The Bizzle

"Saving your ass since 1999"

How flipping burgers can make you a better lawyer

What makes a good lawyer? 

A sound knowledge of the law, of course. A sharp analytical mind, naturally, and the ability to present an argument in writing or in speech. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous great attention to detail. 

Let’s stop there, or we’ll be here all day. Everybody would have their own list – maybe yours would even include the semi-mythical commercial awareness (don’t worry, it’s not going to be that post again). 

But there’s one thing that makes my list that maybe wouldn’t appear on others, and it’s got nothing to do with the law. In fact, that’s the whole point. 

It’s my firmly held opinion that many of the best lawyers didn’t start out as lawyers. They did something else first, and that experience informs their practice of law. 

It doesn’t much matter what the other thing was. From flipping burgers to running a business, it’s all good. The point is that they have experience of work outside of the law. 

Sometimes the relationship is direct – a lawyer who’s studied or worked in IT might be better able to understand the practical and commercial aspects of a software deal. Amongst the many rubbish jobs I drifted through in my 20s was a stint in a call centre, and this has proved invaluable now that I write outsourcing contracts for a living. 

But anything can help, at least in theory. You can get a feel for how a business works from any position – in fact, personal experience of the shop-floor perspective is arguably better because you’ll only get the management view from clients. It’s obvious how this might benefit, for example, an employment lawyer, but it could also help you understand practical issues that might arise in a bribery policy (to be topical) or a service level agreement. 

And don’t forget soft skills (although we often do). Any job where you deal directly with the public can help you understand what makes people happy or upset, and how you can influence them either way. Any lawyer who advises, negotiates or litigates (that’s everyone, then) would benefit from that kind of experience. 

The point is that the law doesn’t exist in its own bubble, separate from the real life of ordinary people and businesses. It’s the context of the legal question that gives it meaning, and so the lawyer who can interpret that context will give better advice than the one that knows only the law. 

Sound obvious, I know. But if you go straight from high school into a law degree, and from there to a training contract and on to qualification, it seems to me that there is a risk that one comes to see the world only through a legal lens. 

I’ve seen some evidence that this happens. There are lawyers (outhouse and in house) who sit on their hands when the ‘commercial’ parts of a contract are discussed, or who ignore the human side of litigation – all those reasons why somebody brings an employment claim or defends a debt action when they have no real case. 

Conversely, if you can understand the non-legal aspects of a deal, or if you can work out what the concerns and emotions of the person across the table are, then you can add value for your client beyond the purely legal. And I think that this understanding comes easier to those have experience outside of the law. 

That’s not to say that a thorough knowledge of the law isn’t important – it’s crucial. All of the context in the world won’t help if you don’t understand the law. 

And I’m not arguing that you can’t be an effective lawyer if that’s all you’ve ever done. You can refute that by hundreds of examples to the contrary. 

But in a market where legal knowledge and skills are a given, you need to stand out. That extra bit of context and insight might help you do that.

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8 responses to “How flipping burgers can make you a better lawyer

  1. Steven Mather February 28, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    I went straight from uni to training contract.

    But I’ve always been involved in business since I was 15, and this has given me (hopefully) the commercially minded approach I take in law.

    I’ve always beleived (and been taught) that knowing the law is a given, the client expects that; what the client is paying for is your advice, and that means commercial advice on the bits that affect hi business.

  2. Dave_atleti March 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    I flipped burgers before studying law, and if nothing else it gives you a tremendous work ethic and an ability to undertake mundane and repetitive tasks.

  3. Vonn March 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    hi, what does a burger got to do with a lawyer?

  4. Jane Rae March 2, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    I think it’s a great post and really good advice. I grew up in a pub and had to earn my keep washing glasses, restocking bar, changing barrels and cashing up and probably more commercial use that my economic history degree covering China and Russia!
    We run a new legal job board and have a resources section with career advice. I’d love to post your article on our site – or at the least repost on our blog?
    Jane

    • legalbizzle March 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm

      Thanks Jane – quite a bit of my own pre-law career was spent working in pubs as well, and I completely agree. Happy for you to post the article on your site, if you link back to my blog.

  5. Pingback: Law Review : Queens’ Council?! – Flipping burgers can make you a better lawyer? « Charon QC

  6. Alice Morrissey March 4, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Great post! I have been meaning to comment for a few days and finally getting round to it.

    I think it is really important to champion alternative routes into law and your post hits the spot when it comes to articulating why transferable skills gained from previous jobs and even life experience alone can be so valuable in the legal world.

    The arguments for immediately entering the profession and waiting a few years before pursuing a legal career both have their own merits and I think its important to get the point across that there is no best way to do it. As someone who has studied part-time and has been in a small number of different jobs along the way, I am acutely aware of the need to be able to articulate the value of my past work experience.

    However, I am of the opinion that the legal profession is still quite closed when it comes to opinions to alternative routes into law. Although many firms will bleat on and on about how they are interested in candidates with a range of skills and how previous experience is an advantage, I do question the extent to which this is true – Legal recruitment is still very much geared for current graduates/recent graduates and it would be great to see firms providing more opportunities for those with alternatives routes into law to express what they will bring to the table. I think the legal profession still has a way to go when it comes to opening the doors to those who have taken an alternative route.

    Alice

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