Five Ways the Daily Practice of Philosophy Can Make You a Better Lawyer (And Win You Cases)

Before I became a lawyer, I taught philosophy.  Along the way, I studied and worked with some of the sharpest minds in the world.  These people—too many to name here—taught me almost everything I know about being a good lawyer.

When practiced at the highest level, philosophy is an intense intellectual exercise.  The problems we study are controversial, complex, and demanding.  They are emotionally radioactive by design—teaching us to hone our intuitions, question our assumptions, and clarify our positions under the most demanding conditions—when we care about the outcome of a given problem. 

One set of questions I often asked my colleagues and students was this: Why do you care about this problem?  Does your emotional investment in this problem make your thinking clearer, or does it do the opposite?  Does it actually require you to protect or shield assumptions that you are not willing to question? 

In asking these questions, philosophy teachers work to respect the complexities of a theoretical problem before they provide direct arguments towards a solution.  In other words, we try to understand as many aspects of a problem as we can.  Only in this way can we argue that the problem we are studying is important—no matter what the solutions to it may be.

This daily practice of questioning people about their deepest intuitions requires patience, incredible respect, and the ability to maintain conversations instead of shutting them down.  If our colleagues and students feel respect in our questions—if they know that their answers to our questions are as important as our responses to their own questions—we can come to a mutual understanding of what is driving the problems that matter to us.

Good lawyers practice good philosophy. They are good colleagues.  They practice the art of philosophy—sometimes without even knowing it—as they assess their cases from opposite sides.  The best lawyers and philosophers listen to one another.  They incorporate each other’s perspectives, whenever possible, in order to become better advocates for their clients under the facts that are presented by any case.  This mutual respect results in dignified negotiation, argumentation, and advocacy.

Here are five daily philosophical practices that have helped me improve and develop myself as a lawyer:

  1. Always remember why you and your clients care about their case (Good cases are never only about money.)
  2. Strive to understand and respect why opposing counsel, and their clients, care about their case (Your colleagues are always emotionally invested in their clients, too)
  3. Respect the complexity of the whole case by analyzing every fact at your disposal (not just the facts that support your client’s position)
  4. Do not avoid or ignore difficult facts (Embrace tough facts as the driving forces of your case)
  5. Understand that the weaknesses in your position today can become the strength of your case going forward (Great lawyers learn to shift their arguments as they gain a tighter grasp on what the facts will support)

These five philosophical exercises, if practiced daily, don’t just facilitate the resolution of cases, they create spaces for dignity, respect, and, in some cases, lifelong professional friendships that far surpass the life cycle of a given case.

Scott Herndon has a PhD in Literature and Philosophy from New York University. He taught at Stanford University and the University of California before becoming a lawyer and the principal at The Law Office of Scott Herndon, PC, in Berkeley, CA.  Scott is a Plaintiff’s Trial Lawyer, focusing on catastrophic personal injury, civil sexual abuse and assault on behalf of victims, and employment law.

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