn't.
So anyone spending money in this way is well-advised to do some serious due diligence. And I would suggest that you do at least as much as you would do when contemplating your first home purchase. The dollars involved in both purchases aren't dissimilar.
With all of that said, I believe that the study and practice of law offer one of the broadest and most utilitarian educational disciplines out there. You learn a great deal of technical information and you develop critical reading, thinking and intellectual organization skills. These skills are essential to law practice but also have application in a variety of other areas, including life in general. As I consider some of the valuable lessons the law has given me (in spite of the fact that I was an old dog in law school and arguably only limited in susceptibility to new tricks), I am amazed at what I have learned.
What follows is a sampling of these lessons:
1. Don't Tell Them How to Build the Watch. There is an old joke which describes a consultant as someone who tells you how to build a watch, when you only want to know what time it is. I was recently having an eye exam and the young doctor (who was a medical doctor training to become an opthamologist) decided to explain to me the significance of the cornea measurements he was taking on my eyes. He was clearly a bright fellow and enthusiastic about his one year of experience, post-medical school. As he explained the technical nuances of cornea curvature measurement, the nurse entered the examination room. She discretely (well, actually not so discretely) explained that he had taken the measurements backwards.
The point is this: our clients (and other people) don't need to know how to build the watch, in many cases. We can become so impressed with our own education that we forget its purpose. I believe that one of the lawyers primary goals should always be to help people. When there is trouble or someone has entrusted you with their circumstances, you have an obligation to treat them with compassion and dignity. More importantly, you have a duty to give them your very best. And certainly, your client has a right to be informed. But as with sausage-making, sometimes its better to simply enjoy the barbecue.
2. Do Unto Others. I have had the privilege of working with some of the smartest, most capable lawyers out there. And in my experience, the best lawyers are also usually the most compassionate and cooperative. Inevitably, the "problem children" are those who have been in practice a short while. These are the lawyers who believe that there job is to make the other side's life as difficult as possible.
The truth is that you gather more bees with honey. And if you are able to empathize and understand what motivates the other side, you will ultimately be in a better position to negotiate. But the minute you begin acting uncooperatively (unnecessarily), I guarantee that you will receive an equal reaction from opposing counsel. It's simply human nature.
I'm not suggesting that you, in any way, compromise your client's position. But gratuitious antagonism will quickly get you nowhere.
3. Always Be Planning Your Next Move. One of the traits of learning to "think like a lawyer" is being able to anticipate the other side's arguments and understanding the facts, from their perspective. This is an essential skill that makes lawyers valuable members of almost any organization. Certainly, non-legally trained business professionals should have this skill as well. But lawyers are trained to have it. And in any negotiation, litigation or life situation, you should always be thinking at least a couple of steps ahead in the chess match.
4. Don't Sign Anything Until You've Read It. Before law school, I would be handed a lengthy document ( a home purchase agreement, a lease, an insurance policy, etc.) and typically, I just signed it. I reasoned that the "form" had been signed by countless others before me, and therefore it could be trusted.
While in my last year of law school, I began to make plans to sell my house, in anticipation of moving to Texas to begin my practice. The realtor handed me their standard form representation agreement, and asked me to sign. I started to, and then caught myself. The form was, of course, completely one-sided in favor of the realtor. So, I took my pen and simply began crossing out words and adding words, in order to make the contract something that I could live with. The realtor watched me do it and said nothing. I handed it back to her and she signed it. She wanted the deal.
Anyone who has been through law school knows that words are everything. Before you sign anything, or have your clients sign anything, make sure they understand what they are agreeing to.
5. Let It Go. I worked for a very smart lawyer and we were in the middle of a big litigation battle, representing a corporate defendant. The plaintiff's lawyers (as they are sometimes wont to do) threatened everything, from motions for sanctions, to anything else that they thought would intimidate us into settling the matter. I was still a young lawyer and was extremely stressed by the entire situation. I spent a great deal of time in that lawyer's office, who graciously gave his time in strategy and tactical planning sessions. I knew that he knew I was stressed.
One evening, during one session, he looked at me and with almost a sparkle in his eye, said: "You know, Steve, it's only money," and then smiled. I was shocked for just a split second. With all of the tumult and battle, how could the matter simply be boiled down to something as mundane as money. But the truth is, that's what is at the bottom of any civil litigation. Someone feels that they have been damaged. And they want to be paid for it.
Obviously, lawyers have a duty to zealously represent their clients to the conclusion of any matter. But this wise lawyer was saying to me that at the end of it all, no one was going to jail. No one was going to be executed. In the grand scheme of things, ultimately, this matter was going to be about who was going to pay what to whom, and how much. He was looking at the forest, and not the trees.
We ultimately won the case. And putting things in perspective helped me to do a better job for my client.
6. Enjoy Every Single Day. A friend of mine told me about a lawyer he worked for, who had been in corporate practice for many years. He was a Type A personality who likely spent more time with his Blackberry than his family. He was a "dealmaker" and constantly on the road, negotiating, wheeling and dealing.
When my friend interviewed for the job, he noticed a black, crusty spot about the size of his thumbnail on the lawyer's forehead. My friend's first thought was "melanoma" but he quickly talked himself out of it. After all, he reasoned, anyone with something that serious would have had it dealt with.
About three months later, the lawyer was diagnosed with cancer. It spread quickly into his lymphatic system. Within eighteen months, despite numerous chemo and radiation treatments, he was dead.
There is no way to know whether he thought he was going to beat the cancer. Given his personality, I suppose it is a pretty good possibility. But he didn't. And the sad thing is, he spent the last months of his life, on the road, doing deals.
Here's the point. When he died, there was a great outpouring of sympathy. Dignitaries and business leaders attended his funeral. There were memorial services and a lot of fine words spoken. But within a few weeks, things had largely returned to normal. And within a few months, no one even talked about him anymore. This man had given his life to his work. After he died, his work forgot about him.
I recently was diagnosed with a melanoma myself, on my back. My wife had spotted it and I was at the doctors office, with my shirt off, within a few days. It was biopsied and the results showed cancer. As a result, I had to go back to have the thing completely removed. I spent about three days, in limbo, waiting to hear the results. Finally, they doctor's office called and gave me the good news. They had gotten all of the cancer and I would be fine.
Until you've been through it, it's difficult to relate to it. People will say, "Oh, everything will be fine; nothing to worry about." But you, looking at the six-inch incision on your back wonder whether it will.
And for me, I realized what that lawyer must have gone through, at least on a limited scale. He probably had ups when they first described chemo and the likelihood of success. Perhaps there was a chance, after all. And maybe he was lucky enough that his lottery ticket would win. But he probably had plenty of downs. "Why am I going through this?" "Perhaps I should simply give up."
When things are good, it's hard to see the need to plan for the bad times. So, enjoy it while you can. Don't take yourself too seriously. And, at the risk of getting too deep, think about eternity and what it means to you. If you believe there is a hereafter, give some thought as to your own situation.
I have recently written another book. It's called: "The Reasonable Person- A Perspective on the Logic of Christian Faith." It describes my own journey, complete with stumbles and pratfalls along the way, to a relationship with God. I know that our culture would have us believe that Christianity is a religion of simpletons and snake handlers. But I believe that the Bible, Christianity's foundational document, explains eternity in human terms. And eternity requires everyone to make a decision about it.
After law school, I began to read the Bible in the same fashion as I read legal documents. I struggled, I read and re-read confusing passages. But I learned about God first-hand and not through the "hearsay" testimony of others. And I concluded that the Bible makes absolute sense. I would encourage you to read it yourself and come to your own conclusions.
I wish you much success in your legal studies and in the practice of law.
I've been asked whether students should choose law school courses that will, in effect, focus on a planned practice area. Or, should students simply take courses that interest them?
While in law school, I planned to go into corporate practice and took every tax, securities law and corporate entity course I could get my hands on. Sometimes I chose a course knowing that it would likely cost me, GPA-wise. While other students were taking courses like "Sports Law", I took the most difficult challenging courses I could find.
Ironically, my two primary practice areas today are intellectual property and employment law. I took neither in law school. You might ask whether I regret not taking them; or alternatively, whether I regret spending so much time and energy on courses I'm not really using today. Even funnier is that fact that today I actually do practice Sports Law and work with all of the major professional sports leagues. The truth is, that I benefitted from taking the courses I took, regardless of whether I ever actually used the substantive law.
You should certainly do some planning as you think about courses. But at the same time, understand that plans change. The great thing about law school is that after your first year, many if not all courses are electives (I went to Vanderbilt, and most everything I took after that first year was at my election). So, you have a wonderful opportunity to explore and take courses that interest you.
Further, if you plan to practice law long term, it is likely that at some point in your career, you will run into areas of the law where familiarity will be of benefit. So the good news is that virtually any course you take will likely be of benefit in practice.
I think the most important thing is to graduate from law school with a set of skills that will enable you to learn new areas of the law. In practice, you will likely be exposed on a frequent basis to new laws and regulations, but also to new clients, industries and businesses. So, the important thing to learn in law school is how to learn. As a result, your goal for a legal education should be to learn, think, write and act like a lawyer. Some of these skills can be taught in the classroom; others are picked up on the job.
At the same time, you should consider that your bar authorities, by virtue of their exam, expect a minimum level of competency in certain subject areas, in order to earn the right to practice law. Some of these subjects, such as Uniform Commercial Code courses like Secured Transactions aren't much fun and many students shy away from them. However, trying to learn any subject, especially a difficult one, quickly for a bar exam makes for a stressful two month bar preparation experience. So, you should consider taking courses that are "bar exam" courses, as well as courses that will enhance your legal skill set.
You may also want to talk with lawyers- ask them which courses they wished they had taken in law school but didn't.
Finally, its axiomatic in law school that "you don't take the course, you take the professor." And I think there is a lot of truth to the axiom. A good professor can make a bad course an absolutely enriching and enthralling experience. And vice-versa. Talk to students ahead of you. Ask to review the professor ratings, if they are available. Consider talking with the professor before you sign up. Ask him or her what their objective for the course is. Do some due diligence.
But with most law schools, I think it would be difficult to make a bad choice in any course. They will all benefit you in some way. So, relax and enjoy the experience.
At the same time, you are spending a great deal of money on your legal education. And yet many students spend more time considering the ripeness of a cantaloupe in their local supermarket than they do on their course decisions. Take some time to consider courses. It will make your law school experience infinitely richer.
Best wishes in your legal education.
At the outset, let me say that although law school was stimulating and arguably the biggest intellectual stretch of my life, there is no way I would want to do it again. Part of it is because it was simply very stressful. And part of it is because I got the tools I needed to practice law; today, I build my intellectual capital through the use of those tools.
Another way of saying it is: I enjoyed law school to some extent, but I love the practice of law.
That said, looking back now, there are some things I would definitely do differently:
1. Get to Know More of My Fellow Students: I spent so much time hitting the books in law school that I missed out on the opportunity to make some lasting friendships. Part of it, I suppose, was also due to the age difference between me any my peers. But if I've learned anything from Facebook, is that people are important to us. I consider myself very fortunate today to have reconnected with some of my classmates through Facebook. And I wish now that I had spent more time getting to know them then. It would have made law school infinitely more enjoyable.
2. More Exercise: When faced with time constraints and the accompanying stress of law school, exercise is usually the first thing to go. This is unfortunate because it is probably the best thing in the world to deal with both. Exercise can reduce stress, but studies have also shown that it can increase brain power.
3. Prayer and Bible Study: I wish I had spent more time with my Maker during this period. I somehow convinced myself that I simply didn't have enough time. The truth is that if I had just slowed down and thought about it, I would have realized that more than anything else, He was ready to help me get through all of it.
4. Look More Deeply Into Practice Areas: About the only introduction into practice areas many students receive is through their clerkships. Understanding my own interests and capabilities and trying to fit that with a suitable practice area would have probably saved me some heartburn after law school.
5. More Play: While in law school, I never took a day off. I was so consumed with my studies and so worried that I wasn't working hard enough that I simply overdid it. Life and the practice of law are about balance. And the truth is that law school is about working smarter and not harder. And it's all a marathon, rather than a sprint.
Some of you are starting law school this fall. This post may seem inconsistent with my previous post, advising you to plan for law school. However, planning now will actually mean that you will waste less time getting your bearings and be able to focus more on the high-return activities once school starts.
So, I wish you much success in your law school career. Stay at it. You will become a lawyer. I know it. You just will.
I suppose I caused a minor stir on Twitter recently when I posted that "Anyone who tells you to take the summer off before law school instead of preparing, either made "B"s or has a very short memory." My post caused a lot of twittering in the ethernet (okay, I intended that pun). Could it be that I was creating a panic among rising 1Ls, in order to sell books? Coincidentally, I also noticed a bookseller customer review that wondered whether law school prep book authors like me were compensated for recommending certain commercial outlines.
A couple of comments and I'll let you get back to Facebook. I wrote Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education (Kaplan Publishing, March 31, 2009) because the entire time I was in law school I suspected that some students had an advantage. They just seemed to understand what was going on and what they needed to do to graduate on top. These students weren't any more intelligent than anyone else. But they were definitely more savvy. They understood the game. They knew that first-year law school grades were critically important. And they knew that knowing the law cold and being able to spot issues and apply the law to facts is critical, as is being able to construct a well-written essay, all in a few short hours. Perhaps mom was a lawyer or they were dating a 3L. I don't know. But they knew that they had to "hit the ground running" from the day they set foot law school.
While many poor 1Ls were scrambling around trying to figure out what an outline was, these savvy students were busy assimilating the law and learning to spot issues. While the uninformed 1Ls were reading and re-reading cases, these soon-to-be Law Reviewers were investing their precious study time in "money" activities- creating meaningful outlines that helped them to assimilate the law and writing practice exams.
"Law School Labyrinth" was my attempt to level the playing field a bit. Its purpose is to provide you with an attack plan for your legal studies. It describes at least one method, the Pyramid Outline method, that you can use to focus your studies. My book also gives you an orientation to the entire law school process to help you operate more efficiently and avoid the kind of stuff that will suck up a huge amount of time with little payback where it counts- at exam time.
And although I touch on outlines in my book, anyone who has read it or this blog knows that I believe that in outlining, the process is infinitely more important than the output. Simply, outlining is the method that burns into your memory the black letter law that you need to do well. Certainly, commercial outlines can help ensure that you get all of the black letter law in first-year subjects. The can also give you a bit of a "blueprint" for the course. But no commercial outline is going to substitute for your own sweat and engagement in the materials.
And students who think there is a "holy grail" outline out there misunderstand the entire point of the Socratic Method and reading cases. It's to teach how to "think like a lawyer." Otherwise, a bar exam (and law practice, for that matter) would be simply a memorization exercise. Anyone who has every practiced law knows that effective lawyering requires the kinds of skills that your legal education should at least begin to impart. This is also why I disagree with those who say you should quit briefing cases, or even purchasing casebooks for that matter, after your first year. But reading cases alone will greatly limit your understanding of the "big picture" of the subject.
So, I stand by my Tweet. And I stand by my book. By the way, for anyone wondering whether I was compensated for the overview I included in my book about the most popular commercial outlines, I wasn't. And th book isn't making me rich- or even close to rich. Finally, the one skill in law school necessary above all others is the ability to read carefully. The pullout quote from my book (at about five times the normal font size), on page 123 concerning commerial outlines says, verbatim: "If you look carefully, you will be amazed at the number and quality of study aids that your law library offers. These materials are all free." In "Law School Labyrinth" I also recommend reading the Westlaw or Lexis version of the case- the headnotes can be incredibly useful. Both are included as part of your tuition.
And if you are starting law school this fall, get busy. Read about the law school process- I don't care if it's my book; there are several good ones out there. Or read my blog; it's free. But don't walk into your law school expecting it to be like college. No one is going to tell you what to do. There may or may not be a syllabus. There are no pop quizes. And there is no warm-up. You will simply have about three months or so to get ready to be able to excel on your exams through excellence in issue-spotting, knowledge of black letter law (which is critical to issue-spotting), applying law to the relevant facts and doing all of it in a readable, meaningful essay, under extremely tight timed conditions.
I wish you the best in your legal studies.