10.8 – Continuing to Learn after Law School


Continuing to Learn after Law School

During these classes, we've talked all the way through the first year of law school, and then through the second and third years of law school. I want to talk a little bit about life after law school. One big thing I want you to take away from this and something to keep in mind as you go on in your legal career after law school is, you really shouldn't assume that your legal education has ended just because law school is over.

Why Learning for Lawyer Never Ends

(1) Law school isn't exhaustive, (2) new jurisdiction, new laws, (3) dynamic nature of law, (4) law is not always clear

Instead, you should realize that continuing to learn is an absolutely essential part of being a successful lawyer. Not only does it continue after law school, it never ends as long as you are going to remain in the practice of law. Why is that the case? A few reasons.

First of all, you don't learn everything you need to know in law school.

There's going to be some classes you don't get around to taking that end up being relevant to the kinds of law you might practice. I didn't take antitrust in law school, ended up doing some antitrust while I was in private practice. I had to figure that out on my own. Even if you have taken a particular class, there might be details that come up when you're working in that area of law, that just weren't covered in the class you took, maybe your professor decided not to teach those particular aspects of the doctrine, but they still are going to matter in your practice. You're going to have to learn them.

You might also have not learned the law of the particular jurisdiction that you're going to practice in. If you go to most American law schools, not every school, some schools focus on the law of particular jurisdictions, but many schools and many professors end up teaching general principles that are the majority rules in a lot of places, but that means you don't necessarily know all the rules that are applicable in any one jurisdiction.

Maybe you get a job. You go move to New Mexico to become a prosecutor there, and you went to law school in Iowa. You're going to have to learn the rules of New Mexico criminal law. But even if you went to a law school that taught you all the rules that you would want to know for the jurisdiction you're going to practice in, and you took all the classes that are going to touch on all the legal issues that are going to come up while you're in practice, even then it still wouldn't be the case that your legal education would be in any way complete when you graduate law school. Why is that? Law changes.

Even if you know everything there is to know about law on the day you get your diploma, that knowledge is quickly going to grow stale, regardless of what area of practice you're in. Let's say you're a tax lawyer and you know the entire tax code on the day you graduate. Two years later, Congress could radically amend the tax code and create a bunch of new provisions. If you don't learn about that, you're going to be in a very bad position to advise your clients.

Let's say you want to be a constitutional lawyer. The Supreme Court is overruling cases all the time, creating new constitutional doctrines, getting rid of other doctrines. You need to be aware of these things. You need to recognize that being a successful lawyer, being a good lawyer, being really a competent lawyer requires constantly learning new things, being aware of new things, and knowing how to look for the answer.

Even the lawyers that I worked for, they're among the most successful lawyers in the country who were asked to consult on hard legal issues, when they would get asked by their clients to consult on a hard legal issue, their answer usually was not, "I know the answer to that legal question off the top of my head." Their answer was usually, "Okay, we're going to have our team look that up," because the legal issues were hard, because the answers weren't clear, and the best lawyers are good, not because they know all the law, it's because they know what they don't know, and they know how to look things up. They know where to go for the right answer.

Law school teaches you how to learn the law.

Maybe there's a sense in which you should think of law school not so much as teaching you the law, but teaching you how to understand the law, and how to know where to look for the answers, and maybe also giving you enough of a framework to know when you need to know something. That's a really important area, which is, it's more important for you to know what you don't know than to know everything.

By that, I mean, as long as you are aware that there's a potential issue out there you know to be able to go look it up when the time comes, you're going to avoid mistakes. Places where you're really going to get yourself in trouble is when you don't even realize there's a potential issue out there to be aware of.

Ways of Learning

Learning while working, keeping track of latest developments

How do you get to that point of being aware of everything and knowing enough to not get yourself in trouble? There's no one answer to that. It's going to depend a little bit on what area of practice you're in, but whatever that area is, I would encourage you to take some proactive steps, to keep yourself informed, to keep learning, to be aware of how the law is changing. It doesn't mean you have to be reading treatises for six hours a day, but do things like, maybe, read blogs about your area of law your practice in, read the news, get on email lists.

It really just depends. Whatever it is, figure out ways to keep abreast of how the law is changing. Even if you don't learn everything at the time, as long as you know there's some issue out there, "Oh, gosh, I remember seeing Congress was considering some change to this area." If that comes up in your practice and you've got some legal issue, your client is asking to advise about something, you can say, "Gosh, I remember reading something that said there was a potential change in the works. Let me go look that up." You know what? You've spotted a potential issue, and you've recognized a way in which you could really help your client.

If you weren't paying attention, you might've missed that entirely. I think it's really, really important for you to try to think of that as a really important aspect of your job. One way to think about it is, would you want to go to a doctor who never did any additional research and didn't read any medical journals and didn't do anything to learn how science and medicine has changed after he or she graduated from medical school? I don't think so.

I don't think most of us would want to go to such a doctor. Instead, you want someone who really is going to be up to date on the latest information, the latest science, and for the same reason, we want lawyers that are going to do the same thing. Think of this as part of your job. Think of this as an important part of your craft, think of it as a responsibility, and try to think of it as something that's fun, because I think you're going to find the more you do this, the more you can be aware of things, you're going to find it rewarding because you will be rewarded professionally for it.

Learning law is part and parcel of legal profession

If you're the associate at your firm, who always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else, who isn't just being told about how the law has changed, but says, "Hey, I remember seeing a notice that went out about this. There's a new statute, or the court overruled that decision." People are going to really respect that. They're going to trust you. They're going to trust you a lot. They're going to give you a lot of responsibility. Keep learning and just recognize that your legal education is really a lifelong endeavor. It's never going to stop until you stop practicing law. You might as well figure out a way to think about that as a really good thing, as a really positive thing, as something that's exciting, rather than something that feels like a chore.

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