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Learning to Think Like a Lawyer

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Think like a lawyer

During your orientation day at your law school, you may have heard that once you graduate from the school, you’ll be able to think like a lawyer. But what does it mean? Is thinking like a lawyer different than any other profession? Why is there so much emphasis on thinking like a lawyer from the first day of joining law school?

Have you been wondering how to go about learning to think like a lawyer? Here we will go over some important steps to help you start thinking like personal injury attorneys or lawyers specializing in other fields.

What Does It Mean to Think Like a Lawyer?

Oxford University Press published a book in 2007 written by Elizabeth Mertz with the title “The Language of Law School: Learning to “Think Like a Lawyer””. The book goes into detail about the process of intellectual transformation, from a simple-minded average student to one that thinks like a lawyer. It breaks down law degree courses, and law professors employ new ways of viewing conflicts and introduce the Socratic method that forces law students to transition their thinking from moral and emotional terms towards a framework of legal authority. The book bases its linguistic study on tape recordings from the first-year law courses across eight different law schools.

Learning to think like a lawyer? We know you’re not here for book recommendations but want to quickly get into how to think like a lawyer. A law school teacher may deliver a course in such a way that it makes you think logically and from the perspective of a lawyer rather than the average person. However, you do not need to attend law school to start learning to think like a lawyer.

Here, we will go over the three important steps to help you think like a lawyer, even without a law school education, which include spotting issues, using logic, and questioning everything.

Can You Think Like a Lawyer Without a Law School Education?

Thinking like a lawyer is not only about logical arguments but also many other aspects, such as exercising judgment, combining realism with idealism, control over emotions, and many more. Here, we will go over how you can start to think like a lawyer even without law school.

Step 1: Spotting Issues

Put Yourself in Other People’s Shoes

A lawyer must go over different perspectives to understand the viewpoints of others before presenting the facts. Those attending law school may be familiar with the acronym “IRAC”. IRAC, or “issues, rule, analysis, and conclusion” is a set structure that law teachers require from students when answering a question on the examination. This structure helps the student identify all the possible issues, what rules apply, analyse them, and then conclude the argument.

Let’s take a look at an example. A worker uses a ladder that is leaning against a building to climb up an electrical pole to fix the electrical wire. Here, there are many viewpoints a lawyer will see rather than just the viewpoint of the worker. The lawyer is more interested in knowing the viewpoints of passerby citizens, the owner of the building the ladder is leaning on, and the employer.

Avoid Thinking Emotionally

A lawyer does not rely on their feelings to solve a dispute, and moral and emotional terms might be different. Feelings are not rational and might blind you from seeing the facts necessary to solve problems. Spotting issues help determine relevant facts pertinent to the case. Still, emotions can force a person to attach themselves to facts that may not hold any importance in deciding the outcome of a case.

An attorney does not let moral and emotional terms or personal interests come between them and the case. Let’s look at the situation of OJ – Orenthal James – Simpson as an example. During the criminal trial, he had a team of superstar attorneys who did not ponder over how revolting the case details were but questioned the relevant parties to ensure a strong defense for their client.

Be Able to Argue Both Sides

A good lawyer can argue both sides of a case. If you’re able to do that, then that means you have achieved a good level of command over the relevant laws. When you learn how to make arguments, you also pick up a very important skill, listening to other arguments.

Listening to the other side of the story helps determine whether your arguments are strong enough and therefore allows lawyers to solve more problems that they may not have realized in the first place.

Step 2: Using Logic

Deduce Conclusions

To think like a lawyer, you must be able to deduce conclusions. General rules are there for lawyers to follow and it helps in arriving at a conclusion. Lawyers must be able to conclude their cases using general rules.

Construct Syllogisms

Syllogisms are a form of reasoning that comes to a conclusion for individuals based on what may be true for a group of individuals. Syllogisms comprise of three parts, these are:

  • General statement: The general statement is something that is broad. For example, slippery floors without warning signs show negligence.
  • Particular statement: This refers to someone or particular facts. For example, this Walmart’s floor is slippery and there are no warning signs.
  • Conclusion: Now that you have the general rule about negligence and the fact that Walmart’s floor is slippery and there are no warning signs, you can easily deduce that Walmart’s slippery floor without a warning sign shows negligence.

Inductive Reasoning

Sometimes you may not have a general rule to help you determine the conclusion. In such situations, you should be capable of drawing conclusions from a set of specific observations. There is no guarantee that inductive reasoning will ensure a true conclusion. Still, the general idea behind it is that if something occurs multiple times, you can derive a general rule from it. There are many examples in the real world where lawyers have deduced a rule from multiple prior observations to defend their case.

Use Analogies to Compare Situations

An analogy is when lawyers use the decisions of previous cases to defend their current ones. If a previous case saw a huge win and the situation is similar to that which a lawyer is facing right now, the lawyer will instantly use the verdict of the prior case to make a strong argument and defend their current case.

At a law school, professors teach young aspiring lawyers how to use analogies. Throughout their studies, students must learn details about previous cases and use the findings or verdicts of those cases in different situations provided in the classroom. Not only that but students are also taught how to compare and contrast facts to determine which facts are important to the case.

Let’s look at an example of using an analogy. In Los Angeles, a young boy in blue jeans slips over a banana peel at a local shop. The injured boy quickly sues the shop, and the judge awards compensation to the boy as it was the responsibility of the shop to clean their floors, thus making the shop owner negligent. Here, thinking like a lawyer means that you’re able to identify the relevant facts pertinent to the case and use them in the current situation.

A month later, in Orange County, another young boy in black jeans slips over a biscuit wrapper. As a lawyer, you’ll immediately understand that the case has a similar conclusion to the one announced by the judge a month earlier. The fact that it is in Orange County or that the boy is wearing black instead of blue or that it’s a biscuit wrapper and not a banana peel does not matter. The important fact derived from the previous incident is that the shop owner was negligent as it was their responsibility to have the floors cleaned.

Step 3: Questioning Everything

Scrutinize Assumptions

Assuming things in a case leads to blind spots as you’re disregarding facts, which can have a detrimental effect on the case. Thinking like a lawyer means that you don’t just have to put emotions aside but also break down assumptions. For each assumption you have, you must find actual proof to back it up in an argument. Otherwise, you have nothing substantial or credible. 

Keep Asking Why

Children are good at connecting dots from an early age by repeatedly asking why for everything you throw at them. As a parent, it may annoy you, but as a lawyer, this is how you should think like one. If there is a new policy that the state enforces, a lawyer will use the reasoning behind why the state introduced the policy in the first place and argue new facts that should also be part of that law.

For example, a city introduced a new law in the 1940s that ban vehicles near public parks. The law arrives after the injury of a young boy hit by a car. Fast forward to the current era where citizens can now purchase drones off the market shelves. During this time, a lawyer can ask the city council whether or not there is a need to revisit the 1940s law banning vehicles due to the introduction of drones. Are drones considered vehicles? Will the ban on drones advance the 1940s policy of banning vehicles to provide safety to children? If so, why?

If you’re asking such questions, then you’re already thinking like a lawyer.

Embrace Ambiguity

Laws and policies do not cover the entire breadth of a particular topic or issue, and legislatures can’t accommodate every single possibility when making laws. Thinking like a lawyer means that the lawyer accepts and embraces such ambiguity. Gray areas exist in law, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the distinctions are meaningless.

For example, the United States Constitution was put into motion on September 17, 1787, when 39 delegates signed the document. Today, lawyers use the same constitution to make arguments pertaining to the modern era. Although the founding fathers wrote the constitution in the late 1780s, today, lawyers reinterpret the constitution when it comes to electronic surveillance, something that was not heard of in the 1780s. Reinterpretation makes keeping the same constitution in place easier than changing it as new situations arise.

Although law school is not technically required for pursuing a legal career because there are apprenticeship programs in four states, the three exhausting and challenging years in law school help students better equip themselves and develop habits and attitudes that are akin to those of a lawyer.