Are legal lessons learned in the trenches more valuable than those learned in law school?
Is law school learning always practical? According to Albert Einstein, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
During our first week at McGill University’s law school in Montreal, a librarian gave us a guided tour of the law library. During the tour, suddenly, I heard a “Pssst.” I looked over and a gentleman—one Duncan, a post-graduate student from England—pulled me aside for a chat. “Henceforth, as a man of justice, you will never view life’s events from the perspective that lay people do,” Duncan said.
I felt spooked. Was this a blessing or a curse?
I remember our first torts class. We studied an 1800s British case, Winterbottom v. Wright. Winterbottom was a postal coach driver who sued Wright, whose job it was to repair coaches, after Winterbottom sustained injuries he attributed to Wright’s faulty repair of the vehicle. He sued Wright but lost, as the court ruled there was no privity of contract between him and the repairman. Wright owed no duty to Winterbottom. Badda boom. Badda bing. (The latter are my judicial words.)
At the end of the class, I was proud of my new acquired knowledge, knowing I was on my way to becoming a lawyer.
That evening I shared my progress with my father, who was helping me fund tuition. Eyebrows raised, he said, “Is that all you learned today? Those horse-drawn coaches are dangerous. Anyways, these days a truck delivers the mail.”
I certainly did not view it from that perspective.
Shortly afterward, we came across the iconic 1700s property case, Armory v. Delamirie, in which a chimney sweep, Armory, found a piece of jewelry. He took it for an appraisal to jeweler Delamirie, who removed the gems from their setting. When Armory asked the jeweler to return the piece, Delamirie refused to return the stones. Armory sued. The court held for the plaintiff, noting that finder’s rights are paramount to all other than the rightful owner. In effect, possession is nine-tenths of the law.
I was exuberant with my knowledge of property law. I told my dad. He took a puff of his cigarette and said, “This is what they teach you in law school? That’s obvious. That chimney sweep should never have let the piece out of his sight. Some jewelers are crooks.”
I certainly did not view it from that perspective.
We soon studied the seminal 1932 negligence case of Donoghue v. Stevenson, in which the plaintiff at a cafe in Scotland noticed a decomposed snail in her pale- colored ginger beer after pouring it into a tumbler out of an opaque bottle. She became ill after drinking it and successfully sued the manufacturer. The court affirmed that negligence was a tort, and that the manufacturer owed a duty of care to its potential consumers.
This case was huge, but I felt uneasy and decided not to share it with my dad. I did not want to risk disrupting my funding chain. My father, however, sensed my anxiety and asked me what I had learned that day. I quickly gave him a short case summary. He said, “Interesting. That lady would never even have seen that snail had she been drinking Pepsi.”
My dad’s kind funding assistance continued uninterrupted.
But does this exciting academic inculcation prepare us sufficiently for practice in the real world? The next stage after law school was articling at a law firm. A seasoned trial lawyer named Hank interviewed me.
I proudly handed him my law school transcript, showing great grades—the highest being an A in admiralty (maritime) law. Hank chuckled and said, “Next time two ships collide on the streets of downtown Toronto, you’ll be the first person I’ll call.”
He ripped the transcript in two. I was taken aback. I felt like my legal career had just sailed into the Bermuda Triangle. I suddenly had empathy for Winterbottom.
Hank continued. “Forget about what they taught you in law school. The real world of justice is monumentally different. You’ll learn that quickly. Welcome to the firm,” he said.
Hank explained it was all about reading people, knowing what makes them tick, and showing respect and civility.
“When you go to the courthouse to file a document, there will always be a clerk with a bushy moustache who will give you a tough time and impulsively reject it,” he added. “There will also be some woman with a ponytail who will bend over backward to accept it. It won’t help if you tell either you earned an A in admiralty.”
I recall my first couple of courthouse attendances to file documents. Though I looked around carefully, I never spotted either the guy with the bushy moustache or the lady with the ponytail. But I quickly learned whom to approach or avoid.
Throughout the year, Hank kept on stressing this theme. He would say, “Above all, know your judges. Believe it or not, they’re human like us.”
This lesson was invaluable. However, during my early days in practice, I did not always follow Hank’s advice. Once I pled a client guilty to a charge of automobile joyriding. Given the client’s previous clean record and young age, I expected him to get a suspended sentence or a small fine. To my surprise, the judge hit him with 90 days in the slammer.
Dejected, I called Hank about advice regarding an appeal. After mentioning the judge’s name, he laughed and said, “Didn’t you know, about a year ago some fool took off with Judge Graham’s new Corvette, wrecking it beyond repair? What you did is you brought the little piggy to the wolf.”
Thereafter, I virtually always meticulously researched my judges.
I later had a guilty plea in a drunk driving matter. It was the client’s second offense, and that usually called for some incarceration. Our judge was a former navy vice admiral. I learned he had a soft spot for sailors and things oceanic. As it happened, my client was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I just knew I had to appeal to the judge’s instincts for justice (the pertinent ones, of course).
If only I could say something like, “My client is a former midshipman. His joy is to sail the seven seas. He loves reading and his favorite novel is Moby Dick.”
But alas, my submission went something like, “Billy was born in Halifax. He came to central Canada looking for a better future. He would like soon to visit his parents, who still live on the east coast. … He is remorseful for his misdeed …”
The judge listened attentively. As he pondered sentence disposition, I wondered how much further I could push the justice envelope. I resisted the temptation to dance a quick hornpipe.
To my surprise, the judge said, “This is a serious matter. However, given all the circumstances, the court will give the Maritimer a break.” After a stern rebuke, he hit him only with a high fine.
I certainly did not credit my successful result to my A in admiralty.
I told Hank about the case, and he gave me a thumbs up. I then related the case to my father, mentioning Hank’s wise advice. He said to me, “That’s obvious. Didn’t they teach you all that in law school?”
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit MarcelsHumour.com and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.