Talk Like a Lawyer

As I was walking up from the train station yesterday, I was thinking about a recent tweet that had asked for input, advice for speakers talking at #legaltech events.  Depending on how you define legaltech, you might identify the audience and speakers in different ways.  But somewhere in the mix will be a group of people who spent 3 years in an advanced program learning to think like a lawyer.  They may be startup founders, or practicing lawyers, or law librarians, who may have done an additional advanced degree.  So if these folks can think like a lawyer, why would they need advice on how to present?

That’s a rhetorical question.  You learn a lot of things in law school – I did my time – but nobody knows everything.  Some people, however, know more and yet I’m not sure that’s always the approach the legal world adopts: what are the experts doing?

Research like a Librarian

So lawyers are thinkers, perhaps a way to embody their role as risk analysts.  Those of us who have cut our teeth in law libraries, with or without an advanced degree, are arguably better researchers than most legal professionals.  It’s not a smarts issue, it’s an access and time issue.  You get better at doing the things you do all day.  When law librarians bemoan the poor research skills of lawyers, it’s from a position of expertise.

Should lawyers think like lawyers but research like law librarians?  Sure.  That way, the vast majority of lawyers who work in practices without a dedicated researcher (law librarian, research lawyer, whatever) might be assumed to be able to find the same amount of information.  But there’s still the question of practice – both practicing research and practicing law.  It doesn’t really matter what you’ve been taught or when you were taught it – if you don’t use a skill like research (or thinking like a lawyer), it’ll weaken.

We had a team building activity recently, to which the library’s contribution was a game in which the people from other parts of our organization (not library people, for the most part) had to shelve a set of books.  A lot of lawyers were involved.  The first thing I noticed was how different each team’s approach was.  It was a fastest shelvers win objective, but some teams just split up the books and headed for the shelves while others looked them over, divvied them up, and then went out.

I couldn’t really give help but I did answer – like a well-bred librarian – some questions:  “no, you’re right, this isn’t Dewey.  Yes, you’re right, those shelving call numbers appear in 2 different parts of the library (oversized, regular).  It’s a good guess that a Tasmanian statute will be in the room marked “Australian” on the map.”

Some teams were fast and others were slow, slow enough not to get 10 books shelved in 10 minutes.  Some looked at the spine labels and immediately understood cutter numbers.  It was a challenge because not everyone is doing shelving-like information organization on a regular basis, or may not have dealt with a law library collection before.

Present like a Speaker

The tweet behind all of this was about speaking.  I’d learned to speak like a lawyer, if you will.  I’m not nearly one of my law school’s better graduates but we all took a trial advocacy course in which we were filmed, class after class.  I kept that videotape for a number of years afterward as a reminder, and I used some of those skills.  But I learned to speak like a lawyer, to audiences that often had no choice but to listen: bench trials, juries.  When my career moved away from law practice and into libraries, it was important to figure out which skills I needed to keep working on.

I’ve given a lot of talks to people, some of whom think like lawyers and research like librarians but don’t necessarily code like technologists, about technology.  My advice to any legal professional giving that kind of a talk is to do some research on how to give a presentation.  Unless it’s a skill that you have used regularly – talking to legal technology audiences, whatever that may mean – then it probably needs a bit of burnishing.  Just like legal research, there are a lot of people who have researched what works and what doesn’t, and, just like a lawyer, you need to pick through that and find what works for you and for your audience.

One comment I will make:  a lot of lawyers at legal tech events seem to wing it, either by going without slides or relying on slides that are overburdened with words.  Think like a lawyer.  If you’d put in time to practice and prepare for a client meeting or a trial, you should do the same for a presentation.  That practice and forethought – who is your audience, what are you trying to communicate – are things anyone going through law school has already been exposed to.

Code like a Programmer

Another tweet, that I can’t lay my mouse on right now, noted the new Canadian law school is planning a mandatory coding bootcamp (p5) as part of the curriculum.  I can see the attraction, and I know a lot of the people who I’ve met in relation to law practice would enjoy a course in coding.  They’d understand the input and output, the ability to deal with conditional challenges.

Ryerson’s law school in Canada is proposing a mandatory coding bootcamp.

And required courses in law school – like my trial advocacy course, or legal research and writing, or this coding course – are a great way to make sure the people who are learning to think like lawyers are exposed to other skills as well.  I wonder, though, whether exposure to programming in law school will fare any differently from other skills, after graduation.


The more I thought about advice to speakers on legal tech, the more I realized how generic my input would be.  It’s like legal research.  Or trial advocacy.  Or coding.  There’s no magic.  There are ways to do each of these things, and, in general, the people who do them the most – law librarians, litigators, developers – will do them better than those who don’t.  And those of us who have to cross over – like when I try to code some javascript or use bash – either need to find someone who has the expertise, or spend some time honing our own latent skill set.

I’m not sure telling someone how to give a good presentation – use slides v. don’t use slides, only 3 words v. no words – helps without the context of both who the presenter is and who the audience is.  Some of us ended up litigators, and others transactional lawyers, or law librarians, or what have you.  At some point, people who think like lawyers need to prepare like lawyers.  Like everyone else, they need to think about what they’re going to communicate, to whom, and practice it.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.