Bill Wilson spent over 20 years in legal departments at corporations large and small, from high tech to brick and mortar, and is writing about various topics while trying to find that next great career opportunity.
So if everything old is new again, as my last entry posited, how does that apply to the less experienced attorney in their search?
Fresh out of law school, you’ve studied things some practitioners will probably never hear about. You’re up to date, brimming with the accumulated knowledge three years of intense academic submersion can acquire. The latest trends, Supreme Court decisions, legislation about the newest issues — you may never be as fully up to date as you are now. And that’s a selling point you should exploit. However, let me suggest that knowledge is better if you can show two things to a prospective client or employer: a sense of perspective, and common sense. And that’s where the old and new meet.
Take for example the current debate about “honest services” and the mail fraud law and white collar corruption that has been in the news so often of late. If you don’t know about the history of this theory reaching back into the 1940s, you might reach entirely different conclusions about the direction of recent developments. Knowing that we’ve been down this road before in the 80s, with a Supreme Court decision questioning the validity of the statute, Congress’ reaction in passing §1346, and the resulting case law provides you with an entirely different perspective on this debate and perhaps where it should come out. The same is true in so many other areas of the law. Where we’ve been is not just fodder for history books; it’s the theoretical foundation, sometimes to build on, and others to depart from, but it’s essential to know how we got here.
I would submit that being able to demonstrate a grasp of yesterday and how it contributes to today will help differentiate you from your competition by demonstrating a willingness to accept that all wisdom did not begin on the day you were born.
The common sense part reveals itself in many ways. If you combine the novelty of what you’ve learned with the insights that came from having turned those legal problems around several times in your mind, looking at them from different angles, appreciating where the rules came from, yet understanding where they can go, what works and what doesn’t – you set yourself apart.
To know the law is one thing, but appreciating the law is another, something that usually comes from a sense of the practical advantages and limitations, which comes from both intellectual curiosity and experience. Since you’re short on the experience part, promote the intellectual curiosity. It will provide you the launching pad into the future.
The law moves far more slowly than the world, which is both good and bad. There are no laws about anthropomorphic robots, in-vehicle telematics, browser cookies or biometric identifiers the day they hit the market. But you will have to give legal advice to your clients about them. You will constantly be trying to apply laws to new situations that they don’t exactly fit, and the more you know about the history, the purpose, the compromises that made the law what it is, will make it far more likely that you can mold the law to fit into new circumstances, and help create better laws to replace the old ones.