We often hear this phrase as a new law student and maybe even covet the praise. You give an answer and the professor mentions that now you’re thinking like a lawyer before moving on to stump another student. But what does it mean? Do lawyers really think a certain way? What if you never feel like you’ll get there?
Rest assured, once you get through law school you will surely know how to think like a lawyer. But I’m here to explain right now what that really means.
Lawyers think analytically, strategically, and only with emotion if it’s necessary. Omg, does this sound like a robot? Yeah, well we’re kind of robotic. It becomes a cute characteristic eventually…
One. Analytically. This means we parse through the facts to find patterns and reasons. That is why it’s important to read the fact patterns when we’re first learning to read cases because facts play into how a case will play out. It means being able to notice small details and changes in one case versus a similar one to make an argument for a different outcome. To increase this skill, learn to pay attention to detail —word choice, slight differences, and work on picking up patterns. The more you do this before law school the easier it will be to read your cases (though it will still be hard).
Two. Strategically. The law is never black and white and you have to learn to see the various shades to make your case. You have to become comfortable being able to argue both sides of a case. Both to predict what the other side will say and to know which facts to highlight and when to put forth the right arguments to make your case. This skill takes time and experience, but the more you expose yourself to legal arguments, the stronger this will be & that is why I really encourage law students to intern in at least one place that exposes you to frequent litigation so you can see how it’s done (or just watch a whole bunch of original law & order, j/k but only kind of).
Three. No emotions. The weirdest part about thinking like a lawyer is that we often seem devoid of emotion. We see sad situations and automatically think of liability (you broke your arm tripping on the sidewalk? Maybe there’s a claim…). It’s not that we’re cold, unemotional creatures (for the most part) but rather the idea of making a case to the court has to be based on facts and evidence and reason, not emotion. And to be clear, emotion does run our legal system now–fearing men of color has resulting in their incarceration at higher rates than others. Loathing the poor has resulted in those with means continually preying on them–emotions do run the show. But in the smaller picture, when it’s an individual case, your assessment of viability can’t always be fueled by outrage. We are not afforded the ability to relay on emotions to make our claim. Rather we have to be able to see the good and the bad in the facts of the case to craft our argument.
Let me give you an example of one of the cases I’m most proud of–I had a client who maybe had a drinking problem, idk I’m not a doctor. But they definitely had multiple DUI charges. At first immigration wanted to deny the case based on the criminal history and argued that the client’s DUI charges made them ineligible for a remedy because they obviously had a drinking problem.
My response? 1) I find case law that shows a person’s DUIs don’t necessarily rise to the level of an addiction and argue that the case law applies to my client (analytical); 2) I knew they would have issue with the criminal history prior to submitting the case so I encourage my client to start treatment ASAP, resulting in a year + sobriety when they try to deny their case (strategic); 3) they were wrong on the facts, my client didn’t have as many DUIs as they claimed, making them less of a threat, per case law. I submitted an argument based on the facts and principles of the law showing why the client should be granted relief. This not only created a clean record if we needed to appeal, but my argument didn’t depend on how the adjudicator would feel (no emotions). I won that case.
::brushes off shoulder:: I know, I know, homie had serious DUI cases, but like if you’re in this to only win the easy cases with “good” clients, then you’re in for a rough time, my friend.
All of this to say, you are learning a new way of thinking. For some it may come easy and for others, it takes practice. The good thing is that this is totally a skill that can be learned and the more you train, the stronger you will get. Don’t think for a second there are natural lawyers because there isn’t, and even if there were, so what? I want a professional who has trained and worked at their craft & comes with real experience, not just someone who happens to be good from the beginning. Hone your craft and the rest will follow.