Learning to “Think Like a Lawyer”

What does it mean to “think like a lawyer?” It seems like a simple thing, we’ve all seen the television shows where lawyers hurdle difficult questions thrown at them on the spot, spouting out cases and what they stand for. These are the same TV shows that open, litigate, and try multi-million dollar cases in sometimes as little as months or days. Of course this doesn’t define what it means to “think like a lawyer,” or really describe it for that matter. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what it means to “think like a lawyer” and even if I did, I’m not sure I could define it.

In my opinion (though my experience is limited), Hollywood has created a conflated dream world allowing the general public to vicariously live in the enigma that is the life of a lawyer. Another place people get to see attorneys in action is when they have to hire one; this unfortunately means that person is going through a rough patch of life. Clients, being personally involved in a situation, tend to want to make emotional arguments while it is the lawyer’s job to make legal arguments. This touches on one element of thinking like a lawyer, make the legal argument and leave the emotional ones for the client to fume over.

Issue spotting is another element of thinking like a lawyer. The entire first year of law school is dedicated to teaching students to “think like a lawyer,” with the focus being issue spotting. The approach is simple but effective, give the students two or three (often more) cases to read per class, don’t tell them what they are looking for, and then barrage them with questions in class. Most, if not all, of my classmates quickly learned what to look for when reading – the legal issue (problem to be solved in the case), the rule of law applied, and the holding of the court. This skill is essential because without being able to spot the issue, a lawyer cannot find the rule that applies and therefore can effectively do nothing for the client.

In my almost four weeks as a clerk with the Rice Divorce Team, I have heard the phrase “think like a lawyer” on multiple occasions, especially from Larry. He knows it’s an important skill that is not easily learned and provides opportunities, and encouragement, for his clerks to learn how to “think like a lawyer.”

As I said, this is a concept that is still revealing itself to me. I know there is much more that could (and probably should) be said on the subject. I invite others, no matter what their experience level, to share their thoughts on the subject by commenting below.

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