Introduction to Think Like a Lawyer

by Gary Fidel and Linda Cantoni


          Congratulations.  You’ve made it to law school.  You’ve left behind the class-cutting, all-night-partying, socially-relevant-protesting, last-minute-cramming world of college, and you’re ready to get serious.  The problem is that if you study the same way you studied in college, even if you graduated with honors and wrote A-plus papers in your liberal arts subjects, you won’t graduate with honors from law school or make the coveted law review.  Why not?  This book will answer that question.  And in doing so, we will show you what you need to do in order to become not just a good lawyer but a great lawyer.  And don’t underestimate yourself: you can become a great lawyer. We can’t do the work for you -- you’ll have to study as hard as you’ve ever studied in your life, and in a unique manner — but we can promise you that your efforts won’t be wasted.  Society needs great lawyers.  Set your sights high and you will rise to the challenge.

          What are you learning in law school?  At first, lots of theoretical stuff about contracts and crimes and property.  When the authors went to law school, that was about it — lots of theory, very little practice.  In the last 20 years, there’s been a sea-change in the way would-be lawyers are taught.  Yes, you’ll still suffer through the theory (you might even enjoy it), but the availability of practice-oriented courses and clinics, as well as part-time and summer internships at law firms and government offices, makes it possible for law students to get a much more realistic view of what the practice of law is really like.

          In practice, lawyers are often said to be broadly divided into the litigators and the non-litigators.  Each group has its quirks and its prejudices against the other.  The litigators are supposed to be the brash, theatrical sort, trying to convince juries with their melodramatic flourishes; the non-litigators are the moles burrowing through wills and contracts and deeds.

          But both groups have a common ground: every one of them knows — or should know — how to think like a lawyer.  That’s what you’re in law school for.  And whether you want to become a litigator or a real estate lawyer, it is essential that you understand that thinking like a lawyer means knowing the art of argument.  Litigators have an obvious need for it.  But even the non-litigators, who often find themselves negotiating with other lawyers in order to arrive at an agreement, must be able to construct sound arguments to support their position.

          Constructing sound arguments requires little or no memorization.  If you were a whiz in college because you were able to memorize vast amounts of material and recall it at will on multiple choice exams, your great memory will not carry you the distance in law school.  Memorizing law outlines that break down “black-letter law” won’t cut it.  You have to be able to construct solid arguments by applying the law to different sets of facts.  In this book we will teach you how to construct legal arguments using facts and law.  Once you learn how to do that, you will be able to argue any legal issue, no matter what area of law.

          When your law professors say, “apply the law to the facts,” they simply mean, “What is the legal significance of the facts you have been given?”  Facts take on legal significance because the law requires or sets a certain standard or test.  The lawyer’s job is to persuade the court or decision maker that the facts either meet the test or don’t meet the test.  So, the memo you draft or the law exam you write will usually involve two tasks:  (1) analyze the law relevant to your issue; (2) apply that law to a set of facts.  You’ll usually be given facts in the form of a hypothetical or hypo: to solve any hypo you have to first research and analyze the relevant law, and then apply it, arguing both sides — showing why the legal test is or is not met in any given case.  Usually law professors want you to argue both sides.  But in the real world, as an advocate, you will take one side.

          So, how do you use our book?  After all, the goal is for you to transfer into your head what the authors have learned through decades of experience as prosecutors writing, arguing, and editing briefs and memoranda in state and federal trial and appellate courts.  Our primary approach is to give you rules and also examples that show you how to apply those rules.  Many of these examples are derived from a decision of the highest appellate court in the State of New York, the Court of Appeals, in which a divided court reversed a death sentence, and actual briefs filed in two first-degree murder appeals, materials that we feel are examples of superb legal thinking.  We’ll walk you through the relevant sections of each document.  Along the way, we’ll show you how the author of that document framed the legal issue, analyzed it, and constructed arguments to support the prosecution’s position.  We hope that by “looking over our shoulders” as we show you what great legal arguments are made of, you’ll learn a method for constructing legal arguments — to think like a lawyer.

          Finally, though, you will have to practice.  You’re learning a craft.  In the end, you can only learn it by doing it.  Like a surgeon practicing on a cadaver, you will have to practice answering hypos.  Only by forcing yourself to tackle the difficult mental work of learning to construct your own arguments will you become the great lawyer that you want to be and that society needs you to be.