Reader Steph asked me the other day what it means to think like a lawyer. I've been thinking about this recently, because the longer I stay away from the practice of law the less I want to go back, and the more I resist loving suggestions by helpful friends that push me back into that box. I was good at thinking like a lawyer, and with time and attention and discipline I think I would have made a very good attorney. I enjoyed the subject matter, the clients, and the problem-solving. But I don't want to go back, no please no. What's that about?
Thinking like a lawyer is a kind of precision of thought that's a wonderful and unique skill. You learn to parse a question down into its component parts, to carve away the emotion and the confusion and leave only the essence. You learn to forget people and think about principles. You learn how to allocate responsibility. You don't get distracted by the problem until you understand whose problem it is, and whether it really needs to be decided now or might turn out only to be a problem later. You become comfortable with life's unfairness, and think instead about the allocation of risk. You focus a lot more on process than on result -- what questions will we have had to answer before we get to the final answer? What are the rules for answering those questions? You get familiar with situations in which everything is going to go wrong and some innocent party is going to bear it, and you stop feeling outraged about that.
You deal with a million scenarios like this: Grandma Bessie brings her heirloom diamond ring in to the jewelry store to be cleaned and plans to come and get it on Tuesday. On Monday, Wide-Eyed Wilbur goes to the jewelry store to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring, and Jake the Jeweler takes his life savings and sells him Grandma Bessie's ring. Then Jake disappears to Morocco with the money, never to be seen again. As between Bessie and Wide-Eyed Wilbur, who gets to keep the ring? Before law school, you fuss and fume about what a jerk Jake the Jeweler was, and you want to ask a million questions about whether someone could find him, or whether maybe there is any money left behind, perhaps behind a painting in a safe in the back room of the jewelry store? What made Jake run off, anyway? By 2L year, you accept the fact that these questions are irrelevant: the jeweler is gone, and you start looking at the rules for allocating bad luck to innocent parties. By the time you've practiced law for a while, you're even more practical about it, considering not only the various burdens the law allocates between the parties, but also the transaction costs of using the legal system to challenge or defend behavior.
Being good at law means you're very good at breaking complicated questions down into parts and looking without emotion at those parts. You're able to separate pain, sorrow, misfortune, shame, anger, expectation, and outrage from analysis and decisions. You're good at isolating those problems you are able to solve, and ignoring those that aren't on your plate right now. You're good at being able to move, step-by-step, to a conclusion, and to move through a series of conclusions to a specific result. You can show how different conclusions at any step might change the result.
I treasure the disciplined precision of thought I got from law school. It is a habit of mind that I value as a gift; I am smarter and more capable because of it. I like, too, the confidence I have in my own ability to navigate statutes and to parse legal language. I value my understanding of the legal system -- a grand, flawed, largely noble process of dispute resolution.
But the problem with learning and practicing law is that it elevates this kind of thinking above everything else. Narrow, precise, analytical, articulate, rational, dispassionate. I'm good at that, as far as it goes. But the truth about me is that I am also messy and sensitive and intuitive and warm and imaginative and empathetic and joyful and easily moved by beauty. I want to connect with everyone. I want to put people at ease. I want to hug old Bessie and hear stories about that ring and who in her family had it before she did. I want to sit with Wilbur and his young fiance, watching her enjoying the unfamiliar sparkle on her hand while they talk about the future. I wonder how this blow will affect Bessie's health. I wonder how Wilbur and his fiance will bear the guilt they already feel about having someone else's heirloom, wonder whether it will bring them together or infuse tension into their relationship. I love all the irrelevant details that make a fact pattern into a story, into someone's life.
The things that you learn to disregard when you learn to think like a lawyer are some of the things I most love. It's impossible, of course, to leave them behind -- I'll be warm, empathetic, sensitive, and intuitive no matter what it is I'm doing (just as I'll be curious, intelligent, precise, rational and articulate). But it feels kind of unbalanced to think about diving back into a profession where some of my attributes -- precision of thought, analytical capability, logic, abstraction, and assertiveness -- are officially venerated, while others -- sensitivity, connection, warmth, wholeness, instinct, beauty, feelings -- are considered irrelevant at best, hindrances at worst. That way lies much unhappiness. I'm looking for a more integrated path.