What Law School Doesn’t Teach You

This blog is from two of our consultants, Jenn Kopolow and Joe Pollak, both of whom practiced law prior to getting into admissions.

Law school, you may have heard, trains you to “think like a lawyer.” What does it mean to think like a lawyer? Well, first, it does not mean you enjoy arguing (as some mistakenly believe), and it does not mean you learn a doctrine called “the law” and apply it at every opportunity. Thinking like a lawyer means that you question everything around you and attempt to solve problems by applying logic and rules. It means taking a critical approach to every issue in a way that allows you to advocate for—or at least appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of—multiple sides. So if thinking like a lawyer is the foundational training a law school provides—and, fundamentally, they all do—it’s worth asking whether honing these “think like a lawyer” skills in law school prepares you for a career as a practicing attorney.

The short is yes… and no. (Or in the words of your future favorite law professor: It depends.) The standard way that law school professors focus on teaching critical thinking skills is through the lens of whatever slice of legal doctrine their class is designed to teach. You might make the mistake of thinking that the point of your contracts class is to memorize everything there is to know about contract law so that you may draw upon that knowledge for the rest of your forty-year career as a lawyer. It isn’t. (Pro tip: more likely than not, you’ll forget nearly everything you learned from your contracts class shortly after you take the bar exam.) Your real goal, then, is to master the analytical and legal writing skills that will allow you to apply the law in the future, while retaining enough of the doctrinal knowledge to have a solid foundation for your career. From that perspective, law school does provide the scaffolding to prepare you for a career as a practicing attorney.

On the other hand, there is a great amount that law school does not teach you about being a lawyer, and there are some lessons and skills that simply cannot be easily taught in an academic setting. To illustrate the point, we will share two lessons that we learned from law practice, which we have since applied to other parts of our careers.

From Jenn Kopolow:

When you think of a transactional lawyer, you might envision an attorney sitting at a desk, marking up a purchase contract or advising a client on a commercial lease. You might reasonably assume the role is defined by the framework of the attorney-client relationship; the attorney is paid to provide competent, quality legal advice that guides the client within the bounds of the law, nothing more or less. In observing the best lawyers I worked with, though, I saw how they brought so much more than legal expertise to the client relationship. They took a genuine interest in the clients’ specialties, and by extension, in the clients themselves.

While working in the regional market for one particular corporate giant, I found myself regularly meeting the client at the potential lease locations that excited them most, from the middle of town to the middle of the woods, so I could personally get a visual on the logistics that would be relevant to our process. My physical presence at these locations wasn’t required to do my job effectively, but the relationship-building that developed through these meetings was priceless. The client understood that I had a sincere appreciation for the intricacies of their business, and as a result, they treated our lawyer-client relationship as a valued partnership. Practicing law taught me that contributing your expertise to a process is important, but genuinely investing in your client, no matter your business, can bring a next-level quality to the process—and, ultimately, to the work that you do.

From Joe Pollak:

I worked with a partner reviewing contracts for the sale of industrial facilities. We were usually looking for problems with the way that the environmental liabilities were handled in the contracts, which generally meant reading and revising one particular sub-section of a long and complicated document. I found out that the partner always read the whole contract and, in particular, that he did the math to check to make sure that the subtotals in each contract section correctly added up to the final purchase price. His attitude was that even though he was listed on the firm’s website as a specialist in environmental law, when he approved a contract draft, he was approving every part of the contract and not just the part that dealt with environmental law. He believed that his law license, reputation, and code of professional responsibility demanded that he always provide his best work to a client and that included proofreading the arithmetic. I was not exactly a slacker before I went to law school, but now I try to bring that partner’s level of professionalism to my work, and I do not think that I would approach professionalism with the same vigilance had I not practiced in a law firm.

Law school focuses on training your mind to analyze inconsistencies and outcomes, and to communicate effectively and rationally. In your law practice, these skills are required, but they do not represent the full picture. In other words—and in the lingo of LSAT logic games—learning to think like a lawyer is necessary, but not sufficient for practicing law. And that means that there is so much more to the legal profession.