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. We ask: What is a moral decision? Why does the problem of vagueness matter? Do animals share rationality with human beings?
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 your emotional investment actually require you to protect or shield assumptions that you are not willing to question?
In asking these questions, philosophy teachers try to respect the complexities of a theoretical problem before they provide direct arguments towards a solution. In other words, we try to understand how the problem emerged in the first place. Only in this way can we later discover its significance when held in tension between different perspectives and approaches—no matter what its solutions may be.
This daily practice of questioning people about their intuitions requires patience, respect, and the ability to sustain 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 generates 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 what appear to be opposite sides. Nevertheless, 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:
Always remember why you and your clients care about their case (Good cases are never only about money.)
- 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)
- Respect the complexity of the whole case by analyzing every fact at your disposal (not just the facts that support your client’s position)
- 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 four 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 has taught at Stanford University and the University of California, and is 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 and civil sexual abuse and assault on behalf of victims.