Friday, December 14, 2012

Why the law is (usually) better than X

(This blog post brought to you by simmering annoyance.)

I read a study once where researchers asked students applying to medical school and students applying to law school what appealed to them most about their respective choices. (Aside from "wanting to help people" -- mostly true -- and "buckets of money" -- DING DING DING!)

The future doctors replied, "It's the mystery."

The lawyers-to-be said, "It's the certainty."

In essence, the pre-meds thought that their future would be filled with researching symptoms and cures, testing hypothesis and eliminating failed propositions. Discovery! Curiosity! Cue the Dr. House music!

And on the flip side, the baby lawyers thought that they would be flipping through one of their many fine, leather-bound books and crying, "Aha! The legislature outlawed that in 1918! Case dismissed!"

Sadly, as it turns out, the opposite is true. (May explain why there are so many unhappy doctors and lawyers out there. Math skills aside, maybe they all should have swapped jobs?)

Doctors spend most of their time conclusively determining what is wrong with the person. The true medical mysteries are rare.

Lawyers, on the other hand, spend most of their time wading through the gray -- the area where truth is elusive, interpretations are many, and certainty is nowhere to be found. The slam dunk case? Just as rare as a medical mystery. When you have a slam dunk, you don't really even need a lawyer. You need a sheriff (if you're in the right) or a priest (if you're not.)

One of the great things about working in the law is grappling with complex ideas that may not have an answer. And when you're surrounded by bright, capable colleagues (as many of us are lucky to be), it's enough to make a lot of us nerd-types frankly giddy. LOOK AT ALL THE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES!

I think it is this particular legal background that makes it so frustrating for me to hear the words, "If you really understood."

If I really understood? Lawyers don't say that to each other. (Well, the good ones don't. The bad ones toss it around like there's no tomorrow. "Have a good day!" "You don't understand this!" "Oh, you're filing sanctions against me over this frivolous motion?" "You're honor, I'm really quite sorry." -- the natural progression of the terrible lawyer. Repeat until disbarment.)

Lawyers come to the table with a common denominator -- we all understand this. Understanding is rarely the problem. The problem is that I want it to mean A, Eduardo wants it to mean B, the other side will push for K, and who knows what the judge will think. If we do M, will that endanger the conclusion on P? What do we risk it we don't ask for M? Can we never ask for M again? And is it possible that U is the answer, and do we just hope that no one brings that up?

Oh, what was the answer? There is no answer! There are only probabilities about the future, based on what has happened in the past, and hoping that an appellate court does (or doesn't) concur.

It's like science fiction, it really is.

So what someone really means when they say the words, "You don't understand ... if you only understood ... people who really get this ..." is "Here is my A. I know you wanted B, but rather than debate you on the merits of B, I will simply undermine your position by implying you don't belong at the table."

And unless the subject actually is math, where (as long as you're not in crazy advanced math, which we won't even talk about) there is an answer and you can be conclusively wrong, that really isn't a way to approach a debate. Not in politics, not in theology, not even in house cleaning.

Now, a lot of people prefer to avoid this conundrum by resorting to the "I feels." (Thanks, Oprah.) Fine, you don't agree with my position, and you want to undermine it by claiming I don't have the intellectual capacity or background to deserve to have it. So what are we left with?

"Based on my personal experiences with A, I feel B is best."

Don't get me wrong, sometimes that is the way to go. If you have no ground left to stand on, jump aboard the USSR Emotion and take your battle to sea.

But man, if I don't feel that people resort to this option before they should. The answer to, "Well, you don't understand" is not, "Well, I feel." It is, "Of course I understand, Janie. You know I understand. I just draw a different conclusion than you do."

And unless Janie is Mother Russia, you keep that fight on the land.


  1. (it's alex, but I didn't want to log into my google just to post a comment).

    My favorite conversations with coworkers go as follows-
    Co- "what do you think of x"
    Me- "I think it's risky"
    co- "why"
    me- "who's across the table from you, good attorney or dumb attorney?"
    co- "good"
    me- "then they'll be able to make argument y"
    co- "that's not a good argument"
    me- "who is your judge"
    co- "judge c"
    me- "then it is a good argument and I'll make a wager right now that you'll lose"
    co- "ugh..."

  2. I like that that you say {as|like} my friend thanks