New Lawyer Series: Think Like A Lawyer

“Think like a lawyer” is a common, if not commonly-explained, phrase that all law students and new lawyers are familiar with. It’s easy to believe that attending three years of school, participating in various hands-on clinics and working in law offices for a couple months of the year will prepare you for what it takes to be a good lawyer, but it takes more than just¬†perfecting your drafting techniques and learning the office politics to succeed as an advocate.

In “The Sweet Science of Shifting Your Mental Venue” in the Summer 2015 edition of the ABA’s TYL magazine, Tracey Lesetar-Smith drills down on what it takes to think like a good lawyer. Here are her suggestions:

  1. Take Time to Think Even Under the Gun: “Pressure to have all the answers. . .at our fingertips can obscure a lawyer’s ability to retreat into thought, and the necessity of quality thinking time is rarely understood by clients.” So how do you take the tim you need to really think about the issues you’re being presented with? Tracey recommends getting rid of as many distractions as possible: cell phone, email, open door. Sit and think through the issue and, when you think you’re done, ask yourself what could be missing. And keep thinking about the issue.
  2. Don’t Go Through Life With a Red Pen In Your Hand: Not every potential legal issue is one that your client cares about. Know how to spot all of the issues, but learn which ones will actually matter to your client.
  3. Take Stock of Your Resources: Use your resources (time, relationships, etc) wisely.
  4. Don’t Forget the Narrative: You need to create a narrative for your client’s side of the story that makes sense to people. It’s great to be clever and come up with new legal arguments, but ultimately, if the other side’s story just makes more sense, then the time and energy you put into those clever arguments is worthless.
  5. Sweat the Details, then Don’t Sweat the Details: Do the best work you can – double and triple check everything – but don’t flip out if there’s an inconsequential typo on page 39. Young lawyers are often tasked with worrying about everything, and rightfully so. However, there is marginal utility to continuing to beat yourself up over some small errors that will ultimately change nothing.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamental skills of lawyering, you must begin to refine your thought processes so that you are able to provide the most value to your client.

The concept of providing value to clients is somewhat new to lawyers, but it is no less important than all of the things that you learn in law school. Any one could spend countless hours and dollars researching a minor point of law, but the truly great lawyers will identify the top issues that make a material difference to their clients and spend the time advocating for those things. It’s not enough to just think like a lawyer – you have to think like your client and act accordingly. That’s how you become a great lawyer.

Do you think this list is complete or is there something else you would have included?

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New Lawyer Series: When You Are Called

If you missed the article titled “Letter to a Young Advocate” in the Fall 2015 Advocates’ Journal, you should try to find a copy (or check out the online version, if it’s available.)

There is never a moment when you are ready; there is only the moment when you are called.

In it, Harry Underwood¬†recounts the time when he had to step up to the plate during a trial and gives some advice for young lawyers on how to prepare themselves to make sure that they’re ready when the time comes. Notably, he says that “there is never a moment when you are ready; there is only the moment when you are called.” I think that’s an important lesson to learn because there is no amount of sitting in your office or even attending CLEs/CPDs that will prepare you for what it takes to get up in front of a judge or jury and present your case.

The opportunities to do so are, of course, becoming fewer and farther between, but if you are a litigator, more likely than not, you will be called. Naturally, the question is – will you be able to answer the call?

Mr. Underwood gives a few tips to prepare yourself as best you can:

  1. Make it a rule to assume that from the moment you take on a case that it is bound to proceed to trial. His reasons for doing so are (1) so you won’t be afraid to try the case if it does go to trial and (2) so you will be ready to try it.
  2. Take the time at the outset of a case to develop a theory of the case and a plan to win it. Avoid seeing each stage of litigation as a battle to be won. You want to win the war and you need to have a long-term, strategic plan if you hope to do so. (of course you must continue to hone your theory and test it as things progress, but thinking in this way is what is important).
  3. “Always press on.” Keep the case moving forward. Set deadlines for yourself and your opponents, if necessary. There will always be a reason for delay, but be aware of the need to advance your client’s interests and keep things moving forward.

There are some other suggestions as well, but I thought these were the best. At the end of the article, Mr. Underwood says, simply, that developing good habits is a way to take responsibility for yourself and having those habits is ultimately what makes you a good advocate.

I couldn’t agree more. What habits do you think are important for young lawyers to master in order to become great advocates?