Legal reasoning: Learning to think like a lawyer

Image showing blackboard with writing saying 'learn to think'Attending law school has been in the back of my mind for quite some time. Now that I am a law student, every time I sit down to study I tend to react like someone opening a surprise gift from a loved one. It is a wonderful feeling. It helps me keep track of my goals and how I want to use this education. One of my chief goals is learning to think like a lawyer.

I work in nonprofit management with an international NGO.  It’s a good match for me. After years of trying I caught on that I really don’t have a corporate soul, so to speak. But I do have a somewhat corporate way of thinking, meaning I like a methodical way of approaching issues and having a plan. It helps to approach things like a lawyer, to apply this particular structure to my critical thinking process.

Thinking like a lawyer is a skill I value every day. But what exactly does that mean? Before I began my studies I had an idea about hierarchy of information, a specific repeatable way to analyze problems, and concise expression. Turns out I wasn’t entirely wrong about those skills as outcomes of legal studies. What I didn’t quite get was the way to go about it and the subtleties of legal thinking. It’s hard to put those ideas into words. I can’t blame my lawyer friends for not being able to explain it to me. You kind of have to do it; get out there and start thinking like a lawyer.

Many of my friends who are also lawyers say they were encouraged to ‘think like a lawyer’ when they started law school but didn’t receive any real direction about what it means to cogitate that particular way. They started out thinking one way and graduated with a law degree and a new thought process acquired almost by osmosis. One they can’t easily disengage from. That can be tricky. I feel it already. Lawyers really do think differently than other folk. Most of my colleagues, friends and family are ‘other folk.’ Not lawyers. While this change in me can make social and family occasions a little stressful it helps me understand how my way of approaching a question has developed.

Traiangle diagramAnother way of saying ‘think like a lawyer’ is the phrase ‘legal reasoning.’ That puts things in a better perspective. When I see my lawyer friends take out their yellow writing pads and lift their pen with a sharp gleam in their eye I know that’s precisely what I want. The reasoning process.

This term I am studying Western European Legal History. In order to more fully appreciate this course I made a little detour to research legal reasoning. I’m glad I did. It put this specialized area of study into a helpful framework, especially for a nonprofit executive. A few chapters in made me realize what complete geniuses were at work in developing and administering the Roman legal system. Hats off to them. Those boys nailed legal reasoning and all its steps. Absolutely did not leave anything on the floor. They delivered it to all takers with a big bow tied around it, like the perpetual gift I enjoy studying so much.

Reading a bit about legal reasoning clarified why so many governments through the ages assimilated the Roman code to some degree within their own legal systems.  It involves understanding rights and duties in specific circumstances as well as the values and policies underlying law. It is characterized by the goals pursued and the method used to reach them. The whole thing is neat, concise, comprehensive, portable and it works.

So, thinking like a lawyer is a kind of logic but a specialized one that references the policies and values underlying law. The trick is that law is dynamic, not static. The values and policies underlying law are often at odds. Legal reasoning takes place in the space where judgement has to be applied regarding what policy will prevail in a certain instance. It’s the arena of social justice and debate. That is awesome.

Why do I like that so much? It’s a powerful way to go about decision-making, especially for a nonprofit that has to thread a needle delivering services to its constituents. Constituents who are most often under-served by their communities and governments. I work in the shaded space between values and policies.

Besides gaining a specialized knowledge of certain areas of law, I am very focused on legal reasoning. For me, transferring this special kind of logic to the subtle areas of my other work and interests is refreshing. While it isn’t always easy to do, the more I learn about the law the more readily I think like a lawyer.

Caowrites is enrolled in the Postgraduate Laws Programme. She previously earned a BA English degree and blogged regularly about her experience. She studies by distance learning in the United States

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