Having been out of law school now for a number of years, I think I can look at the educational experience in a pretty objective way. Before law school, I had always sort of held it in awe. I never really considered myself as smart enough to get in, much less make it through law school. And even when I did well on the LSAT and was accepted into a top school, I secretly suspected that somehow, they had made a mistake. For the first few months after acceptance, I half-believed I would receive a letter stating: "Dear Mr. Sedberrry: We regret to inform you that your acceptance has been rescinded. We've decided that you were simply lucky on the LSAT and believe that there is no way you will make it through this prestigious institution. We wish you much success in your fast-food career."
Of course, it never happened. But my point is that many law students tend to be high achievers. And perhaps a bit paranoid. It simply comes with the territory. We are always looking over our shoulder and ahead to the next treacherous curve, at the same time. It's what makes us good at what we do. We worry, so that our clients don't have to. We anticipate unintended consequences. We plan for the worst.
As I think back about some of the misconceptions I had about law school, I realize now that law students who have a sober view of the process will probably do better than those who don't. This is because, the mature law student can focus on the real "money" activities- those that deliver the most bang for the buck, grade-wise. And no matter what anyone tells you, make no mistake about it, grades are critically important in law school. Grades are curved among a bunch of the best and brightest and most competitive students around. And grades determine who gets jobs.
So, here are some of these misconceptions, or "law school mythology" as I like to call them:
1. "We're All in This Together." This attitude, although true on one level, is dangerously misleading on another. Some students tend to huddle together, in study groups and social cliques, in the hopes that no one can drown, if they all simply hang on to each other. And having a social network in law school can be comforting. But, here's the problem with this myth. If you hang with the pack and do the same things as the pack, then your grade will be a result of the pack's actions. And as I said, law school grades are rendered on a curve. This means that of the 10 people in your group, one or two might get "A's", two or three will get "B's" and the rest will get "C's" or lower. In other words, although you may think of your group as compadres, some will succeed and others won't. The curve takes very close grades and forcibly distinguishes among them. Someone in your group will get an "A". And it might as well be you. The trick is to figure out methods and a process to make it happen.
2. "Professors Know Everything." Well, you might not absolutely buy into this myth, especially if you are a young, cynical rebel. But even if you are, you may mistakenly believe that your professor is a subject-matter expert. In fairness, she might be. But then again, she might not be. It's just that someone had to teach the Partnership Tax course. So, you should certainly listen to your professors. And learn from them. But make sure that you have a basic, and broader understanding of the material. You do this through outside reading- treatises, hornbooks, whatever. You need to understand the general picture of the course but also enough detail to spot issues and analyze them.
3. "Legal Recruiters Pick the Best Candidates." I've just told you that grades are curved. I've also told you that grades mean everything to prospective employers. Are you starting to get the picture? There are plenty of "A" students who can't lawyer their way out of a wet paper bag. Granted, there are also "A" students who are geniuses, destined for the Supreme Court. But, what about the students who simply had a bad break- a bad professor, a bad exam, or simply that they were a little slow out of the starter blocks that first year. These students may ultimately become brilliant lawyers. But they have a very hard time finding a job because of the foregoing. It's not fair. But it is the way it is. And your strategy from the day you start law school, if not before, is to do everything you can to avoid unfair circumstances. As they say, "you make your own luck." If you are thinking about law school, or planning to enter in the near future, now is the time to begin planning your law school strategy.
4. "Good Lawyers Are Born and Not Made." You see symptoms of this every semester, just after grades come out. Students who killed themselves on studies, end up with "B's". They see others who worked half as hard as they did, and yet pulled "A's". They get depressed and dejected. They begin to believe that they just weren't born smart enough. But as Edison said, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." There are countless lawyers who graduated in the middle of their class, or worse, and have won some of the biggest cases in history. Law school is about excellent performance over a very short period of time. Law practice is about excellence over a sustained period of time. Simply, you can make up for that self-perceived lack of genius by outworking the other guy.
If you are a law student or a recent law graduate, I would love to hear about your own law school myths. I know that mine have just scratched the surface.
Finally, if you are in law school, stay the course. Try not to get discouraged. Don't give up. It will be well worth it someday. I wish you much success in your legal career.
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.