hortly after winter break during my first year of law school, I overheard classmates commiserating about family members that had seemingly, suddenly become less intelligent. "I couldn’t even have an intelligent discussion," one classmate complained. "Yeah, it’s like everyone has suddenly become stupid," laughed the other.
It’s true: once you’ve been through the law school forging process, it’s easy to get frustrated with the lay people you had so much in common with just a short time before. This is because you spend three years in law school learning to read intensely and with precision, supporting every assertion and assumption you make with facts, and analyzing problems with tight logic. As any law student knows, jumping to a conclusion (also known as "conclusory" thinking) is the kiss of death to anyone engaged in legal argument.
I was in business for a number of years before law school. Business is largely about making “stuff” (either tangible or intangible) and selling it. Making stuff requires precision; selling stuff requires unrestrained creativity. Businesspeople, especially those on the front end (the sellers) have to be creative and have an "I’ll knock down any wall" attitude. At the same time, those on the back end (those producing and accounting for the “stuff”) have to be able to quantify and document the business operation.
Lawyers in business are charged with essentially two tasks: helping the business manage risk and protecting the rights of the business. We do this by identifying risks, documenting agreements, and advising businesspeople on both. One of the most important skills required in these tasks is the ability to anticipate potential outcomes. We learn this skill in law school with what I call "on the one hand" thinking.
"On the one hand" thinking means objectively identifying both sides of an argument. And it means identifying the various potential outcomes in any given situation. Law students everywhere learn to think in this way. When asked about the potential outcome of a sales dispute, a good law student might approach it this way. "On the one hand" they might argue, "the UCC requires all contracts for the sale of goods to be in writing." And they counter, "But on the other hand, the jurisdiction in which these facts occurred may not have adopted the UCC". And so, the logical answer to the question turns upon the facts.
Conclusory thinking, on the other hand (I guess I intended this pun) would assume that the UCC applies and simply answer, "they breached the contract." That student made a bad assumption and jumped to a conclusion. And as any law student knows, conclusory thinking is generally a guaranteed a "C" or even a "D" on an exam. So, law students quickly learn to identify both sides of an issue, support their analyses with facts and assume nothing.
People who haven’t been through the law school crucible may or may not naturally think in this manner. Most people do not take the time to identify or even understand the assumptions imbedded within their analysis. In some cases, their assumptions turn out to be correct, and their conclusion is correct. In other cases, they make bad assumptions, leading to bad conclusions.
And this is why, to new law students, everyone suddenly becomes "stupid". Law students (and some lawyers) want everyone else to identify assumptions and think logically. But in the real world, everything isn’t always logical. And engaging someone who doesn’t "think like a lawyer" in a debate about something can lead to frustration.
If you’ve been through law school, here’s the good news. You probably have learned to think in an extremely logical way. But the bad news is the world around you may not think the same way. So here’s the moral to the story. Learn first to understand, and then be understood. Hone your listening skills and endeavor to understand where others are coming from. Avoid being argumentative. Chances are good that you are right. But that doesn’t mean you have to prove to others that they are wrong.
Learn to be patient and compassionate. A lot of people don’t know what they don’t know. Don’t make it your mission to educate them. You’ll last longer in your career and make a lot less enemies.
At the same time be true to yourself and your profession. Offer candid and high-quality advice. Never stop striving to tighten up your analysis, based upon the best legal research and intense scrutiny of the facts. Be the best lawyer you can be. But always remember that what you are providing is advice. It’s up to the client to decide to take the advice. And clients don’t always "think like a lawyer".