Telling Yourself What to Do (Guest post by Jennifer Murphy Romig)

Today, we’re proud to bring you this guest post by Jennifer Murphy Romig, Professor of Practice at Emory Law School.

“A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge. This transition between doing what you’re told and telling yourself what to do generally occurs midway through a dissertation. In many ways, it is the most difficult and terrifying thing that a student can do, and being unable or unwilling to do it is much of what weeds people out of Ph.D. programs.”

—Hope Jahren, Lab Girl, Chapter 8

When—if ever—does a lawyer transition from “doing what she’s told” to “telling herself what to do”?

In one way, never. The client reigns supreme, right?

The lawyer cannot “generate wholly new knowledge” for the sake of contributing to civilization like a scientist. This is one essential difference between practicing lawyers and law professors: law professors can identify an issue, explore it, and write scholarship, advocacy, blogs, op-eds, and so on—even if no client would ever pay them to do that.

The lawyer, however, takes clients as they are and does what they need.

Once the client’s objectives are clear, does a lawyer ask for directions on how to get from point A to point B? Junior lawyers indeed do so. When learning a new practice area with new colleagues and new clients, junior lawyers are correct to seek advice.

At some point, however, this strategy becomes stale. Many professionals do not wish to continue following directions their entire career. The lawyer who seeks to gain autonomy and professional success must design and formulate sensible and, yes, creative methods for reaching clients’ goals. In other words, the most effective lawyers do tell themselves what to do.

A recent paper on self-directed learning in law school quotes a framework for this process:

  1. Dependent Stage: This is a passive stage where students lack insight on goals and are highly dependent on others.
  2. Interested Stage: At this stage students see self-interest in professional development and are willing to engage mentors or coaches on goal setting. Students have some initiative to learn competencies.
  3. Involved Stage: Students are committed to professional development and seek insight from mentors or coaches on goal setting. Students internalize their motivation, standard of excellence, and learning competencies.
  4. Self-Directed Stage: Students are intrinsically motivated to professional development and are proactive in goal-setting, strategies and are working with mentors or coaches. Students seek and reflect on feedback, challenges, and internalized standard of excellence in all competencies.

(Source: Larry Gantt and Benjamin Madison, Self-Directedness and Professional Identity: Connecting Two Critical Concepts in Legal Education (quoting the stages of learning framed by Gerald Grow in an article on adult learning)).

In looking at this framework, we can distinguish self-directed learning from self-directed professional work itself. A law student could be intrinsically motivated and proactive at seeking a lifelong career as a patent lawyer. That doesn’t mean that student would be able to draft a patent strategically, efficiently, and independently for idiosyncratic clients right then and there.

Hope Jahren writes that the transition to “telling yourself what to do” happens for scientists in the middle of their dissertation. I argue here that this transition—moving into telling yourself what to do—occurs several years into law practice for almost all attorneys. (The “practice-ready” movement in law school is important and valuable, but will never fully suffice. Law practice varies too widely.)

In the spirit of #PracticeTuesday, I think the big question is: what does a lawyer need to do to make the transition from following directions to telling herself what to do?

Finding the right supervisors, mentors, and sponsors is a key step. The senior partner who gives you your first negotiation or motion to argue is precious indeed. Working effectively within the office is just as crucial. One successful partner told me he practices the Socratic method. When an associate comes in with questions, he uses questions to guide them toward answering it on their own. And eventually, “they stop coming in.”

Sean and Rachel have written about seeking pro bono work and other opportunities to serve the public good while representing clients and, yes, gaining experience. I’ve written about legal blogging, and public legal writing more generally, as a forum for saying what you want to say unencumbered by particular client expectations.

Asking people how they do what they do is a possibly helpful approach. But some of the best experts out there telling themselves what to do and performing at a high level may not be able to articulate how they do their jobs so well. Or they may offer platitudes or overly general clichéd advice. (See this post on the difference between what experts do, and what they say they do.) Platitudes about practice are not the same as real knowledge about how to be excellent.

Some attorneys on #AppellateTwitter have talked about going to court to watch the experts in the field at work. That’s a good idea, with some limitations. Watching someone else perform is not as good a learning experience as engaging in in “deliberate practice” with meaningful feedback.

Insisting that supervisors give feedback on work performance is one way to strive for the “deliberate practice” ideal. And even if feedback is not available, a good attorney can critically reflect on every practice experience to try to get more out of it, building strength and honing optional strategies for the future.

All of these methods can help a lawyer move toward skillful, self-directed representation of clients.

But with the right circumstances, a lawyer may actually be able to reach beyond that goal. The most effective lawyers actually do more than just what clients tell them to do.

What does a client actually “need”? In meeting with an individual client who wants to start a costly long-shot of a lawsuit, a skillful lawyer may gently question the client’s stated objective. They may help two warring parties see a third path to negotiate seemingly insurmountable differences. They may lay out options for a client that the client never considered or considered and rejected for the wrong reasons. They can educate less sophisticated clients, but also help sophisticated clients question their ingrained beliefs about legal strategy. They may refer clients to—gasp!—other lawyers and firms who can do certain work more effectively.

This excellent representation of clients may lead to repeat business and referrals. And a stable of established clients in turn can give a lawyer the economic security to turn down bad clients. It can also confer economic clout within a law firm, and thus a voice in firm management and strategy, or the ability to leave.

This is an idealistic trajectory, and the reality is that it doesn’t happen for most. But just as some PhD students survive the attrition and become knowledge-generating scientists, some lawyers do reach the nirvana of telling themselves what to do.


Jennifer Romig teaches legal writing and legal blogging at Emory Law School. She blogs on listening skills for lawyers, law students, and legal professionals at Follow her on Twitter for legal writing at @JenniferMRomig and for lawyering and communication at @ListenLikeaLwyr.


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