Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Learning Law is Hard. Ask Questions, and Dare to be Wrong.
My own experience was that it was only after about five years of practice that I felt like I was not committing fraud when I told people I was a lawyer. Until I had practiced for about five years, my typical reaction to any legal question was instant panic, a quick "I'll get back to you," and a rush to the office of a colleague with more experience or to the library to begin to puzzle out what might be a plausible answer to the legal question. Every good lawyer I know who has practiced any appreciable length of time (over five years) has had the same experience. After about five years you don't know the answers -- lawyers typically don't walk around with the answers to legal questions in their heads unless they have previously needed to answer that particular legal question under those particular circumstances -- but you do begin to develop good instincts so that, for example, you can respond: "It sounds like this to me. . . . Let me look further into it and I'll get back to you." And, after five years, when you explain that it "sounds like this to me," your understanding tends to be pretty good. Why am I telling you this as beginning law students? Because it will be eight years until you have had five years of experience in practice. It will be eight years before you're confronted by a legal question and have confidence in your ability to respond to it effectively. So, when you don't know what the hell is going on next week, next month, next semester, or next year, don't panic! Not knowing what's going on is normal. That's why this is school. You're here to learn. The worst that can happen is you'll answer wrong and we'll figure out where you went wrong. Then you'll have learned something. And that's what you want to do: learn something! If, on the other hand, you don't answer because you're afraid you'll be wrong, you won't learn anything.