Last week I had the privilege to talk to an independent study group of 3rd year law students at Duke Law about LGBT Law, and particularly about life and estate planning for domestic partners. While it has been almost 17 years since I graduated from law school, it was a big reminder that law school provides a lot of legal information and “trains the brain,” but it actually does very little to teach students the practical areas of law and being an attorney. As I looked back on my years of law school versus my years as an attorney, I had a few observations:

  • Law School screws up your brain, and you will never think the same way again. The valedictorian from my law school the year before I graduated gave his address to the class and told the story of how he was watching The Little Mermaid with his daughter just a few weeks before. What should have been a simple time of enjoying a Disney movie with his child inevitably turned to his mind checking off all of the reasons why the contract between Ariel and Sea Hag was legally “unconscionable” and therefore unenforceable. So while I enjoy watching the occasional crime drama, I can’t help but pick out how the shows often get pieces of criminal procedure wrong.
  • The legal documents of Wills, powers of attorney, and even a few moments of talking about revocable living trusts, and all of the cases that went along with it only served to illustrate the weird and bizarre extremes in this world like a sort of three-year-long, extremely high-priced Ripley’s Believe It or Not exhibit that included exams and written case studies. I remember a case when two partners had an attorney create Wills where they gave everything to each other, and they were properly signed, witnessed, and notarized. Years later one partner passed on leaving everything, including family business stock, to his partner. However, the Wills had rambled on and on about the feelings the partners had for each other, so the judge declared the Wills void because “no man could think these thoughts about another man and be considered of sound mind.” Yes, the case was from many years ago, but I still rigidly keep feelings out of formal, legal estate planning documents. But nothing in that or any of the other cases taught me what to put in a Will or Trust… only what not to put in them.
  • It’s probably because law school twists the brain to think a certain way, but most attorneys can’t talk to their clients. By immersing themselves in laws, rules, regulations, and theoretical minutia, many lawyers lose the common speaking skills their parents and grade school teachers tried to give them. It’s as if attorneys have to cite a section of the U.S. Code or a court of appeals case every fourth sentence or their brain will melt. This is one of the reasons why people hate going to lawyers, but it’s also one of those things that sets me apart from many other estate planning attorneys. I can actually speak in plain English with my clients, describe concepts easily, and, with the help of a legal pad, draw out how things will work. Of course, maintaining my speaking skills is one of the reasons I try to avoid talking to other lawyers whenever possible.

And so I wish those Duke Law students well as they approach graduation, and hopefully I was able to give them a little of the practical side of life and estate planning. But when they step off the graduation stage, the real education of becoming an attorney will begin.