Argument Lovers Need Not Apply

Q.  So why do you want to be a lawyer?

A.  I love to argue.

Ding. Go away.  Next.

I’ve personally heard this a thousand times.  It’s probably the most common response to the question.  And it’s dead wrong.

Apparently, it doesn’t sell any better at Yale Law School than it does with me.  According to Asha at (203) Admissions Blog, this raises a red flag in the personal statement of applicants.

In case you’re one of the fortunate applicants who isn’t familiar with this theme, the “I Love to Argue” personal statement goes something like this: first, the applicant starts off with some anecdote, usually from preschool, which amounts to having a temper tantrum over something really dumb.  The adult in said anecdote (usually, but not always, the mother), instead of giving the applicant a good spank, is totally impressed by the temper tantrum and says, “You are going to be a great lawyer!”  This forms the basis for the applicant’s desire to apply to law school sixteen years later.

The corollary rule is that you are not going to be a great lawyer just because Mommy said so.  Mothers across America will be outraged. 

First, any fool can argue.  Arguing is easy.  Just ask Monty Python.

Lawyers persuade.  Lawyers reason.  Lawyers convince.  Only fools argue for the sake of arguing.

Experience of late, unfortunately, suggests that far too many law schools have admitted students because they love to argue.  The basis for this statement is that so many argue up a storm, argue, argue, argue, and haven’t the slightest clue that mere disagreement is utterly meaningless. 

Not only is this a matter of some concern in attempting to deal with the “I love to argue” crowd, but how are they to represent clients if their argument revolves around their personal pronouncements of disagreement. 

Prosecutor:  Your Honor, the evidence against the defendant, both physical and testimonial, is overwhelming.

Defense Lawyer:  No it’s not.  I don’t think so. 

Well, okay then.  I mean, as long as you disagree, then what are we wasting our time for?  The source of this overestimation of the value of one’s personal opinion, according to Asha, is dear, old Mom.

Why is this theme so wrong?  Let’s first start with your mom.  I’m sure she is a very nice person, but when it comes to law school admissions, please note that she has zero credibility.  Don’t mention any assessment she makes about your potential lawyerly ability in your P.S.  Ever.

This means that your having been reared on the notion that you are wonderful, brilliant and capable of doing anything, according to Mommy (or Daddy, since Daddy’s do this too), may have made you feel warm and fuzzy, but doesn’t win any points outside of the kitchen.

Asha goes on to explain that self-serving argument over anything and everything is a character flaw rather than confidence builder.  It “suggest[s] to the reader that you are reactionary, a poor listener, unable to relate to different perspectives, and that you are generally an unpleasant person to be around.” 

More importantly, ILTA shows a shallow understanding of what being a lawyer is about.  You see, arguing is not the hallmark of a good lawyer.  It’s true that many lawyers are skilled orators, but that doesn’t mean that they argue.  In fact, the best way to find yourself with a losing case streak and a dwindling client list is to constantly argue with other lawyers or worse, the judge hearing your case. . .  And if you’ve ever watched an appellate case, you know that the only people who should be arguing (if you’re doing your job right) are the hearing judges, who are going to pick apart your case and ask you pointed and potentially snarky questions.  You politely answer them.

The first step in accomplishing this is to be capable of distinguishing between a viable position, supported by reason and evidence, as opposed to “stick your head in gravy” or “well, that’s what I think.” 

It’s not that lawyers aren’t full of personal zeal, knowing well who to blame for the evils of the system and which side their bread is buttered on.  There is plenty of zeal to be had.  What there isn’t is much thoughtfulness to back it up.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the ever-growing preference to sing with the choir, where no one expects thought but only support when attacking the common enemy. 

Zeal, however, does not a lawyer make any more than ILTA.  If anything, they seem to go hand in hand, the former bolstering one’s belief that the latter is all it takes to be a lawyer.  Challenge everything that doesn’t conform with your zealously held beliefs.  Give nothing any real thought.  If something doesn’t meet with your deeply held beliefs, reject it.  Never, under any circumstances, give it any further thought.  Never try harder to understand what you don’t, at first, grasp.

The corollary here is that such lawyers believe they are entitled to demand, when they don’t grasp something, that it be explained to them, and to their satisfaction.  They love to argue.  This does not make for a good lawyer. 

It is fundamental to our efforts that we be capable of providing sound argument to the judge, and when the judge picks apart our case and asks pointed and potentially snarky questions, we answer them politely.  There’s a reason for this.  The judge is the decision-maker.  If we fail to persuade the decision-maker, we fail to fulfill our function. 

Lawyers who suffer from ILTA are not decision-makers, but narcissists.  There’s no reason to persuade them; they get no vote.  They have no place in law school, whether Yale or a good one.  They have no place as lawyers either, because they can’t fulfill the function.

12 thoughts on “Argument Lovers Need Not Apply

  1. Henry Berry

    I think it can be said that the best lawyers–ones who know what the term professional lawyer really means–are ones who like to make an argument. This is different from ones with the trait of “I like to argue”.

    For the truly professional, it’s a matter of research, reason, rhetoric–the 3 R’s.

  2. ExPat ExLawyer

    I think there’s some definitional issues confusing the issue. At the beginning of your piece, “argument” takes the definition of quarrel – arguing for the sport of it. But the modern definition is here: a : a reason given in proof or rebuttal
    b : discourse intended to persuade
    a : the act or process of arguing : argumentation
    b : a coherent series of statements leading from a premise to a conclusion

    Only 3-C in Miriam-Webster’s online gives the definition you toss out initially in a kinda strawman way.
    c : quarrel, disagreement

    And frankly, those that toss out arguments such as “well of course your honor the non-disclosure [of discovery] was inadvertent,” providing no rationale other than the implicit one, “I’m a DA and worked with you three years ago” are not defense attorneys. So I think mindless quarreling works well for DAs every day. And typically fares better than methodical reasoning logically calculated to persuade.

  3. SHG

    While I think I see your point, I can’t agree.  Perhaps it would be better put as lawyers are not conflict averse when they have to be, but I don’t know that they have to like to make an argument, just that they are well equipped to do so when needed.

  4. SHG

    Point taken on the definition.  As for young DAs, that involves very different issues, not implicated in this post.

  5. Henry Berry

    I’m not a lawyer, but have years of college up to a master’s degree in philosophy, with a related interested in English. So my view comes from outside of the daily practice of law. But what I was getting to–now that your reply led to me think a little deeper–is that lawyers stake out a position, on some legal issue or for what they are trying to do for their client. The 3 Rs I cited are elementary to this. Entailed in these are skills lawyers would have–presumably been trained in at law school–as you refer to which could be put to use in particular circumstances, namely when taking a position became called for. What I’m saying about what lawyers have to “like” is that they have to like research, reason, rhetoric to be most effective–rather than not “liking” anything in particular but simply throwing mini-tantrums indiscriminately, which was what you were criticizing, I think.

  6. ExPat ExLawyer

    Scott, what you accurately define as the “young DAs” of say NYC or SF, are in fact high ranked or even head DAs in flyover country, like Colorado. Judges often don’t care if their “arguments” are nothing more than toddler temper tantrums.

  7. ExPat ExLawyer

    Sorry, I thought my point was implicated in the quoted colloquy in your piece between “Prosecutor” and “Defense Lawyer.” You have a really expansive view of what’s deemed OT. It’s not always blatantly obvious, Scott.

  8. SHG

    Funny, I would have thought the first time I expressly said so would have clued you in, thus eliminating the second time and hurting your feelings. 

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