Kim Wehle is a law professor, lawyer, and former CBS News legal analyst. She is the author of What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why and the upcoming book, How to Think Like a Lawyer—and Why. The following is an excerpt from an essay, penned by Wehle, which originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Tracy Anderson Magazine, available now for digital download and print orders.
As I explain in my forthcoming book, How to Think Like a Lawyer and Why—A Common-Sense Guide to Everyday Dilemmas, law—like life—is rarely black and white. So there’s much about thinking like a lawyer that can be brought to bear on everyday dilemmas, particularly if they involve strong feelings and entrenched beliefs. One of the elements of today’s polarization is our almost knee-jerk instinct to dig into our beliefs when they are challenged. Almost like loyalty to a sports team, we root for our political team instinctively, sometimes regardless of the merits and nuances of the issue at hand. But that kind of reactive thinking isn’t optimal in complex situations. Deciding whether to take a job across the country, whether to have elective surgery, or whether to rent or purchase a home are knotty questions with lots of pros and cons. If taking that job would up-end a partner’s career, it’s important to understand the partner’s concerns fully, and with compassion, if the couple is to have any chance of making a decision with buy-in from both people, thereby minimizing resentment down the line.
So how do you think like a lawyer in resolving the inevitable problems and conflicts that come up in everyday life?
Well, for starters, it’s important to recognize that there are usually two sides to every coin. Slow down, take a breath, and try to consider the downsides of what your heart or gut or loyalties are telling you to do. Research shows that extreme reactivity—either positively through excitement or negatively through fear—produces a surge of “fight or flight” hormones that sends us into an altered cognitive state for around 20 minutes. So if that’s you one day, take some time to let your body get back to a state of equilibrium before you send the reactive email or make the angry phone call or excitedly sign on the dotted line.
Then, once you are in a place to weigh the options thoughtfully, do so only after making a list of your own values. The focus on “values” is a concept that many of us assume is already very clear in our minds, but rarely is. Before you make a big decision, take out a piece of paper and literally write down what you value. Is it honesty? Integrity? Frugality? Spontaneity? The values that matter to you in one situation might be different from those that matter in another. The point is to make a list of tie-breakers before you are mired in a complex problem. Your value system can provide that last straw for you when you are torn over a complex dilemma.
One final point about the myth that lawyers are only out to win. Oftentimes, the task of a lawyer is to deliver to clients news they don’t want to hear. Maybe the facts are not good, or the law isn’t promising, or the path is too risky. Clients need to understand that they might not get everything they want through the legal system. Life is exactly the same way. In figuring out how to live with that reality, one value comes to mind: gratitude for what we do have.
For me personally, gratitude is the value that often provides the path out of the darkness and into the light. It’s not a legal concept, but one that bears great power as we struggle through the vagaries of life.