Learning to Think Like a Lawyer

(Guest Author Henry Dahut, Esq.)

Pensive businesswoman in office window
••• Sam Edwards / OJO Images / Getty Images

Guest writer Henry Dahut, Esq., author of Marketing The Legal Mind and founder of GotTrouble.com, provides insight into learning to think like a lawyer.

Careful. A Career In Law Could Change The Way You Think.

When asked why I became a lawyer I usually say because it seemed like a smart thing to do. Unlike some of my law school classmates, I had no illusions of becoming either a great advocate or a legal scholar. All I wanted was a nice income and a respectable station in life. For me, law was a safe career choice, not a passion.

My only concern was that as a creative, emotive, right-brain type, I would not be able to make my mind do whatever it is that lawyer minds do to think like lawyers. But an old and slightly intoxicated lawyer I met at a brewery told me that the real danger was that once you start thinking like a lawyer it becomes difficult to think any other way.

That process began on the first day of law school when the dean told our petrified first-year class that before we could become lawyers we had to learn how to think like lawyers. One student had the nerve to ask the dean how we would know when he had learned to think like lawyers. The Dean shot back when you get paid to think!

I soon saw how thinking like lawyers actually meant altering our reasoning structures. For example, memory, while important to success in law school, stood a distant second to learning how to reason like a lawyer. Law professors liked nothing more than weeding out students who might memorize well but could not think through issues on their feet.

Thinking Like A Lawyer

Thinking like a lawyer demands thinking within the confines of inductive and deductive forms of reasoning. As law students, we entered a world of rigorous dialogue in which abstractions are formulated and then described—usually leading to the discovery of a general principle or rule, which is then distinguished from another general rule. We learned how to narrow and intensify our focus. And in the Pavlovian spirit, we were rewarded when we performed these tasks well and ridiculed when we performed them poorly.

The process taught us how to think defensively: We learned how to protect our clients (and ourselves) and why we needed to proceed slowly, find the traps, measure and calculate the risk. And above all, never, ever let them see you sweat!

We soon discovered that there was more work than we could realistically accomplish—unless, of course, we spent almost every waking hour in pursuit of legal knowledge. The competitive nature of the learning process drove us even harder, reinforcing some views and perceptions while diminishing others—all of which would eventually alter the very nature of how we thought. The goal, of course, was for us to become rational, logical, categorical, linear thinkers—trained to separate what is reasonable from what is not and what is true from what is false.

Having learned to think in a new way, we had less tolerance for ambiguity. A new mental structure was forming—a new set of lenses through which to view the structure of human affairs. It was everything we had hoped for—a quantum leap forward; a kind of intellectual transcendence. We had every reason to believe that soon we would be paid to think.

A New Perspective of the World

It turns out I had just enough left-brain skills to get me through law school and the bar. The sheer mental gymnastics necessary are a tribute to the plasticity of the human mind. Yet it is worth pondering both what we gained from the process and what we may have lost. The values we learned in law school began to spill over into our personal lives. Unconsciously, we begin to relate to and observe others within the context of our new way of thinking. It began to color our views, opinions, and judgments.

In the process, we lost some friends and acquired new ones who were more likely to see and understand the world as we did.

The old lawyer I met in the brewery was right: Learning to think like lawyers made us less capable of the kind of emotive thinking necessary to make creative choices, manage and inspire people, and respond quickly to change. Fortunately, though, in learning how to think like lawyers we learned how to learn – we became autodidactic. And, for this reason alone, it was worth the price of admission.

Today, thousands of lawyers who want to get back in touch with their right-brain selves are finding new careers in many different professions. Myself included. I practiced law for thirteen years and built a small and successful litigation firm. About ten years later I transitioned out of the full-time practice of law and found my professional calling in marketing and branding – a creative leap for a lawyer indeed.