Your Brain, Law School, and Law Practice: Present and Future

August is a fresh start for students as well as graduates starting new jobs.  Before you lose that feeling of excitement, let’s consider how to plan for a better future in small steps. 

The Power of the Present

I have talked before about the brain’s inability to engage in accurate forecasting of our future selves.  It leads us, for example, to procrastinate because we think that our future selves will magically be able to handle the task later (on the weekend, after the weekend, tomorrow, next week - just not today).  Of course, that inevitably leaves us with the same skill set, but less time and more anxiety at the deadline.  

It turns out that we are as bad as astrologers when we try to see into our own future.  In brief, humans seem to be too mired in present reality to accurately foretell how our future selves might be different (or not).  But why should we be so off base when nobody knows us better?   Research is abundant and the reasons varied.  The psychologists who study this penchant for bad prediction label it “affective forecasting.”  Two leading researchers are Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, who have collaborated on a number of scientific papers exploring it.  For a commercial size sample, watch Dan Gilbert use an aspect of the theory to explain why we often do not save for our retirement in the present, thus exponentially increasing the likelihood of a difficult future. 

Focus on Future You

Our poor prognostication skills can affect our decision-making, often in negative ways.   So it is helpful to understand it, even as we inevitably fall into its clutches occasionally.  For example, our human desire to seek pleasure or, at a minimum, to avoid present difficult tasks may lead a student to pursue the easiest route to getting through the law school day (e.g., skimming a case, reading a canned brief, or avoiding difficult classes).  This strategy limits your long-term ability to master the law and acquire the skills of a good lawyer.  Remember that the ultimate goal is providing quality representation to your clients.  You do not want to end up with a law degree but without the skills to practice.

I speak from experience.  One law school class I avoided was trial practice.  Despite the prevalence of television courtroom dramas, I could never envision myself examining witnesses and giving closing arguments to a jury.  I feared public speaking, as most members of the public do.   Ironically, as life happened, one of my first jobs after law school involved trial work and it would have been helpful to have acquired some of these skills off the job.  Even if I had ended up in a non-litigation job, I would have benefitted from learning how to think on my feet and use the law and facts to create arguments.  In my later life as a law professor, I am always thrilled to see my students at moot court and mock trial willing to take risks in the process of learning the craft. 

We tend to be biased toward the present, so it is helpful to self-correct by reminding yourself that in the future, you will be representing a person in legal difficulty and will need to be well prepared.  It might lead you to take a different path occasionally.  Focus on classes and skills that will give you the best training for law, not the best schedule for this semester.  If you are already on the job, take on the challenges to learn that job, not just the comfortable parts.  Make a list of the skills that will be necessary to succeed and then fashion a plan to master the list. 

“Future you” is More Adaptable Than “Present You” Thinks

Immune neglect is the term for overestimating how long and intense our negative response to an emotional event will be.  According to the research, if many of my imagined fears of taking trial practice had come to pass, “my psychological immune system” would have made the appropriate adjustments.  The imagination is often much more vivid than reality, but if I had entirely forgotten my closing argument, I would have lived to tell and maybe embellished the story in later years.  The knowledge of this response has gotten me through much larger traumas later in life as I clung to the correct perception that a particular intense present emotion would dissipate over time, and I would adapt to the new circumstances. 

They Are Just Not That into You

Finally, your emotional ups and downs as you navigate law school and a new job are not necessarily visible to others.  So do not forsake an opportunity because of what others might think of you as you take a calculated risk and occasionally fail.  Chances are that the others are thinking about their own lives and problems and paying little attention to your emotional state.  We often live too much in our own heads, thinking that others have access to our thoughts and experiences. That can be a problem in legal practice generally, and I will talk about the availability bias in a future post. 

If you are reluctant to participate in class or go out and network because you fear the reactions of others, know that most studies show that people simply don’t care and are not paying much attention to your inner turmoil.  Maybe that is a problem in some ways, but it is one less worry for you.

For more on affective forecasting, I recommend one of my favorite books, Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert.  

Marybeth Herald is a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and author of Your Brain and Law School.


Julie Cummings

I loved your advice—again! I especially like the reminder that we often live our lives too much inside of our head thinking everyone can read our thoughts. I read something last year that prompted me to be more diligent about shunning many of my own negative thoughts in this area. The gist was that we do not have heads of see-through glass where people can look into our brains and see what our emotion or thought is. I liked that visual reminder and now try to check myself when I begin acting like people must know what I’m thinking or feeling. It’s hard to do, but helps improve confidence.

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