How to Think Like a Lawyer

By Landis Turner,

Contributing Writer

I have a friend who sometimes responds to me by saying “That’s an argument only a lawyer could understand.”  I hope he’s not talking about legalese because I hate legalese. It is the unfortunate habit many lawyers fall into, using complicated words and expressions not likely familiar to laymen. They also tend to use three words where one would suffice. A will may say “I give, devise and bequeath to my son, George…” Why not just say “I leave to my son, George…”

One the other hand, my friend may be referring to my style of discussing issues. I have a cousin who says that she never argues or even discusses religion or politics, because people who do tend to get mad. I love to discuss, and even debate, politics and religion. I never get mad and rarely rile the emotions of the person with whom I’m talking.

Whenever a lawyer hears the phrase “think like a lawyer” his mind goes to the 1973 movie, “The Paper Chase” about Harvard Law School. Contracts Professor Kingsfield tells his first year students, “You come in here with a head full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

A lawyer should examine all alternatives and always examine all issues from the viewpoint of his adversary. I always try to do what the late Senator Howard Baker did. “Put you feet in his shoes. The other guy might be right.”

A good lawyer must recognize all the issues, not just one or two. He must avoid emotional entanglement. For instance, a criminal defendant may have confessed to a terrible crime. No matter how revolting the crime is, the defense lawyer must  center on whether the law enforcement officers have warned him of his right to remain silent, before answering any questions.

When arguing a case, a good lawyer studies the history of the issue. He determines how similar cases have been decided in the past. Then he tries to convince the court to follow the precedent set by the old case. Or if the old case is not helpful, he tries to persuade the court to distinguish the old case and rule differently.

Lawyers always distrust assumptions without questioning them carefully. “We do it that way because we’ve always done it that way.” That makes me determined to find alternatives.

Lawyers accept ambiguity. They allow flexibility. The United States Supreme Court has decided scores of cases with issues that the framers never thought of; same sex marriage, abortion, to name a couple.

Thinking like a lawyer does not mean you have to talk like a lawyer all the time. Sometimes it is it good to use good judgment in what you say. Wise, cold, logical, rational, critical speaking is usually not appropriate in personal relationships and social

Comments are closed.