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Preparation for Law School

published February 05, 2013

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The very first requirement for pre-legal study that we are going to discuss isn't peculiar to the legal profession at all. It is important for all professions, but for a lawyer it is in dispensable. Without it he is helpless. He simply cannot practice his profession. We are talking about the power to communicate.

Preparation for Law School

You must be able to express yourself. Both in speech and in writing, you must have the power to convey your thoughts to another person. If and when you do decide to become a lawyer, this must be your major concern. Take every course you can that will help you in self-expression. Practice it all the time. You can start right now. Talk, explain, give examples, describe differences in situations, in machines, in people. Try to describe the accident you saw, the anger you felt, the sorrow you shared. Practice on your roommate, almost until he walks out on you, and on your girl, but sparingly, lest she seek other company. Try to make things so clear that even someone who tries deliberately to misunderstand you will have a hard time doing so. If you have no audience go out and talk to the trees, the sky, the surf and sand. Get used to the sound of your own voice, and finding words while on your feet. And always, speak more and more precisely, more accurately, more vividly.

All of your life, as a lawyer, you will be trying to get ideas from your mind into the minds of others. This is not easy.

It is one of the hardest things in the world to take a thought in your mind, a mere idea, mind you, and so clothe it in words that your listener (or reader) duplicates in his own mind that thought of yours. In the law it is essential that he (the other man) understand exactly what you have in mind. A mere approximation is not enough. For instance, the "sale" of a house and the "lease" of that house are somewhat alike.

In both cases the owner gives up his possession, and possession of something we own is very important to us. If we possess a thing we can enjoy its ownership, and we can do as we please with it. Yet a lease and a sale are, legally, as far apart as the North Pole and the South Pole, because if it is a lease the owner still owns it, and will someday, when the lease is over, get it back, while if it is a sale it is gone for good. So, if you mean lease, say lease, and if it is sale, use that exact word. Although it is important to all of us to be able to convey to others our precise meanings, for a lawyer it is absolutely essential.

Simple words

Moreover, if you become a trial lawyer you can never hope to convince a judge or a jury of the merits of your client's cause unless you can tell them in simple, vivid words just what your client's position is, what his beefs were, and why he acted the way he did. When you undertake, as you someday will, the argument of cases in the Supreme Courts, either in your home State, or in Washington, your problem will be so to impress the justices on those benches with the accuracy of your view of the law that they will have no choice but to conclude that you are right. There are few more pitiable sights in the law than that of a man standing before the highest court in his State, trying desperately to tell the court of his beliefs and convictions as to what the law is, yet coming forth with a series of “ ah's , and uh's, and vague statements such as, "Well, these people were going down this road, and, uh, this car here, this second car, came out and, uh, uh, it was sort of misty, and, well, he didn't really own the car at all." This is just plain gibberish, and it isn't very much exaggerated either. What he is trying to say is something like this: "Your Honors, this case involves an automobile accident. My clients, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, are the defendants.

They were traveling in a southerly direction on U.S. 17, a two- lane cement highway, at the time of the accident. The husband was driving. It was in the early spring, the 10th day of April, about eight in the morning. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle was falling. The pavement was wet and slippery. The car they were driving was a current-model Ford sedan, leased from the Ford garage in Middletown for the purpose of making this trip."

There is no need to go on with the story. The lawyer making the second statement knows exactly what he is trying to say and he knows the words to use to say it. There's a lot in knowing the applicable words. (They needn't be fancy words. Plain ones are much, much better.)

Words are a lawyer's tools. He uses them both to attack and to defend, to uphold the good and to destroy the evil. During his client's lifetime he controls, with them, the operation of his business; and, after death, the hand of the client still controls, through the words used in his will, the ownership of the property once his and the welfare of his stricken family. It may, indeed, fall to the lawyer's lot, as it did to lawyer Thomas Jefferson, to write a Declaration of Independence, or, as a delegate to a State constitutional convention, to put into words the ideals and principles upon which a whole State will either grow great or grow small and possibly mean. So, learn words. Study them. Examine their gloss. Hold them up to the light. Choose those that transmit your meaning with the clarity of fine crystal, possibly adding, as some crystals seem to do, colors of their own. Discard the drab, the muddy, those that can only darken and hide your thought.

All of this applies equally to what you write. In some ways written words are more important. They live for years, long after the spoken word is forgotten. Important agreements that people have entered into are usually put in writing, and their agreement must be expressed clearly and with the utmost precision. Occasionally I see a paper "drawn" (this is an expression often used in the law, meaning "written") by lawyers I know and respect as well-grounded, clear-thinking practitioners. Sometimes the papers are cloudy, ambiguous, and apparently self-contradictory. The lawyer has simply failed to learn to match the clarity of his writing with the clarity of his thoughts. Thus his great knowledge of the subject, his unusual skill in marshaling facts and analyzing their legal effect, have come to absolutely nothing, so far as service to his client is concerned. This is a tragedy for the lawyer. Often it is even a greater tragedy for the client.

How can this skill be obtained? By study and by practice, right now. You don't have to wait for law school for this. In fact, if you don't have these skills in speech and writing before you enter law school you will not learn them there. The law schools have their hands full in teaching specific legal topics.

We spoke of "study -- study of what?” The study of great literature is probably the most important of your pre-legal studies. There is no need to make out for you a list of books comprising "great literature." It would be presumptuous of me even to essay such a task. But your English counselor will help you and, moreover, the books thus recommended will be found, undoubtedly, in your school or home library.

Great books

Notice, as you read these great books, how the authors express themselves. Observe their choice of words, their arrangements of words, the structure of their sentences and their paragraphs. Then try it yourself. How would you phrase that thought? What words would you use? Read the author's words to a friend, then your own, and see what meaning each has conveyed.

Learn to communicate. The importance of the power to communicate simply cannot be exaggerated.

This is not to say, of course, that your study of the great literature, especially English and American, and our own vital language, is to be a word study only. As a matter of fact, the words themselves have significance only in the light of the thought they seek to convey. So, enrich your mind with the substance while pursuing the techniques of expression, of communicating. All your life you will treasure this short companionship with great minds, and again and again will their phrases and thoughts recur to you.

Now, having looked at first things first, just what are the subjects that will help you in the study of law? Many law schools have shied off from prescribing any particular courses to study. Various reasons are given, such as the one that even a useful course taught by a poor teacher is time wasted (which Getting Ready for Law School is partially true); or that the content of the course itself is not important (which is not true) just so the student learns to think; or that since the real essential for any lawyer is a strongly developed sense of honor and integrity, which no course can teach, therefore there's no point in taking any special pre-law courses; or that since a good lawyer is, first of all, a well- educated man, the problem is simply to get a good education.

There is, of course, a degree of truth in some of these statements. 'Certainly a lawyer must have the keenest sense of honor; certainly he must be well educated. Nevertheless, in the process of becoming well educated you might just as well learn things that will help you in the law later on. So, what do we mean by "help"? In this problem of what to study, we are going to talk about professional help. Of course, any subject that teaches you to concentrate and to think logically and to develop good study habits will help you in your ultimate study of the law, just as it would if you were ultimately to study medicine or theology. We shall talk, then, about those subjects that will help you to be a better lawyer. All of them, I think, will also help you to become a better citizen, so if you do take them, yet decide not to study law, you haven't lost anything.

Let's get at it this way: One problem with regard to pre-legal studies is that the student often doesn't tackle them with any real enthusiasm. When he gets into law school, though, he works like a horse (and, some people add, lives like a hermit!).

Why? It's the same boy, with the same mind, but he's not the same student. Something has been added, and that something is his realization that at last it's for real! What he is learning now is his profession, not that dry, ancient stuff about medieval England or economics or accounting. In other words, he has hooked up the content of his studies with his coming profession. He's "motivated" to try hard.

The law is a living thing. It has roots. It grows, and it dies. Old branches are lopped off by storm, and by man, and new growth takes their places. You must be aware of it as a living thing. Hence you must study certain kinds of history. In the present you find its soil and climate.

Study of civilization

Hence you study our civilization today, with all its conflicting social interests. Its future growth will be shaped by forces now at work, the rainfall, the winds, and the sunshine. Your study of the law, then, must comprehend the past. It must also include a study of the dynamic forces now at work, the great aggregations of business, of labor, of powerful central governments, and of the increasing awareness of the dignity of man himself, without which none of his institutions has dignity. Germany under the Nazis is an example you may not remember, but your fathers do.

Such is the problem. It involves the past, the present, and the future. So, let's look specifically at some desirable pre-law courses. The study of history is extremely important, both American and English history. But a warning as to what we mean by "history" is in order. In the schools, the study of history consisted of learning a list of wars. The important things for us to know were the names and dates of the decisive battles. Every now and then we would have a chapter on what had been going on in the nation between battles. Well, that's not the kind of history we now have in mind. The kind of history you should take, whatever it may be called in your school, will have its emphasis on the people of the era, how they lived, what they did, what their family and political problems were, and how these problems were solved (or not solved) by the governments they had. It will include the legal and constitutional history of both England and America. It is three-cornered history: political, economic, and constitutional. In this study you will really be studying law, in a way, for according to one definition law is simply a series of determinations (sometimes called "rules" of law) made by the proper political authority (in our society, by the courts) with respect to the problems of the society of the time. Thus, when you learn in your English history that the tenants of a feudal lord were required to render him certain services, you are learning (in the sense I have just used the term) the "law" of that time. English constitutional history is particularly valuable. The English, as you probably know, don't have a written constitution, as we do. Yet, compared to our written one, the English constitution is equally strong and equally protective of the rights of people.

You must know what is going around you, like workmen banding together in what they call a "union," and seek, by their united power, to get what they want from the company. Their most powerful weapon is the strike, all quitting work together. Then the question is, which group can outlast the other, the men without work or the company without business? What effect does such a stoppage of work have on the community? What effect does it have on the national economy (in the case of steel or railroads)? What effect does it have on this particular company and the families of these particular workers? Is this the best way to settle such matters? Finally, what has been the effect of judges ending the controversy by issuing injunctions?

Each of these questions poses a tremendous problem. The judges must reach solutions, and quickly, and their solutions should be as wise and as just as human beings, with all of their imperfections, can possibly reach. But the judge who comes to the bench to decide the case, and the lawyers appearing before him to argue the case, will all do a much better job (meaning they will reach a fairer conclusion) if they know something besides the law relating to the issuance of injunctions. What things? Well, as you undoubtedly see by now, something of the basic problems involved in the relationship of employer to employees, something of the relations of the particular business to the community and to the economy and to its competitors, and much of the history and background of the relations between employer and employees not only in this particular business but also in the industry generally, including its health hazards and its accident rate. Often the industry is world-wide, and its problems are not peculiar to this country alone. What solutions have been attempted in other nations? What were the results obtained? These questions are all hard to answer, but they are necessary to an under standing of the problem of the labor injunction. In the law school you will get only a few of the answers. The bulk of them form the content of non-legal courses. You must get this learning before you go into the school of law.

Problem of taxation

Then there's the problem of taxation. Your client rarely gets more than a few words out of his mouth before he blurts, *'How will this affect my taxes?" It doesn't matter too much what the case is, either. It doesn't have to be a business trans action at all, for his income is taxed as he earns it, and his estate is taxed when he passes away. He can't entirely avoid tax by giving away his property prior to his death, either. If he does, the gift is taxed. If he buys a pension from an insurance company (called an annuity) for his old age, tax problems arise there, too.

In law schools they have courses in these various kinds of taxes, and in those courses you will learn the theory of each tax, its technicalities and peculiarities, and the way it is applied. But that is not knowledge enough. Taxes are based upon figures of all kinds, dollars and cents, figures of cost and sale, of value, and of earnings. What do these words mean? Let's look at just one, "earnings." The books of the corner grocery store show that it took in $50,000 last year. Is this sum all "earnings"? Well, some of it came from the sale of the vacant lot behind the store, a lot the grocer had owned for thirty years but had never got around to using for a warehouse building. Certainly the profit from that sale should be treated differently from the profits from the operation of the meat counter. This last is really his business, not the sale of vacant lots. And, by the way, just what is the figure representing the "profit" from the sale of the lot? Should you subtract from the profit the cost assessed against the lot for the adjacent street paving?

The answers to questions involving evaluations of businesses, their costs, their earnings, and related subjects are covered in courses in accounting. Some of this work you should have before you begin the study of law. You need not specialize in it, the way a man does who wishes to become a certified public accountant, but you should be generally familiar with accounting theory, with fundamental accounting practices, and with the language of accounting. Avoid courses in bookkeeping. You want a broader sweep. You should be able to read and understand a profit-and-loss statement. A balance sheet should not be a complete mystery to you. You should have some idea what the term "surplus" means. To many people, especially students, it means cash on hand after all the bills are paid. You'd be surprised what it really means in business. It would be a good idea to find out.

We have thought of this inquiry in connection with your work in the field of taxes. But it has another very important application as well. That is in connection with corporations and the finances of corporations. You know, from your own knowledge, how much of American business is done nowadays by the big corporations. Just look at the advertisements. But that is only a part of the story. In your own town my guess would be that the small local corporation does most of the local business. In many areas it has supplanted the partnership as the most common form of business enterprise. We needn't delve now into the why of this, although in law school you'll learn. For the present just accept it as a fact-and then go out and learn the words of corporate finance, and what those words mean.

Government structure

Did you ever notice how many of our legislators (and, of course, our judges) come from the legal profession? That leads into a study of something having to do with the legislatures and the courts, in other words, government itself, its structure and its operation. No pre-legal planning by one intending to practice law should omit work in the area in which this is examined, namely, political science. The lawyer himself is a part of government. As a practitioner of the law he is also (literally) an officer of the court, and the court is a part of one of the three great branches of government. (You remember, of course, that they are the legislative, the executive, and the judicial.)

This structure of the government sounds simple, but it isn't. What, in fact, is the true relationship among the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch? It is said that the legislative branch passes the laws, the judicial branch interprets them, and the executive branch enforces them. Let's test that. Suppose that your client has a liquor license and that he has to renew this license every year. Sup pose, also, that the local city council (this is a local "legislative" body) has to approve the application for renewal each year. This year they decide he was guilty of selling liquor to some under-age student and they revoke his license. Haven't they really passed judgment on him? Isn't that what a court is supposed to do? What is going on here?

What is going on here is government. Government, as we said, you must know. Not only the purpose and operation of the judicial branch, of which you will be a part, but of other branches as well. The administrative process (a tiny part of which was that city-council business) is a vast field of government. You have probably heard of the Federal Communications Commission (which regulates radio and TV broadcast ing). That operation on the national level is another part of what is called the administrative process.

Learn, moreover, of the relationships between States, and between the Federal and the State governments. (The Negro segregation cases have brought this to public attention. So did the Civil War.) In addition there is a very extensive area for study in the relationships between State and local governments. For instance, where does the local school district fit into all of this?

The structure of government, the interplay among its units, and the forces shaping its operation are tremendously important to your understanding of governmental issues. You should be well grounded on this before you enter the school of law. Not only will it facilitate your study there but (as we shall discuss in more detail later) it will also be helpful in your participation in public affairs after you graduate. Most legislators, as we noted, are lawyers, as are all (except the lowest ranks) of the judges.

You are much on your own in your undergraduate work. After that you go to law school and you begin to study opinions written on the most complex topics, such as the control of interstate commerce, sometimes without ever having had any instruction even as to the anatomy of commerce.

Classification of lawyers

Those in the legal profession frequently run across an odd classification (by non-lawyers and even by student advisers) of the professional work of a lawyer, and its requirements. These advisers put lawyers into two classes: first the "mere" legal craftsmen, technicians. All they want to do, all they care about, is said to be winning cases and advising clients. On the other hand there is said to be another kind of lawyer. These are rarely given a name, but we shall call them the legal statesmen. These men are (according to some) the true cream of the profession. They are the ones who learn about such things as English constitutional history and political science in "addition" to law.

This classification of lawyers really confuses the prospective lawyer as to what he should study. Sure, he figures, it would be fine to be a statesman. But his own common sense tells him that, to make a living, he has to be a winner of cases. So he waits for law school to learn to be a legal craftsman, and in the meantime majors in physical education rather than in economics, or he gives his undergraduate work a lick and a promise and waits for law school for the real genuine case-winning stuff. Let somebody else be the statesman, he says. I'll just be a lawyer, the craftsman, win my cases and advise my clients. This classification is uttered by people who are completely ignorant of the legal profession. The truth of the matter is that you cannot be a successful lawyer of the first group ("merely" a winner of cases and adviser of clients) without having the background of knowledge of the second group, who, you will remember, were described as the legal statesmen, something different.

So, don't ever get the impression that the real courses for lawyers, the only ones that really count, the bread-and-butter stuff, are the strictly legal courses in crimes and contracts and mortgages. The law is not a set of rules, but, as we have seen, a living creature. Learn not only its present characteristics but also its ancestors.

You will have, of course, many things to do in school besides studying. In the books these things are called extracurricular activities. Study people. What makes them tick? To what do they respond? (Different things, of course, but what things mostly?) Take some part in public meetings, public discussion and debate.

In this way you will be developing some antennae you didn't know you had, and very useful they will be, too. Learn to recognize the smell of hostility (even when no word is uttered) as well as to feel the warmth of friendship. Sometimes the feelings of a group may change very rapidly. These attitudes toward you are almost tangible, especially with crowds.

Even animals can sense them. Does your dog ever make up to anyone who hates dogs? Strive, also, in your public speaking (and do some, by all means) to reach and to recognize that elusive moment of complete oneness with your audience, that instant of time when all heads are still, throats quiet, hands at rest, and eyes meeting yours. When that point is reached (and it's an art to reach it), say very quietly, in simple, short sentences, whatever your real message is, and then sit down.

Anything after that is anticlimax. They have been yours for an instant, and you can ask for no more. The concentration of a crowd cannot be sustained.

Dealing with jury

These things are stressed because in many kinds of law practice you must deal with groups. The best example is the jury, if you are going to try cases. Much of the art in dealing with a jury lies in your antennae being so acute that you can interpret their changing attitudes, in your knowing when to keep hammering and hammering on a point, and when to drop it, quickly. Even if you don't do much trial work you will deal often with groups: a city council, a township zoning board, a corporation board of directors, or, if you should get into politics (and many lawyers do), you will address groups of ward and precinct leaders, the State central committee of your party, and, of course, the voters themselves when they do you the courtesy and honor of leaving the com fort of their homes and going somewhere to hear you speak.

So, as far as your extracurricular activities are concerned, concentrate on your relations with people, singly and in groups.

You must learn about people’s living with people—that is the essence of pre-legal education in a few words. The rules of law grow out of this. You must learn why it is that human beings act so disgustingly like human beings.

Psychology, philosophy, ethics (and also logic, despite the illogic of humans) will help you here. You must learn how their frictions (you don't get a lawsuit unless there's friction somewhere) have been adjusted in the past. Now we're looking at history. You must learn of the machinery for adjustment today. Here we get into the complexities of today's society, the subject matter of economics and political science, In acquiring all of this background, this learning of people and their problems, you are really acquiring bricks and lumber for putting together a structure in which you will live for the rest of your life. It must be sound and it must be symmetrical.

You will spend all of your waking hours in it. After a while you will find out that a peculiar thing has happened to it. It has become known in your community as a sort of temple. Good principles live here.

More and more people will enter it with you, seeking to live in the rooms designed by you to shield the weak and to preserve the strong and to exclude the crafty and sordid. At this time in your life you may, like another lawyer, Lincoln, hold the trust and affection of thousands upon thousands of your fellows. Even at that moment of great power, however, you will find that you are not a free agent not at liberty to take them down any path. You are circumscribed, hemmed in, guided and controlled. You learn that every human being has a right to live in peace and dignity and that when power is used to degrade one person it degrades all. These and many other things you will learn, and they will become part of you, and by them you shall live and give hope and help to the life of others.

Be careful, now. Reflect well in those secret places of your mind and heart. If the market place lures you, the thrill of the trade, of the matching of wits in buying from one for little and selling to another for more, there may be a great and honored place for you in our vast commercial complex. But if you choose law your profits will be reckoned in a different currency. Only you can choose your coin.

published February 05, 2013

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