For those old enough to remember the movie “The Paper Chase”, featuring the extraordinary actor John Houseman as Professor Kingston at Harvard Law School, there’s an infamous moment. He questions a student, James Hart, on a specific case. Hart responds, “I have nothing relevant to add, and when I do, I will let you know.” Professor Kingston then wittily retorts, “Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.” While my experience isn’t cinematic, it was a profound catalyst for change.
I attended New York Law School in the evenings due to financial constraints and the need to work during the day to cover expenses. Balancing work, late-night classes, and the daily demands of life meant making tough choices, often sacrificing sleep or study time.
My previous success in undergraduate studies led me to somewhat underestimate the discipline required for law school. Even if aiming for the bare minimum, law required significant dedication.
During the first year, I, like many others, took courses like Contracts. Anticipating my first class, I expected to employ the same strategy I used in college: review as much as possible, ensuring reasonable preparation. However, the demanding hours took a toll, often cutting into my study time.
Enter Professor James Brook, our instructor for Contracts 101—a strikingly nerdy individual with characteristic black-rimmed glasses, and boasting a Harvard education. On the first day, he called on a student sitting right next to me, expecting insights on a pre-assigned case. When she admitted her lack of preparation, he remained silent. I had assumed, given the 100 or so students in the class, he wouldn’t call on someone seated adjacent to the unprepared student. Yet, just moments later, he called on me. Feeling a bit like Hart in *The Paper Chase*, I confessed, “I’m not prepared.”
Professor Brook removed his glasses, sternly reminding me of my obligation to the class, to myself, and to him. That was my guillotine moment. From that day, I came prepared for every one of Professor Brook’s classes. He even kindled an appreciation for contracts within me, despite my initial reservations. As a twist to the story, the initially unprepared student next to me later became a Supreme Court Judge in New York.
The paramount lesson? The power of thorough preparation.
The Power of Preparation Beyond the Courtroom
Diving deep into legal textbooks and preparing for witness questioning always demanded rigorous preparation, especially when these witnesses held expertise in areas I wasn’t deeply familiar with, like medicine or construction. This in-depth readiness guaranteed not only successful cross-examinations but also peer and court respect.
Yet, as my career progressed, I realized that my responsibilities extended beyond the courtroom. A lawyer’s success also hinges on client relationships.
I often advise young lawyers to fully understand their clients, delving beyond case specifics. Get to know their personal history, educational background, current family dynamics, and future aspirations. Such information not only strengthens the attorney-client bond but equips lawyers for better representation.
Clients value attorneys who genuinely care. When you recall personal details about them, it reinforces trust and shows that they’re more than just a case number. This personalized approach distinguishes exceptional lawyers from merely good ones.
Embrace preparation. Whether you’re cross-examining a witness or having a heart-to-heart with a client, your investment in preparation reaps dividends—not just in case outcomes but in lasting relationships.
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