Nine Lessons from the Law You Can Apply to Your Life

I make fun of the legal profession a lot here, because let’s face it, it’s so easy.

In fact, I have a hypothesis about lawyers you that I’ll expand upon in a future post, but I’ll share it with you now. It’s called the LAWYERS RUIN EVERYTHING HYPOTHESIS OF CURRENT EVENTS, and it goes like this:

If something in American society seems so stupid, so counter-intuitive, so messed-up, and so unfair, the chances are incredibly high that at some point in time, lawyers were involved in making the decision.

Lessons from The Law

But I have not come to bury the legal profession, but to praise it.

That’s right! There are actually certain lessons one learns in law school and in the legal profession that can be transferred to your everyday life. Now, they’re not quite as bad-ass as Ed Latimore’s “Important Lessons From Fighting You Can Apply To Your Life,” but that’s why Ed’s Ed and I’m me.

While I don’t litigate anymore, trial practice taught me some skills that have helped me in all areas of my life.

So without further ado, here are Nine Lessons from the Law You Can Apply to Your Life:

LESSON ONE: Be a concise speaker. If your idea takes more than five to eight seconds to convey, your listener is out.

The five-to-eight-second time-span isn’t based on any scientific studies or psychological experiments, just my observations when speaking to judges. If you can’t give them your thesis and your conclusion within the first two sentences out of your mouth, they’re going to tune you out or start interrupting up with questions.

Think about conversations in your own life where your listener’s eyes glaze over right as you’re getting to the good part. Or more likely, what you think is the good part. Pro-tip: Your listener doesn’t care. Most people enjoy talking about themselves and listen only to the extent that it gives them something to relate to themselves. And you do it too. But now you’ll be aware of it.

So if you have information to impart, get in, get out, and let your listener ask some questions or talk about themselves.

Mind you, you’re reading advice on brevity from a guy that took three paragraphs to convey it. But you notice how that boldfaced part up there actually sums up this entire section? That’s what I’m talking about.

LESSON TWO: In writing, consolidate your thesis and your conclusion in your first sentence. If that’s not possible, do it in one short paragraph.

I really don’t have any what to add, since the lesson speaks for itself. But some why might be important in explaining why this is so important.

Judges, especially at the district (lowest) level courts, are inundated with motions and pleadings and all sorts of other ass-achingly dull stuff that the last thing they want to do is read through your fifteen-page motion. You might think your writing is really bitchin’, but guess what: So does every other lawyer. And here’s a hint: The judge doesn’t care. If the judge can’t get what he needs out of your first paragraph, then he’ll have to ask you basic boring questions during your hearing, which means you won’t have enough time to get to the important stuff . . . and you can guess the rest. So keep it simple and clear.

This leads to a different issue, which is: Why are judges so lazy? Maybe their jobs should be automated as well as the fast-food workers’. . .

So why is this lesson important? Simple. This is the Internet age. People have short attention spans. Get to your point, because your readers are probably going to skim what you write anyway, and you want them to get your Big Ideas.

Again, this lesson on brevity is brought to you by a guy who just spent the past four paragraphs explaining concise writing. But my blog, my rules.

LESSON THREE: Don’t get into an argument unless you have all of your facts and the other side’s facts, to the maximum extent possible.

One of the best things a more experienced co-worker taught me about trial prep was to always know what the other side is going to argue and have your counter-arguments ready. No surprises is the name of the game. Now, this is a bit easier in the legal profession since either side has an obligation to exchange papers before appearing in court. But you’d be surprised by how many lawyers don’t read these things, or do a little more digging to anticipate their opponent’s moves.

An argument is like a chess match, so you have to think ahead.

You see this all the time on Twitter. It happens in real-life as well.

But this is the Internet Age. You have all of humanity’s knowledge at your fingertips. If it’s a subject you feel strongly about, do your opposition research. 

There’s this tendency among people who really aren’t that smart, but who think they are, by parroting whatever argument du jour some pundit or pop-culture figure is spewing and acting as if that settles everything without doing their own research. Even worse, they don’t consider the other side of the argument.

If you refute this kind of person with counter-evidence, watch out, because you’re probably dealing with the kind of person whose mind you can never change. Their reaction will either be slightly less-violent than your average Islamic terrorist’s, or so stupid as to leave you questioning whether you truly share a common ancestor with such a person.

Chess Match

LESSON FOUR: In an argument or debate, do not ask questions you do not already know the answer to.

“But isn’t that the point of questions?” you’re probably thinking.

In real life? Sure. During a trial or in a debate? No.

What’s the key difference?

An audience.

If you’re doing any kind of debating in a public setting–a courtroom, the Internet, while running for office–you use questions as weapons to make your opponent look foolish. You want them to seem like they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Use questions to attack your opponent’s credibility. In legal terms, this is called impeaching a witness.

You never want to ask them anything open-ended that will give them a chance to dissemble. During a cross-examination, lawyers are allowed to ask leading questions. If you don’t know what those are, here is the classic example:

“So, Mr. Jones, when did you stop beating your wife?”

This question does two things. First, it sets the premise that Mr. Jones is a wife-beater (i.e., a bad guy). And second, even if he isn’t a wife-beater, it puts Mr. Jones on the defensive.

A better, less-inflammatory and more effective tactic is catching your opponent in a blatant lie or a misstatement. If your opponent makes a bold assertion about the efficacy of X policy or the harmful effects of Y program, you need to be armed with the facts showing otherwise so you can make him or her look foolish. If you can attack the credibility of the facts they are relying on, and offer credible counter-evidence, do that too.

Or–and this is even better–if you can catch them contradicting something they said earlier, their credibility goes bye-bye.


LESSON FIVE: In an argument or debate, do not take things personally.

If there’s one thing being a trial lawyer does, it gives you a thick skin. Remember: Everybody hates lawyers. Everyone. Even your mom, and she’s a really sweet lady.

I’ve been yelled at by judges, magistrates, opposing counsel, pro se defendants, my own clients, my boss, the list goes on. It’s a nasty profession, and anybody telling you otherwise either wants your tuition dollars or a new associate on the cheap.

But in the courtroom, unless you’re being a jerk, your argument what’s being attacked, or your client. And while lawyers are paid to act as their client’s surrogate, they aren’t literally transfigured into the actual person or entity they represent.

In your own life, remember that people are getting passionate about the idea you’re trying to argue or defend, not you. This will help you maintain your cool and allow you to focus on the argument and not your feelings.

Until, that is, they start busting out the personal attacks. In that case, you have my permission to respond in kind.

I love argument. I love-debate. I don't expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me. That's not their job. Margaret Thatcher

LESSON SIX:  People–juries, for example–react as much, and maybe more, to how you say something than what you say.

Body language. Posture. Voice modulation. How you dress. Word choice. The shine of your shoes. Your hair. Your breath. These things influence people’s opinion of you, and by extension what you are saying and how much weight they give it to a greater degree than you like to think.

Is this a cynical ? Maybe. But we aren’t the completely rational being we pretend that we are. In the words of Scott Adams, we “moist robots” who can be programmed–persuaded, if you will–by the proper stimuli, into thinking and believing almost anything.

In your own life, you downplay these nonverbal aspects at your own peril. Think about them next time you’re asking for a raise or engaging in a political discussion. Sometimes you catch more flies with honey, and other times only a bitter, lemony approach will suffice. I can think of two great books that can get you started towards understanding of these persuasive techniques.

LESSON SEVEN: Most people have an innate sense of justice and fair play.

This seems to run counter to Lesson Six, but hear me out. For the time being, this is still the United States. We have a certain way of doing things here, a way of thinking. We tend to overvalue the underdog, the so-called “little guy,” but in general we’re cool with people of all statuses and classes. We like to think–and rightly so, in my opinion–that we live in a fluid society, with lots of class mobility: Today’s pauper can become today’s prince, and vice versa.

What this means is that, as long as you are being fair and reasonable, even if people disagree with you, they will not be disagreeable. And you might even learn something.

Maureen Gardner and Fanny Blankers-Koen

Now, if you’re not interested in even being friends with those who hold differing viewpoints, might I suggest a one-way rocket to Uranus (not that one; the other one)? Otherwise, as long as said ideological opponent isn’t literally trying to murder or otherwise oppress you, it might be good to remain civil and end your discussion on speaking terms, because you never know when you might need a favor from that person . . .

Also, it’s good practice not to be a jerk. Just saying . . .

LESSON EIGHT: Be prepared at all times. This is basic, but you’ll be amazed by how many people go to battle without bringing along their entire arsenal.

I’ll never forget it: I had an early-morning case-management conference. A case-management conference, also called a waste-management conference, is the conference you have before the pre-trial conference, which is the actual conference you have before a trial.

So what’s the point of a case-management conference? I think it’s to allow lawyers to charge more billable hours, but then again, I’m a cynic.

The important thing is that these are typically quick affairs where the judge asks a few basic, boring procedural questions and you go on your merry way to chase ambulances and so on. As such, I typically did not bring the entire case file with me, just a few important papers.

However, this particular morning, the judge was out for blood. He wanted to know everything: Key dates, who signed what contract, key witness expected at trial . . . the kind of stuff judges usually don’t care about until the aforementioned pre-trial conference.

But do you think any lawyer is going to dare tell a judge that they’re barking up the wrong tree? Need I remind you that lawyers are among the most risk-averse people in the world?

So I looked and felt like an idiot. I was caught with my pants metaphorically around my legalistic ankles. And I vowed, then and there, to quit the legal profession–

Okay, I obviously didn’t. But guess what I brought to every case-management conference from that point on?

The case file.

In real-life, this translates into OVER-PREPARE BUT GO WITH THE FLOWIn most instances, it’s better to have too many resources than too few. You can always pare things down, but it’s difficult to build something out of nothing.

Or as Ed puts it: Victoria amat curam: Victory loves preparation.

Think about sculpture: You start with a massive block of something and slowly, deliberately, chip it away until the picture emerges. You might not need all of that gear or information you have with you, but you’ll be better prepared to have just the right arrow in your quiver instead of being fatally low on ammunition.

LESSON NINE: A well-timed ad hominem or rule violation can have a hugely positive effect towards achieving your desired outcome. Just don’t push it.

An ad hominem is fancy Latin for an attack on a person rather than the idea they are putting forth. I know I just got finished saying “don’t be a jerk,” but sometimes breaking a rule, either of procedure or decorum, can disrupt your opponent’s timing just enough that they have difficulty recovering. And you might just score some bonus points to boot.

Like I said earlier, you should use questions as weapons. With difficult witnesses, I used to love asking and answering my own questions. This is an objectionable tactic, but when you’re trying to convince a judge or a jury that the witness isn’t credible, the damage you can do before the judge or opposing counsel puts an end to your shenanigans can be massive. Here’s what that can look like:

Me: “We have all the other documentation, Mr. Smith, but do you have the actual contract?”

Mr. Smith: “No. That got destroyed when my basement flooded.

Me: “So you’re saying that the one document we happen to need is the only one that happened to get destroyed when your basement conveniently flooded last month? Doesn’t that seem a little too coincidental?”

Opposing Counsel: “Objection!”

Judge: “Counsel! Watch yourself!”

Me: “Yes, your honor. Excuse me.”

You see what I did there?

I made the witness look like a ridiculous liar.

But think about what would happen if I tried that trick again.

Plays like that usually work once per engagement. Rule-breaking is a special weapon sparingly deployed. Don’t overdo it.

So there you have it: Ways in which the legal profession can actually enrich your life instead of making it worse.

Now, this doesn’t absolve lawyers from the undeniable truth they ruin everything they touch, but that’s a subject for another post . . .

Follow me on Twitter @DaytimeRenegade

And check out my Instagram here.


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