Redefining 'Think Like a Lawyer' for Modern Law Practice

By William Vogeler, Esq. on June 19, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Lecturing at Harvard Law School, Professor Kingsfield said it best:

"You come into here with a skull full of mush and leave thinking like a lawyer."

It was a fictional account, but still good enough in 1973 for John Houseman to win an Oscar in the "Paper Chase." It raises a real question, however: is thinking like a lawyer a good thing today?

Redefining Thinking

Mary Juetten, writing for the ABA Journal, says "thinking like a lawyer" is an outdated idea -- particularly in legal education. To her, it means being adversarial.

"And while that can work for those involved in the small percentage of cases that actually go to trial, I would suggest that in a world where alternative dispute resolution includes negotiated settlements and mediation, we adjust and expand law school training," she writes.

In her opinion piece, Juetten concedes that she doesn't have much practical experience -- she took the bar in February. But she makes a case for teaching more negotiation and human relationship skills in law schools.

Kevin McKeown, writing for Above the Law, put it more bluntly. He said lawyers shouldn't be "so cocksure about the upside of being a 24/7, devoid-of-emotion, professional a-hole..."

It's not like law schools teach students to be obnoxious, combative people. Some of us are just born that way.

But in our defense, thinking like a lawyer is not about emotions. It's an intellectual thing, and law schools train students to use that thing.

In his book "Thinking Like a Lawyer," Frederick Schauer explains that it is based on rules, precedent, and reasoning. The process provides "stability, predictability and constraint on the idiosyncrasies of individual decision-makers," reviewers say.

Of course, there are those lawyers, judges, and educators -- like Professor Kingsfield -- who hurt people's feelings for a living. They might benefit from human relationship training in continuing legal education classes.

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