Thinking like a lawyer

Maria Sfreddo is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Legal Assistance Foundation where she represents low-income clients in domestic relations matters.  When her fellowship term ends this fall, she will be joining Pasulka & Associates. She can be reached at or

For those of you who have survived law school, you already know the sad and undeniable truth:  It ruins your brain.  Never again will you return to the serenity of your prelaw existence, a time when life was more than a sticky web of legal consequences – a time when you didn’t think like a lawyer. Something happens to our brains in law school.  I don’t know what it is, but I’m confident it would show up on a brain scan.  We are trained to think like lawyers, which is of course a useful skill at work, but becomes utterly exhausting once we realize it cannot be turned off.

My lawyer brain has sucked the fun out of many of the activities that I used to enjoy.  Once upon a time, I enjoyed a good legal drama every now and then, but not anymore.  Now I watch in anticipation of the inevitable legal impossibility that occurs in every episode.  I invariably end up yelling at the screen until I just can’t take another second of fantasy courtroom procedure and turn it off.

My daily routine of scanning the news headlines has become equally as draining.  Even seemingly nonlegal stories are eclipsed by the endless legal consequences I can dream up.  For example, a headline reads, “BALLPARK TO RAISE RAILINGS AFTER FAN’S DEATH” and what’s the first thing that comes to my mind?  Federal Rule of Evidence 407, which prevents evidence of subsequent remedial measures after an injury from being introduced as evidence that the injury could have been prevented.  Or what about this one, “GIRL DIES AFTER FERRIS WHEEL ACCIDENT.”  All I can think about is res ipsa loqitur and that stupid flour sack.  I know.  It’s sick.

My husband has had to deal with more than his fair share of this illness.  The poor man can’t escape my cross-examination, “so you’re saying you DIDN’T take out then trash then, is that right?”  I remember one particularly shameful argument in which I yelled, “You have to put the toilet seat down because that’s the default position!”  And when he asks me for the third time where his brown shoes are, I can’t help but respond, “asked and answered.”  Not even our favorite activities are safe.  Stopping to sign a release before picking up our ski passes turned into an unnecessary explanation of how contracts of adhesion are generally not enforceable.  Like many other Chicagoans, I enjoy running along the lake to clear my mind, but I doubt my fellow runners spend miles trying to imagine how the lakefront is legally protected from development (it’s the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, if you’re curious.  I ran home to look it up!).  Don’t I sound like a barrel of fun?

While it may seem like a curse, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagen said that “thinking like a lawyer means thinking with precision and clarity and understanding that the world is not black and white.” What’s so bad about that?



One response to “Thinking like a lawyer

  1. Wonderful post…so true. My wife would certainly agree.

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