Law professors and practicing attorneys can’t talk about “thinking like a lawyer” without bringing up the 1973 film “The Paper Chase.” In the film, Professor Kingsfield tells his first-year law students:
“You come in here with a head full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer.” Although law professors remain fond of telling students they’re going to teach them how to think like a lawyer, you don’t have to attend law school to enhance your own logic and critical thinking skills.
1. Approach a problem from all angles. To see all the possible issues in a set of facts, lawyers look at the situation from different perspectives. Putting yourself in others’ shoes allows you to understand other points of view.
On law school exams, students learn to structure their answers using the acronym IRAC, which stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion. Failure to spot all possible issues can derail the entire answer.
For example, suppose you’re walking down a street and notice a ladder leaned against a building. A worker on the top rung is reaching far to his left, cleaning a window. There are no other workers present, and the bottom of the ladder juts out onto the sidewalk where people are walking. Issue spotting involves not only looking at this situation from the viewpoint of the worker and the person walking on the street, but also the building owner, the worker’s employer, and potentially even the city where the building is located.
Accurately spotting the issues is important to determine which facts are relevant and important. Emotions and sentiment can cause you to become attached to details that bear little to no importance to the outcome of the situation.
Thinking like a lawyer requires putting aside personal interests or emotional reactions to focus on real, provable facts. For example, suppose a criminal defendant stands charged with molesting a small child. Police arrested him near a playground, and immediately began asking him why he was there and his intentions regarding the children playing nearby. The distraught man confessed he planned to harm the children. The details of the case may be revolting, but the defense attorney will set aside the emotional trauma and focus on the fact that the defendant was not informed of his right to remain silent before he was questioned.
3. Argue both sides. Non-lawyers may perceive this ability as a moral failing in lawyers, but it doesn’t mean lawyers don’t believe in anything. The ability to argue both sides of an issue means you understand that there are two sides to every story, each of which has potentially valid points.
When you learn how to make opposing arguments, you also learn how to hear them, which increases tolerance and allows more problems to be solved cooperatively.