What I Learned in Law School

BY KARL CHANG

My name is Karl. In case you missed it, I’m going to distill for you what I learned in three years at Harvard Law School and explain why it’s good for America.

What I learned at HLS was how to talk like a lawyer.(1) Now, contrary to what you might think, talking like a lawyer is not just about increasing one’s vocabulary — adding a bunch of “forthwiths” and “wherefores.”(2) Talking like lawyer is a little more complicated than that. It’s about moods and tenses; it’s an attitude.(3) Let me give you an example from ancient Greece.

There was a young guy in ancient Greece, named Alexander the Great, and you could say that he went to the ancient Greek equivalent of Harvard Law School, the Athens of law schools, if you will. His law professor was a guy named Aristotle. Alexander is sort of a poster-child for the professional flexibility a legal education offers.

Now, Alexander the Great, early on in his conquest of the world, was presented with an offer by Darius, the King of Persia, to marry one of Darius’ daughters and accept half his empire, as well as 10,000 talents of gold. All Alexander had to do in return was to stop conquering Darius’ empire. When Alexander discussed this offer with his staff, Parmenio, Alexander’s most trusted general, advised Alexander to accept Darius’ offer, saying, “if I were you, I would accept this.” To which, Alexander replied, “And I would too, by God, if I were you.” Alexander rejected the offer, and the rest is history.

The point I’m trying to convey here is that lawyers have a way of talking which twists what others say so that it’s irrelevant or means the exact opposite of what was intended.

Parmenio tells Alexander, “Look, I’m your advisor, I think you should take this deal, because I would take it if I were in your position.” Alexander interprets the facts so that he reaches the precisely opposite conclusion, “Look, you’re just an advisor, of course you’d be satisfied with a nice Persian princess, a couple wagon loads of gold and a few hundred square miles of fiefdom. But because you’d be satisfied with it, I’m not.”

Anyone who’s been to HLS will recognize the style and tenor of Alexander’s retort to Parmenio. The law school classroom is filled with these kinds of smart-aleck comebacks.

“But which way does that cut?”

“Doesn’t that prove too much?”

“Isn’t that a distinction without a difference?”

Or here’s my personal favorite, “Isn’t that the exception which proves the rule?”

These sophistries are basically ways of telling someone else that they’re crazy. “Shouldn’t reality be interpreted in exactly the opposite way from what you’re saying?”

So, Harvard Law School teaches you how to tell other people that they’re wrong. Now, let me explain why this is good for America.

The language of law school, the language of sophistries, challenges authority. That’s how law school professors get their jobs; they explain how the Supreme Court or Congress always gets it wrong. This language creates a special culture at HLS. The professors enjoy being told that they are wrong. They love it when people argue with and challenge them. This culture is a culture of fighting the power and sticking it to the man. There’s a lack of respect for authority and demand for accountability. Convince me, persuade me. Let’s both think the matter through and let the more reasonable side prevail. This ideal is good for America because it encourages people to think for themselves rather than rely on authority: “Sure, Parmenio’s wise, but I’m still going to evaluate the content of his advice and decide for myself what’s right.”

Now, I suppose, if you were paying attention to what I’ve been saying you might raise the following objections:

“Karl, you went to Harvard Law School, you can’t stick it to the man, you are the man. Of course the language of law school is one which challenges authority regardless of the facts, but which way does that cut? That isn’t good for America. That’s bad for America. Your conception of the world is one where there is neither right nor wrong. You want America to live in the same, solipsistic fantasy-land that lawyers live in and to give lawyers ultimate power over everything because the truth no longer matters, only one’s ability to argue and persuade others. You’ve proven too much.”

How would I respond to all this? Why, I’d tell you, “You’re being silly. Stop talking like a lawyer.”

I wish you all the best of luck. May your reasons cut only in the way you intend them. May your distinctions always have a difference, and may all the exceptions prove your rules. Thanks and congratulations.

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(1) It’s worth pointing out that “what I learned at law school” is different from “what I should have learned at law school” which is different from “what they tried to teach me at law school” which is different from “the law.”

(2) The introduction of aforementioned legal jargon, may, inter alia, lend one the penumbra of 19th century gravitas. However, I would cease and desist, forthwith, the use of such jargon on the wherefore that it practically renders one’s language null and void of meaning through its obscurity.

(3) You also need citations. “In all types of legal writing, whether by scholars or by practitioners, it is customary to cite an authority or authorities to show support for a legal proposition or argument.” THE BLUEBOOK: A UNIFORM SYSTEM OF CITATION I.3 at 4 (Columbia Law Review Ass’n et al. eds., 17th ed. 2000).

Karl Chang, 3L, is from Houston, TX.

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