[Dave Heal's] Observations & Reports

Letter to an Erstwhile Valedictorian

As your 1L year gets under way, increasing numbers of adults in your life will describe the main difficulty of the first year of law school as “learning to think like a lawyer.” Not only do they make it sound exhausting and terrible, but loads of them have packaged this observation along with a general admonition against becoming a lawyer at all. This is information that might have been helpful a year or so ago but now seems more like hostility cloaked as advice. They’ll come brandishing out-of-context Shakespeare quotes and bemoaning the state of tort reform in two-sentence talking points and will aggressively accuse you of mortgaging your future only to be turned into a bigger and more useless jerk than you already are. There may be something to that last bit, actually, but now’s not the time to sort all that out.

You’d like to imagine, after having probably taken some time off, invented PCR, joined and left the academy, or done some other remarkable thing with your giant brain, that you at least have a reasonable shot at being good at and might even enjoy this “thinking like a lawyer.” What this usually refers to, I’m guessing, is mostly a kind of unalloyed reasoning process, having something to do with the ability to dispassionately carve up complex problems into their constituent parts and progress logically to a solution.

Pleasant surprise time: most of it really isn’t that new. Sure, there’s something uniquely systematic and initially slightly foreign about reading and processing caselaw. But if you’ve worked at all with texts or done any scientific problem solving (making a bong out of your Mountain Dew emphatically does NOT count), or even been able to reliably find Waldo, you’ve probably got the tools to do a passable job at reading legal opinions after some practice. That these opinions often more closely resemble Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky than something you’d expect to be a guide to the law will provide a considerable obstacle to your understanding. But eventually you’ll learn to distinguish legal sense from nonsense as well.

Like the MBA, the JD is a professional degree, and you should be prepared to be somewhat underwhelmed by the intellectual stimulation offered by some of the courses you’ll have to take. But look on the bright side: judging from a very small sample of, well, me and my roommate, your legal training will amplify your already heightened sense of your own rightness. And at the very least you will gain the ability to verbally bludgeon your mildly inebriated friends at home into acknowledging how right you are about everything all the time. Now, there are less expensive ways of becoming no fun at parties, but this is the particular one you chose, and you should embrace it. Or at least use your new power with care.

Indeed, what should instill you 1Ls with The Fear is not the Socratic method but rather the prospect of turning into that annoying cocktail party lawyer who thinks the rest of the civilized world always gives a crap about the fine distinctions that you’re going to be learning to care about. I believe that people who come into law school as tactful, empathetic people will usually emerge pretty much unscathed, taking with them some valuable tools and hopefully discarding whatever obnoxious groupthink tendencies are engendered by a prolonged suckling at a common teat. Thankfully, most of us are no longer 18 and therefore not as susceptible to turning into the legal equivalent of the obnoxious freshman philosophy major who’s just had his first Hegel-induced erection. But let this be a reminder: law school doesn’t have to change who you are. That may sound incredibly obvious and corny, but it becomes less self-evident the deeper in you get.

Not only does law school seem especially successful at burning think-like-a-lawyer pathways into the brains of eager, impressionable students, but it also seems to lock them irreversibly into writing really really lame prose. I would never begrudge your looking forward to peppering your casual speech with archaic latin phrases in that typically student-y way that results in a lot of creolization and awful puns. See, for example, my 7th grade Spanish class and the inevitable deployment of the made-up verb ‘ramajar,’ which provided four marking periods of juvenile comic relief before our teacher relented and finally taught us some sex slang. But there really should be an activist group lobbying against the yearly creation of thousands of head-smackingly dull prose stylists. On the other hand, according to one Georgetown Law professor at an event I attended before law school, few of his students knew how to write in the first place. So maybe there’s something noble in merely teaching us how to write a minimally comprehensible complete sentence, even if it’s only minimally comprehensible to a small subset of the population. That being said, your first exposure to Alex Kozinski or Oliver Wendell Holmes should convince you that you don’t have to give up writing lucid, unique prose in order to be precise and persuasive.

And so with that, here’s some unsolicited but heartfelt advice:

  1. Continue to do other things that make you happy. Law school can be dull and all-consuming, but everybody here used to have interests and even passions that didn’t involve Aspen Publishing. Keep doing them or your soul will die a thousand deaths.
  2. Having more or less failed at doing this during my 1L year I know it’s difficult, but try to keep reading stuff for pleasure. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction or the Superficialist, it will be good for both your writing and your mental health to think about other things for some non-trivial amount of time every week. If you have to write it into your iCal in order to get it done, do it.

And finally, and most importantly:

  1. Give your classmates a break. Most people are kind of scared and intimidated and self-conscious about seeming smart. If on a daily basis you can try and be self-aware enough to acknowledge your own similar feelings, it’ll be easier to cut the kid in the front row some slack for being a bit overeager and obnoxious. This will probably take a substantial amount of effort and concentration. And, if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it. But on most days, if you’re conscious enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at the guy or girl in your section that everybody dismissed as a gunner on the first day. Some of those people may be assholes, but many of them are good and well-meaning. Empathy isn’t a skill that is taught here, but if you can at least attempt to give people the benefit of the doubt, I’ve discovered they often surprise you.

1Ls, I wish you [way more than] luck!