The experience of law school is unique among graduate-level programs, so much so that law students and lawyers have often told me that law school changed them in some fundamental ways.
This realization usually occurs after numerous friends and family members tell them that they have changed. “You’re more argumentative” or “why can’t you make a decision?” are often heard.
Typically, the law student or lawyer does not feel like he has become a different person, but instead he is using new skills, such as how to argue a point effectively or how to find the relevant issues on any side of a debate.
One of the most prevalent experiences of law school is the way that it changes the way you think about everything. Whether you are thinking about an argument to make or about the intention behind a law, law school teaches you that there are no right and wrong answers. It is all about the argument you can make.
That is why the Socratic method is used in almost every law class that you take. The Socratic method uses a series of questions to help explore potential answers or avenues of thought. The point of the method is to ask questions and engage in the process of exploration. It is not about determining the one and only right answer.
This practice is great experience for the profession that follows law school. However, it also can be quite troublesome to every other relationship you have in your life.
While a law student sees the Socratic method as a useful tool that will help him succeed in law school and in the legal profession, family and friends often see this method as a clear sign that law school has changed their loved one for the worse.
No longer can they ask a simple question about where they should go out to dinner. Instead, a thorough debate ensues about the various options, the pros and cons, and all the issues to consider when choosing the cuisine. Now, the friends or family members doubt that they really do love sushi, and they are angry at you for spoiling their favorite food.
Whether or not your arguments are over where to eat or something more substantial, one thing is clear: Law school often makes personal relationships more difficult (and not just because you no longer have time for such relationships during law school, or during bar-exam prep, or during a hectic work schedule or … let’s just stop there).
The main reason for this is because law students and lawyers are rewarded for being Socratic in their questioning in law classes and their reasoning in the courtroom. Law students hear this from their professors and from their classmates, and it is how they get positive feedback in school. Lawyers depend on their ability to argue an issue in order to be professionally successful, to earn a living, and to develop a strong reputation as a competent lawyer.
The goal of developing Socratic questioning skills is to strengthen your ability to make a compelling argument. A compelling argument increases your chances of winning that argument. And winning an argument is good — in law school and in the practice of law. Winning an argument in your personal life is not so important and sometimes can actually be damaging to your relationships.
The more you understand about what is important to those around you, the better you can become at relating to them. What’s important to a law professor, judge or jury is that you make a compelling argument for your side. This is rewarded in the world of law.
What’s important to your friends and family members is that you show that you care about them. This is rewarded in the world of your personal life. In this world, sometimes winning an argument can destroy a relationship.
So, just because you know how to argue doesn’t mean that you should argue. Most times, showing your loved ones that you understand them and care for them is much more compelling than any argument you could ever make. Showing your loved ones that you understand what they think and feel is much more powerful than the ability to convince them of your perspective.
The ability to effectively argue a point is just that — an ability. It is a skill that can be taught, developed and chosen. Choose wisely when to use this skill and when another, very different skill is needed.
Always remember that you have many tools in your toolbox. And just because you feel very comfortable swinging a hammer doesn’t mean that you should use your hammer to clean the windows.
Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts.