A perspective on a 30-year career of practicing primarily family law in Pennsylvania
I had a varied career before I graduated from law school and passed the PA bar exam. I was a florist helper, secretary, elevator operator, accounting clerk, salesperson, political operative, high school teacher and sales manager, not necessarily in that order. I was married and had three children, one of whom was a teenager. I give this background because in retrospect much of my experience prior to obtaining my law degree turned out to be so valuable to me as a practicing lawyer.
In law school we learn the theory behind the law, and how it is applied in numerous situations. We learn about the worst possible outcomes of what might seem to be trivial matters (Is $20 found in an old piano “income” for IRS purposes? Can a lawyer lose his license to practice law because he put a fake coin in a parking meter?) We learn to see both sides of an issue. We sometimes learn the current law on a given area, but there is not a heavy emphasis on that. The old “memorize and retell” tactics which worked so well for us before and during college are pretty useless in law school. They try to teach us to think broadly on the issues presented to us, and to come up with unique solutions to life (and legal) problems of our clients, which are both legal and ethical. They don’t teach us how to be practical, which legal tactics to use; they don’t tell us not to try to blow away a gnat with a bazooka. That we are supposed to figure out from our “real” life, the life outside of law school.
I don’t disagree with this approach. I think it is important for lawyers to learn how to analyze every aspect of a client problem, to try to look at it from other angles (“How would a judge see this dispute and the respective parties’ actions?”) Also, knowledge of current law is not particularly important. Lawyers all have law books, and nowadays access to laws in their online research databases. What is important to know is that laws change, and the rules by which laws are administered change. Many things well—meaning laypeople tell our clients are based on an old or erroneous interpretation of the law.
What a client seeking a lawyer should try to determine is, not how well did that lawyer do in law school, or how many articles has he or she published; they should get a “feel” for how practical the lawyer is, and what kinds of experiences the lawyer will bring to bear, when analyzing a problem and recommending a course of action. Do I like that lawyer? Do I think that, in addition to being knowledgeable and experienced, will the lawyer have my best interests at heart? The prospective client should do his or her homework in advance; sometimes the lawyer recommended to him or her is not a good “fit.” They should ask around, do on-line research, and most of all, meet the lawyer and interview him or her, before deciding whether to select that lawyer to handle their legal problem. A client should be wary if a lawyer promises “Trust me, I can resolve all of your legal problems in your favor, just do what I say.” Don’t throw all of your life knowledge about sizing up people out the window when you walk into a lawyer’s office, because you want a lawyer who uses his or her life knowledge, in addition to his or her legal knowledge, to assist you in the most practical way.