Exploring the Terrain

[ From the close of Chapter 18 - Looking toward the "Barzam" ] :

Even if you take a full bar exam preparatory course (MBE plus essay review), whether free or not [as just explained], try to follow the recommendations of this chapter. By doing so, you kill two birds with one stone. The first is what's already been said: by starting early, you minimize the strain of studying for the bar exam -- and maximize your chance to pass it the first time around.

The second involves a longer-run view. As Chapter 1 discussed, there are many, many basic principles of the law that any lawyer should know. Even if you leave out specialized areas such as Estates and Future Interests, and Evidence, there are hundreds of basic principles of the law that every lawyer should know. But, in fact, few do. (No attorney can know it all, however. In fact, no attorney can know more than a tiny percentage of the law. Even so, my statement still holds, regarding basic principles.)

Students were supposed to have learned these basic principles in law school. But, as chapters 3 and 4 showed, the reality is otherwise. Later, the (future) attorneys were supposed to have learned these things for the bar exam. And maybe they did. But that "learning" involved cramming thousands of points of law into their heads. They held them there just long enough to get a passing score. After that, they forget nearly all of them. And once they have their ticket (i.e., law license), there's little incentive to go over any of them again. They -- maybe -- look up what they need to know to do what they have to do; the rest is out of sight, out of mind.

So what's wrong with that?

For one, people always hit on attorneys for free legal advice. It's a real ego trip to have someone sucking up to you because of your (supposed) expertise -- especially if it's someone who's a big-shot, or someone you find sexually attractive. It's just human nature to puff oneself up a bit when the opportunity arises. No reason why lawyers should be any different.

However, most attorneys practice in only one narrow area of the law. When they get hit on for free advice, they're rarely asked questions about their own narrow area. Instead, they're asked questions all over the place...but usually in the thorny areas of family law, probate, or employment law.

Few lawyers have the humility to say "I don't know" when asked a question -- especially if the person asking the question is someone you want to impress. Regardless, few people want to appear ignorant -- especially if they know the other person thinks it's something he or she ought to know, cold. Most laypeople will resent it if a lawyer says "That's not in my area of the law" and then explains that it would take some legal research to find the answer. They'll think the lawyer's a "typical greedy bastard attorney" who doesn't want to give anything away he or she can charge for. They honestly believe there are some things any lawyer should know, just by virtue (ah, the irony) of being a lawyer.

And they're right.

So, the attorney gives an answer off the top of his or her head. Usually, it's the wrong answer. It might not be dead wrong, but it's seldom as right an answer as it should be.

Okay, say you don't care about giving bad advice to freeloaders. Say you don't care one of them later finds out how wrong you were, and bad-mouths you to anyone who'll listen. Say you don't care you might lose some potential business as a result.

Okay. So here's the second thing wrong with not knowing basic legal principles. Here's something you should definitely care about:

If you work the Multistate questions regularly, as discussed earlier, and set aside ample time to truly master the state-specific material for the essay portion of your state's bar exam, you'll gradually build up a general awareness, a sense of additional relevant points of law in any given situation. And so, when you're working on a problem on behalf of a paying client, there will be things that will come to mind you might not otherwise have thought of. "Seems to me, I remember -- somewhere in the back of my mind, something about...." Your gut feel will alert you to the possibility of something "out there" that you might be able to use. If you check it out, you might get a pleasant surprise.

If you truly know the basic principles of the law, you will be constantly amazed at how ignorant so many of your fellow attorneys are regarding those same basic principles. The general level of ignorance in this "learned profession" is truly astonishing. You be the exception that proves the rule. This is where you can out-maneuver your opponent. This is where you can build a reputation as a good lawyer. (Having a reputation as a good lawyer will often get you the benefit of the doubt in a close-call situation.)

It may be hard for you to imagine it now, but being well-respected by other attorneys as a craftsman (craftsperson) of the law might someday be important to you. After all, other lawyers (particularly in your specialty, if you have one) will know the law better than your clients will, by definition. The respect of your clients will be crucial, of course. But they're like the audience at a jazz nightclub: the musicians are there because the audience is willing to pay for the performance. And the musicians respond with tunes that are "crowd-pleasers." That's as it should be. However, the really good musicians are actually playing for each other. It's great for them to be making money, and to be popular. But what they most value is the respect of their fellow-musicians.

You will find that what truly warms your heart as an attorney (other than a fat check that doesn't bounce) is the awareness that other good attorneys respect you.

And if you don't care about that, then please do the world a favor: don't go to law school. There are far too many lawyers in this country as it is...just far too few good ones.

Would you like to go back to the previous chapter?
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