By Patrick S. Casey
I entered Northwestern University School of Law directly after graduating from Northwestern University. Because undergraduates work on the quarter system, I received constant feedback about my progress. My law school experience, however, was quite the opposite.
The law school was on the semester system, so I was immersed in a single subject for a longer period. Nearly all law school courses required just a final exam. Without knowing how I was doing in the interim, and with the pressure of knowing that my entire grade rested upon a single three- or four-hour exam, I naturally experienced a great deal of anxiety.
Because we did not have interim exams forcing us to keep up with our coursework, we learned to exercise a fair amount of self-discipline to avoid being hopelessly behind when it came time to prepare for final exams.
The professors' use of the Socratic Method was another novel experience. Answers were no longer black and white, but shades of gray. For the most part, the professors' questions were thought-provoking, and answers that I thought were obvious in many instances were wrong. This recognition traumatized me whenever I was called upon, especially if I had neglected to keep up with that day's reading. The professors challenged us to think about the meaning of cases in ways we never would have imagined. But I learned much from other students' discourse with the professors and students' discourse with each other.
As most law students were high achievers in college, and generally outgoing, even aggressive, this seemingly unstructured education wreaked havoc on some minds. We would grasp at anything that would enable us to measure our progress vis-à-vis our fellow students.
Final exams were somewhat frightening as well. For example, my contracts course final examination had nothing whatsoever to do with the traditional elements of contract formation - offer, acceptance, and consideration - but instead required us to examine the intricacies of the American Institute of Architects form agreements. None of my classmates, least of all me, had prepared for that.
A little less intimidating, but no less valuable, was my law school journal work. It forced me to focus on sentence and paragraph structure, to choose words carefully, and to express ideas in different ways. The goal was for our writing, both mine and my editees, not only to be thorough expositions of the chosen topic, but to be clear, concise, and logical.
So how did my law school experience impact my legal career?
First and foremost, it taught me to think critically, to examine all aspects of a problem, and to realize that things are not always as they initially appear. I use this skill daily when discussing problems with clients as I ask numerous questions to ascertain, and then address the real source of the issue. I also use this skill when reading cases, to determine what issues really motivated the reasoning of the court so that I can persuasively champion my client's cause.
Second, my experience taught me to be comfortable being uncomfortable. How many times has a supposedly friendly witness surprised you during direct examination at trial by saying something unexpected? Or an opposing party during a negotiation revealed an indisputable fact that your client had neglected to disclose and that completely undermines your negotiating position?
At those times, I hark back to my law school days when a professor would call on me with a question for which I had no answer, to that contracts final exam that raised issues we had not studied, and to my general discomfort during law school because I didn't know where I stood. I take comfort in knowing that I survived all of those uncomfortable situations and can do so again. My law school experience taught me self-discipline, to think on my feet, and to respond effectively to new and unpredictable situations.
Third, my experience, especially my journal experience, helped me to become a better writer. Lawyers' tools are critical thinking and communicating that critical thinking in the most effective manner.
One of the most important communication skills that a lawyer must develop is written communication. A lawyer's writing must be clear, concise, and logical in order to persuade a court, an opposing party, or even the lawyer's own client.
Finally, the substantive portion of my legal education has had an impact on my legal career.
Even though I now specialize in labor and employment and occupational safety and health law, issues frequently arise in my discussions with clients that involve other substantive or procedural subjects that I vaguely remember from law school.
Consequently, I can advise the client that there may be a problem, and direct them to a lawyer more familiar with that subject so that the issue can be addressed appropriately.
My legal education experience has served me well in my 25 years of practice. It taught me to think critically, to ask questions, to write and speak persuasively, and to develop creative solutions to better serve my clients.
Patrick Casey earned his undergraduate degree from Northwestern University in 1981, and his law degree from its School of Law in 1984.