All I Needed To Know, I Didn’t Learn In Law School

Spending three years of one’s life and thousands of dollars preparing to pursue a profession, one would think that she would be prepared to face its challenges.  Ha! Boy was I in for a rude awakening when I graduated from law school.  I am pretty sure that there was more I did not know about being a lawyer than what I did from my time toting expensive and heavy tomes around for study.

My critical thinking skills had undeniably been honed when I received the coveted J.D. degree.  No one can successfully argue that a law student is not trained to think like a lawyer.  If I had a dollar for each time I heard a law professor tell my class that we were being trained to think like a lawyer, I would have not been in debt when I could finally put “Esq.” after my name.

It did not take long after entering the real world from the hallowed halls of legal learning to realize that law school had not been kindergarten.  I had simply not learned everything I needed to know to be a lawyer.  Having me think like a lawyer was accomplished; it was BEING and ACTING like a lawyer that had not been sufficiently explained to me.  This deficiency fell in four major categories–people skills, business concerns, ethics and stress management.

People play an essential role in practicing law.  A lawyer has to deal with numerous individuals.  She is not locked up in an ivory tower simply reading scholarly legal opinions and writing briefs thereon.  There are clients, opposing attorneys (or “OA’s” as we like to refer to them), office staff and judges, to name a few of the human beings which inevitably play a role in a lawyer’s life.  Unfortunately, people skills were not given a passing glance as my fellow law students and I were herded toward the finishing line, i.e., passing the bar exam.

Being able to think like a lawyer provides little help when one is faced with a sobbing client, an obnoxious OA, a difficult staff member or a prickly judge.  Clients are perhaps the hardest of these people with which to deal. Let’s face it.  When someone consults a lawyer, it is about a problem.  High expectations and emotions are typically involved whether the problem is financial (i.e., how to achieve a business goal), personal (i.e., failure of a marriage leading to a divorce), or societal (dealing with zoning regulations).

Thinking like a lawyer is based on reason; clients experiencing problems in their lives are typically emotion-driven and do not respond well to a cold, analytical assessment of their current situation.  In one recent instance, a client whom I was meeting with for the very first time burst into tears immediately upon entering my door.  Telling her to buck up, sit down and just give me the facts would not have been a good strategy. Displaying some compassion not only helped the client calm down, but established a good rapport between us.  This relationship helped in handling her case and gave my client incentive to do anything she could to assist me since she had seen I really did care about her.  Nope, I did not learn showing compassion in law school. I have my parents to thank for that.

While practicing law inevitably involves dealing with people, it also inevitably involves running a business.  It costs money to operate a law office.  A lawyer has to take into consideration advertising, accounting and overhead.  As much as you might like to help every person who comes to your office desiring to employ your legal skills, you simply cannot do so to keep your books in the black.  If someone cannot pay your fees, you probably should not take the case.

Practicing law as a business was not even a blip on the radar of the law school curriculum screen.  I can quote Prissy from “Gone With The Wind” as to the extent of what I learned about running a law practice from law school–“I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ law offices!”  Fortunately for me, I have never been a solo practitioner, and the business decisions have been left to senior attorneys in the firms in which I have practiced.

Ethical considerations are faced regularly while practicing law.  Do you divulge certain information to the court?  What if your client wants to take actions that may not pass the sniff test?  Is it okay to cut corners to achieve the desired legal result?  Sure, the law school curriculum includes a course on ethics.  So what?

I vividly remember the first day in my law school ethics class.  The professor stood in front of us and reminded us that we were all adults.  He said, “If you don’t have ethics by now, I’m not going to teach you any.”  His teaching strategy was simply to familiarize us with the professional rules of conduct–not that he was advocating that we adhere to them or consider breaking them.  He just wanted us to know these rules well enough to be able to regurgitate them and pass the ethics portion of the bar exam. Thankfully, I was blessed to have parents who instilled a strong set of values in me.  That’s parents 2 (people skills and ethics), law school 0 (except for thinking like a lawyer).

Finally, law school did not prepare me for managing the stress of my chosen profession.  You can consider stress in the abstract, but, like giving birth to a baby, you simply cannot truly grasp the concept until you have experienced it.  Lawyers routinely face situations where what they do will have life-altering consequences for their clients.  Will they go to jail?  Will they be financially ruined?  Will they be able to fulfill their heart’s desire to adopt?

The responsibility on a lawyer is crushing and unrelenting.  And, to make it worse, there are time deadlines.  The lawyer has to choose between spending time on her personal life or on her professional life.  Some simply cannot cope.  Early in my professional life I was shocked at the amount of alcohol consumption, infidelity, etc. which took place as lawyers tried to deal with their burdens of stress.  I turned to my faith to bring me through the difficult times in my practice.  Hmm.  Once again, I have my parents to thank for that.

Looking back on my years of practice, I must conclude that I did not learn all I needed to know about the practice of law in law school.  Law school was nothing like kindergarten in more ways than one.  Kindergarten may not have involved higher learning, but it did involve prepping us for the life beyond kindergarten in very practical ways such as learning to share, wait our turn, follow instructions, etc. Perhaps a lawyer would be better prepared for practice if she were trained not only to think like a lawyer but also how to act once she became one.