Thinking like a lawyer: or, is my brain broken?

We funneled into 100 Hutchins Hall for orientation. A few hundred first-year law students (1Ls, in law-school jargon) lined the rows of the auditorium, each clutching a slim blue copy of the U.S. Constitution. We were to sign it, signifying our commitment to a future of ethical lawyering.

I only half-knew what I was getting into. Like so many bachelors of arts, although concrete skills were few, my verbal abilities were highly satisfactory, and there wasn’t much for me to do in a down economy than go to law school. But unlike a lot of my new classmates, I didn’t already know much about it. I knew next to nothing about the curriculum or the legal field or how to get a law job or how to prepare for a law school final. I had to frequently double-check the names of the current Supreme Court justices to avoid severe embarrassment.

In other words, as I still often do, I had one foot in and one foot out of the place I am and the thing I’m doing, with often frustrating results. But that’s a different topic.

Anyway, the presentations started. Various deans introduced us to our new career and shared anecdotes of when they were in our shoes. They told us something that surprised me: they were not there to teach us the laws. Oh, no. Instead, their planned instruction was simple, and they repeated it over and over:

“Thinking like a lawyer.”

“You will learn to think like a lawyer.”

“It’s amazing, the most important part of law school is how you begin to think like a lawyer…”

Think like a lawyer.

And then there we were, tender 1Ls, beginning to repeat this line, like the hypnotized diners Eddie Izzard imagines beginning to request a certain salad dressing:

Where the heck did balsamic vinaigrette come from? … Balsamic fucking vinaigrette. How long ago? Ten years? Ten years ago?

“Would you like a dressing? We have thousand island, we have 970 island, we have 400 island, we have 3-mile island,—or balsamic vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette…”

“I would like the balsamic vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette…”

It was just some suggestive thing.

Eddie Izzard, “Sexie” (2003)

Helpless in the face of this prophecy, we took our oath and then set out from that auditorium, freshly on our path to thinking like lawyers. We tucked into our textbooks and took assiduous notes in lectures and awaited the change.

I didn’t know what it meant until I was studying for finals that first semester, and I found my trusty brain working differently. The transformation is now complete enough that I can barely remember my former, unconverted state, but I do recall the sensation of changing: I was beginning to feel a bit like a computer.

Things that used to be connected no longer were. There were great chasms between concepts that used to feel related. And there were relations between concepts that had not been comparable before. But the more notable sensation was of a linear progression I hadn’t been aware of before. Questions were all multi-part: there were steps everywhere. Every possible inquiry had a number of associated sub-inquiries, which must be separated and arranged in a certain order to arrive at the right answer. The only alternative was a dreadful, murky chaos.

But this didn’t just extend to the concepts I needed to study for that semester’s grades. It infiltrated even my personal life, even emotional matters. Not only could I now take a far more rational approach to any question, but I could not not. I began to say “actually” a lot more.

And here I am, several years on from that mental conversion. I want to connect with my fellow humans when they discuss a matter of law or policy or the Constitution, but they just do not understand! Their eyes glaze over when I explain to them the all-important steps. Poor souls, they think of a matter all at once: they see it as an item to be discussed and to have feelings about. It saddens me, and I live in hope for their timely conversion.

And yet, something troubles me. In moments of dark doubt, I begin to worry about this setup: those of us who have been taught to think like lawyers can indeed think like lawyers—but no one else can, not without three years of pricey study at an accredited institution. But law is not like, say, engineering, which (I assert with blind confidence) can be left to the professionals. I can know blissfully nothing about how bridges are constructed, and yet generally drive over them fearlessly and without consequence.

But you non-lawyers, with your unconverted brains—we ask you to live in our law world at all times, and it isn’t as simple as driving over a bridge. You’ve got to avoid violating the countless thousands of civil and criminal statutes that apply to your every move. You don’t know about most of them, but if you violate them, we will generally pretend that you did know. Or, perhaps to put it more precisely, it doesn’t matter if you did or not, for various very-good reasons that we all learned about…in law school.

Does that seem unfair? Like you might need some assistance in that perilous field? If so, you might want to seek a lawyer’s counsel. Yes, it will cost money (how much? It depends) but it is a much better idea than waiting for the other side (that spiteful neighbor who hates your fence; the copyright holder of the TV show from which you borrowed a reaction GIF; the federal librarian who looked askance at you for bringing your kazoo to the Library of Congress) to lawyer up. Your lawyer will get you into the least-worst position against their lawyer, on your behalf—and yes, legally, it will be you doing it, because it was your responsibility to follow the laws all along.

Which—doesn’t that basically sound like a protection racket? I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job here, but I get a little nervous when it feels like I am trained to be some kind of mental bodyguard, ready to size up the other guy’s mental bodyguard, especially when we start growing our team because the other guy started growing his team, and now we’re basically in a mental bodyguard arms race, which obviously is really good for the bodyguard industry, although admittedly the excess bodyguards do nothing for the body-guarded.

Plus, I have a theory—on which more later, perhaps—that this setup fuels kooky DIY law theories like sovereign citizens. After all, if we make law seem arcane and volatile, we can hardly blame people for thinking that all they need to do to beat the system is to get a little arcane and volatile.

Okay, I hear you, lawyers: my argument teeters on that dreaded slippery slope to the suggestion that we eradicate lawyers, which doesn’t work for several reasons, a few of which are: (1) vigilante justice will be the remedy to future disputes (imagine: IRS agents beating up tax evaders); (2) who if not lawyers will enforce the ban on lawyers? One shudders to think; and (3) I’m not here to take jobs away from hardworking Americans who aren’t prepared to do much else. So let’s not even go down that path; it’s not what I mean.

What I do mean is: I’m troubled by the feeling that there is a wall between the people—to whom the laws apply and belong, whom the Constitution protects—and those laws and the Constitution. To the extent that you can’t really understand the laws or the Constitution without a law degree (if then), that is a failure on the part of those documents. Meanwhile, those who write new laws, regulations, and legal rulings interpreting them (??‍♀️), are almost always lawyers. We understand each other, and we trust that the gatekeepers and interpreters of what we write will always be others from our guild, other future people who have sat in 100 Hutchins and been told that their brains were about to change. We’re basically a club with boring initiation rituals and steep annual dues, but we’re everywhere, and we don’t let you ignore us.

I suppose I could start to be the change. I could be the lawyer who practices in a way that is more accessible to non-lawyers. I could say “actually” less. I could dig deep, see if it’s still possible to access that pre-transformation brain that was able to think unlike a lawyer, even about law and its practical side, the way it actually affects people constantly.

So from my side of the chasm to yours, non-lawyers, I’d like to request some thoughts and prayers for the recovery of my old brain.