War Stories

Yesterday, as part of our weekly faculty workshop series, we hosted Professor Julie Oseid of the University of St. Thomas. Her presentation was entitled “Show Me the Way: Mentoring Lawyers Through War Stories.” As the title suggests, her project is to consider, and to some extent justify, the use of war stories in legal education and more generally as a way to integrate new lawyers into the profession. Despite the fact that she was going head-to-head with Bud Selig, roughly twenty of our colleagues showed up to hear Julie’s thought-provoking talk.

For me, the topic ties in with some of the other discussions taking place on this blog, and elsewhere, concerning just how it is that we should go about the business of creating lawyers. I’m with Dean Strang in believing that technical proficiency is a necessary but hardly sufficient condition to being a good lawyer. Reflectiveness, judgment, and (this one is vastly underrated, in my view) creativity all have a role to play, along with some number of less tangible qualities.

Stories can help us pass along some of that information.

One of the things I think we in law schools could do a better job of, for example, is giving students a sense of the norms of social interaction in the professional world. This is especially true for those who come to law school from a background in which they had little exposure to lawyers or other professionals.

I was such a student, and vividly recall the depths of my cluelessness in the early months of practice. I’ll never forget the first time I had a meeting with a client, which was set to take place at his office. He had a very northern European sounding name, and the sort of title that I’ve since learned to recognize as standard corporate gobbledy-gook, but which seemed mighty impressive to me at the time. I pretty much figured I was going to meet some version of that guy who narrates the Lexus commercials, and I had no idea how I was supposed to interact with him. Plus, I still wasn’t all that confident that I knew what I was doing as a lawyer. “Anxious” would be an understated way to describe how I felt. And I wouldn’t object to “scared.”

Those of you who’ve been around the block can see where this is headed. My client turned out to be a native Minnesotan who wasn’t more than a decade older than me and was sporting a fresh black eye from taking an elbow on the basketball court. What I imagined would be his palatial office, jealously guarded by a David Spade-like assistant, was — there’s no other word for it — a cubicle. I could relate to him just fine.

This is not, of course, to suggest that there aren’t norms governing professional interaction. My worries were appropriate, just misplaced. There are norms for such interaction, and indeed every time I get an inartfully phrased e-mail from a student I think about whether I ought not only to answer the student’s request but also point out, with as much tact as I can, that if they send a message with that sort of tone to a certain sort of client or senior lawyer it won’t be well received. (Sometimes I do this. I should probably do it more. Happily most of the student e-mail I receive doesn’t present this problem.)

All of which is meant to suggest that this is one of the values of stories. Some of our students grew up with lawyers and doctors and businesspeople all around, and so interacting with them is not that big a deal. Many did not. For them, there is (or at least ought to be) another source of anxiety as they embark on their legal careers. It’s the sort of thing we could do more to prepare them for, and stories (including, perhaps, the one that I just shared) are a good way to do it.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jessica E. Slavin

    Chad, as another lawyer who as a student who desperately needed and wanted transmission of that kind of social knowledge in law school, I very much agree with all you’ve said here. I wish I could have attended that workshop yesterday.

  2. Melissa Greipp

    I very much enjoyed Professor Julie Oseid’s presentation to the faculty on war stories.

    In private practice as a litigator, I was lucky to work with attorneys who valued telling war stories. Litigators have a reputation for telling war stories, and the firm where I worked was no exception. I learned a lot from listening to the war stories of the accomplished senior attorneys at the firm. I learned about how to develop a theory of the case that persuades. I learned about how to expect the unexpected. Most of all, I learned about the human element of the practice of law–that someone’s real life story is at the core of each case.

    I also learned from listening to the war stories of my counterparts–the other newer attorneys at the firm and my friends from law school. Sharing war stories made me feel part of a group. But it did something even more important: it allowed me to bounce ideas off of my colleagues and test my theories and practice ideas before going to court, deposition, or whatever it was that I was working on at the moment. Law practice should not be done in isolation. The law and the way a person practices law are meant to be discussed, hashed out, argued over. Telling war stories is a way to reach out to other lawyers to engage in valuable discussion.

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