I recently posted a number of bad reasons people decide to go to law school. This post follows up by noting eight solid indicators (plus a qualified ninth) you may make a solid lawyer.
1. You have worked with lawyers or the law closely, and you liked it. Many successful lawyers have worked closely with attorneys before law school. Many have been paralegals or have worked in some job that put them in close contact with lawyers in practice. In my experience, those who did not work directly with lawyers tend to have worked in some law-related field (e.g., police, social work that intersects with the law, government) prior to deciding to pursue law as a career. Those repelled by contact with lawyers or the law self-select away from law school. Those who enjoy the subject-matter — and the lawyers — are more apt to find professional satisfaction. They know what they are getting into. They have a sense of the work, the demands, and the people they will associate with.
2. You love words, reading, and writing. From matrimonial to elder law, from tax to transactions, lawyers focus on language. If you have a genuine love of words and a real facility in writing, you will be better at the law — and more qualified for the legal profession — than your less literate peers.
3. Public policy thrills you. Lawyers tinker with the rules that order people’s lives. Even the tax lawyer is, after all, dealing with the power to destroy. Of course, you do not need a law degree to run for office or take a position in government. However, if you are interested in issues of public policy, the law may be your domain.
4. You are insatiably, ecumenically curious. Lawyers research. Lawyers look for patterns and distinctions. Lawyers look for interesting things in blocks of text, boxes of documents, and long question and answer sessions with witnesses. An abiding curiosity — an ability to be interested in whatever is put in front of you — is of enormous benefit to the lawyer. In fact, I’ve never met a decent lawyer who wasn’t at least a little bit nosy.
5. You enjoy nuance and ambiguity. As I noted in my prior post on bad reasons to go to law school, the law is not all black and white. To the contrary, the arguments begin over what black is, what white is. Because lawyers deal with words, and words cannot be weighed and measured in any non-metaphorical manner, a lawyer must be comfortable with uncertainty. If you actually enjoy uncertainty, if it intrigues you, so much the better.
6. You are demonstrably persuasive. Lawyers persuade. They persuade clients to hire them. They persuade clients to take advice. They persuade judges, juries, administrative agencies, and sometimes opposing lawyers to accept their clients’ positions. If you are persuasive, you will be a better lawyer.
Of course, it is hard to determine one’s own persuasiveness. Through the miracle of self-justification, we tend to sound much better to ourselves than we do to others.
Thus, look for objective measurements of persuasive ability. Success at competitive speech, debate, or oratorical contests. Repeated invitations to take the lead in presentations. Election to office. Not every successful lawyer is a politician, orator, or even a leader, but every effective lawyer is persuasive.
7. You are comfortable with responsibility and secrets. Lawyers accept risk from their clients. In exchange for a fee, they provide advice upon which others may act. If that advice is wrong, they may be held accountable. They also accept secrets from their clients. People tell their lawyers things that they do not tell other people. With limited exceptions, those confidences are protected from disclosure. That means that lawyers tend to walk around with a lot of other people’s secrets.
8. You have always been a strong devil’s advocate. As I have noted elsewhere in this blog, law school is one place where having a negative explanatory style may be a predictor of academic success. As I note in that other post, this is not necessarily healthy for the lawyer, since many lawyers cannot turn off this explanatory style in non-professional aspects of their lives. This leads to a lot of depressed lawyers. Still, the association exists between seeing the glass as half empty and being able to “issue spot” risks as a lawyer. Lawyers are often paid to find the downside and protect against it.
(9) Creativity? Yes. Close readers of this blog will observe, with some surprise, that I did not yet address “creativity” as a predictor of success in the law. There is a reason for this: I have to be careful with my terms.
In popular culture, some equate “creative” with “free-spirited”: we stereotype “artists” and other creative personalities as flighty, uncommitted, and unserious. No doubt there are flighty, commitment-phobic, happy-go-lucky creatives. Perhaps self-described creatives may even tend toward that description.
Such people would have difficulty pursuing careers in the law. The law tends toward structure, rules, and responsibility.
Furthermore, some creative personalities may feel confined by the law’s essentially conservative bent. The law tends to move by slow evolution, rather than revolution. Innovations tend to arrive by analogy to existing precedents and norms. Some creatives, while entirely serious, committed, and disciplined, may chafe at what may appear to be undue deference to yesterday’s way of doing things. And of course, Shakespeare was right about “the law’s delay” — delay that frustrates even the patient lawyer, let alone the creative personality yearning for rapid results.
On the other hand, creativity is of extraordinary benefit to lawyers, and the best lawyers are in fact highly creative people. I wrote about this notion in an earlier post. Dealing with the gaps, conflicts, and ambiguities of law is, at its best, an engagingly creative function. Understanding legal precedent, both on its own and in context, is an exercise in psychology and sociology. Facing the constraints of statute, precedent, and custom, lawyers often propose innovations that can dramatically impact the lives of others.
Furthermore, structural constraints often help generate creative output. For instance, the strict limits of haiku (and these are some great ones) may unleash genius, and the best painters sometimes limit their palette precisely because it forces them to exercise underutilized creative muscles. Likewise, in the best lawyers, the law’s constraints themselves help trigger ideas that may never have arisen without such restrictions. From experience, I can write that it is particularly rewarding to reach a sound result that someone told you could never happen.
In Sum. A lawyer does not have to have all of the traits above to perform well and achieve personal and professional satisfaction. I do believe, however, that the more of these traits you have, the better suited you will be for the law.
So tell me, lawyers and students of the law out there, what have I missed?