Don’t think like a lawyer

This article was just published in the “I Wish I’d Known” column in the October 2014 issue of Student Lawyer, a terrific publication of the ABA’s Law Student Division. My thanks to Marilyn Cavicchia and Darhiana Mateo Téllez of the ABA for the invitation and opportunity.

“You’re going to learn to think like a lawyer,” said one of my professors in the first week of law school. She didn’t mean it as the threat it turned out to be.

Law degrees might be three years long, but let’s be honest, you’ve begun thinking like a lawyer within one. I still remember, in that first year, walking past a tall ladder propped precariously against a city building and thinking not about the worker’s safety, but about his liability.

It’s a small, insidious change. You start to view others not as people, but as tortfeasors, claimants, or consignees — parts to be played, with fault to be assigned and damages to be assessed. Cases become puzzles, games: Spot the issue! Identify the error! Feel justified as you deny coverage to the quadriplegic accident victim who didn’t see the light turn red. Distance yourself from him with the insulating, all-excusing logic of the law.  [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

Thinking like a lawyer is easy and fun. But I wish that “thinking like a lawyer” had been provided as a complement to my already-installed “thinking like a person” system, not as a replacement for it. I wish I’d been shown the off switch.

Equally, I wish that law school had gone on to instruct me in “feeling like a client.” Few lawyers, and hardly any law students, know what it’s like to be a client — the anxiety, the vulnerability, the isolation that accompanies a problem we don’t know how to solve and whose consequences could ruin us. Many lawyers forget this, if we ever knew it or felt it in the first place.

I wish there’d been a mandatory second-year course called, simply, “The Client.” And as part of that course, each student had to visit a local lawyer incognito for a 20-minute consultation about a hypothetical problem. And to come back afterwards to report: how were you made to feel? Like the subject of a human event, or the object of a legal process? Were you engaged, or just acknowledged? Looked at, or looked through?

And, oh man, the price. What it feels like to ask a lawyer the seemingly simple question, “How much will this cost?” And either the lawyer hedges and quotes an hourly rate that doesn’t help, or she actually drops a real number on you. And in 10 or 15 years’ time, if you’re financially successful, maybe that number won’t faze you. But today, as a law student, with debts and middling job prospects — that number will chill your blood. As it should.

Legal education is a powerful drug; but if you’re not careful, it can drown out your instincts, stifle your emotions, and numb your heart. Law school molds and enhances your intellect, but frequently neglects to enlighten and illuminate your soul. The damage is predictable.

Great lawyers are more than just brilliant tacticians: they’re instinctive, heartfelt, caring, and real. No matter what else you do in law school, start learning how to be a lawyer like that.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant, and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients, and legal organizations. He has delivered dozens of addresses to law firms, state bars, law societies, law schools, judges, and many others throughout the United States and Canada on the evolution of the legal services marketplace.


  1. Irene Carlson

    You have great insight.. and soul taking time to share it. I met one such in BC. Erik Magraken unique and rare indeed,changed how I now view lawyers,some are people too.Yes more needs to be taught on this subjec,thanks.You made my day.

  2. Karen Skinner


    I read your post right after reading Ryan McLead’s recent post, The Exponential Lawyer – part 1, in 3 Geeks and a Law Blog. His insistence that what we sell (and clients buy) legal processing seemed to skip over the human element entirely. Yes, they buy our legal services. But they also buy peace of mind, confidence, reassurance…or at least they try to.

    You know that at Gimbal we are big proponents of process efficiency in law firms. But our ultimate aim is to make the delivery of legal services work for clients. We work with lawyers who are determined to deliver value to their clients — value that the clients, themselves, define. That value is often much more than legal processing. Yes, the processing has to be right — and it should be efficient and cost-effective, too — but clients value the conversation. They value lawyers who know and understand their businesses, their problems, the things that keep them up at night.

    You’re right. We don’t learn this in law school. We don’t learn it in bar school or during our articles. Once on the job we are rarely, if ever, shown the legal world from the client’s point of view. I think if more lawyers could see what they do from the client’s perspective there would be far less resistance to change in the profession. We are a service industry and we must deliver what our clients value. That means spending a little more time understanding just what it is they do value (but not charging them by the hour to find out!).

    Getting law students to go undercover as clients may be a great place to start.

    Thanks, Jordan.


  3. Natheem Albertus

    At most times I spontaneously think as a lawyer but this is so because the prevailing circumstances calls for it. For instance when I meet persons at a social or family gathering the advice offered is not about me making money from a potential client but merely to point out the potential harm that may be suffered. I will assume this goes with any other professional whether it be a doctor or IT specialist depending on the nature of the discussion.

    I agree with you on “feeling like a client” issue which is somewhat complex because it depends on many factors including the background and character of the law student and what has motivated the student to study law.

    If the student’s principal reason for studying law is to make money his egotistical nature for personal gain would have reduced whatever empathy he would have had for his clients. I suspect that this type of law student will be found in the large corporate law firms.

    On the other hand there are probably many law students who are now lawyers who were not motivated by the lure of money to practice law but because of their altruistic nature, studied law to bring about a difference in the lives of others. These lawyers are empathetic in nature and when the situation calls for it “don’t think like a lawyer” but “feel like a client” in the interest of protecting their client’s rights.

    Obviously, I am including the Public Interest, Civil Right &, Human Rights lawyers etc. I doubt whether you will come across an empathetic lawyer in the corporate law firm because the dynamics are very much different to that of smaller firms.

    Kind regards

    Natheem Albertus
    Practicing Attorney
    Cape Town
    South Africa

  4. Olubayo Durojaye

    All your articles are just ON POINT, its all we need NOW in the legal industry

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