I’m Not a Lawyer, But What I Learned in Law School Helps Me Every Day

Posted on March 8, 2023

A scene from the sitcom "The Goldbergs" with the caption "I'm considering getting my law degree."

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Erin Krause Riley, Adult Services Coordinator for the Scottsdale Public Library. Connect with Erin on LinkedIn and Twitter.

What I’m Reading: The 8th Detective by Alex Pavesi (I’m almost done, and the plot is pulling me along as I read.) I just finished We All Want Impossible Things by Katherine Newman, which is totally different but also lovely. 

What I’m Watching: I’m loving Shrinking, especially as I wait for the third season of Ted Lasso

A Hobby I’ve Rediscovered is: Sewing – especially mending by hand, which I’ve been inspired to do after seeing pictures of Sashiko mending on denim. I do it while I’m watching Shrinking

I have a law degree, but I am not a lawyer. I graduated law school in the dark ages of 2008, into a historically bad economy. Entry level law jobs were hard to come by, especially in the public sector, where I hoped to work as an advocate for women and children. But that wasn’t in the cards for me. I have never worked as a lawyer, unless you count my clinic time in school. Every once in a while, I wonder what it would have been like to wear the chic suit, go to court, and be an advocate, but it’s like thinking of what your life would have been like if you married your college sweetheart – all daydream and no substance – and I’m not one to daydream for too long.

But none of this means that I’m sorry I went to law school. On the contrary, I use what I learned in those three years every day in a rigorous course of study which trained me to think carefully and critically. It is a great education for life in local government because the skills you learn translate so well to public service.

Close reading paired with critical thinking is essential

This seems pretty obvious when you think about all of the reports and emails and meeting minutes you pore over every day. You not only have to know exactly what they say, you have to know exactly what they mean in a sophisticated and nuanced way in order to make the best possible decisions. That’s why I’m so glad I learned to do really close reading in my Contract Law class. Contracts require line by line understanding so that your client doesn’t make any unwanted or unintentional agreements. Critical thinking comes in when each element of the contract is carefully examined in isolation. When the management team of the library proposed a fine free policy, we had to really understand our current rules and regulations around fines through close reading and understand what we might be giving up if we dropped them by applying critical thinking. 

Opposing arguments have merits

Reading cases from completed trials is also a good way to learn that both sides of a case can have excellent arguments. I remember when I was a One L, I would read the argument of a plaintiff and be completely convinced that they were the injured party. Then I read the defendant’s argument and saw that the plaintiff had it all wrong. But they couldn’t both be right… or could they? One of the things I still carry with me from law school is the idea that opposing arguments can each have their merits, so I try to see both sides to every story. 

When we first proposed the fine free idea, it was hard to think about what could be wrong with it, because we had such a strong argument for the benefit to the community through increased access. But people who were against the idea had good arguments too. There would be a loss of revenue and some people suggested that it would be impossible to induce people to return their materials on time without the threat of fines. Giving each side credit for their sound arguments led to some compromises in the fine free proposal and eventually made the new policy stronger. 

Evidence matters

To persuade people to try something new or to rethink the way they are doing something, you have to present evidence that supports your idea. At the library, we make data-driven decisions. When choices are based on evidence, and those decisions are questioned, as they always will be in the public sector, say at the library board meeting, or by public comment, we can produce not only the rationale for a decision, but the evidence that supports that way of thinking. 


The fine free discussion was also a great example of using evidence to support a claim. The idea of dropping fines started as a strong feeling among our management team members that it would be a great way to increase our value to the community by breaking down barriers to access to materials and services. To get the idea accepted by the library board and the city council, however, we had to present more than just a gut instinct and good intentions. We studied the results of other libraries going fine free, and presented evidence about increased usage and negligible loss of revenue. We shared statistics about the increase in the return of materials when library users weren’t worried about having to pay to bring their materials back. Ultimately, the evidence we presented swayed the board and council, and the library dropped fines for late materials in 2020. Since then, we’ve been able to present follow up evidence that our library’s statistics match the claims we made. And anecdotal evidence tells the story of users who came back to the library because they were no longer put off by the threat of fines. 

The decision to go fine free is just one example of how I’ve applied what I learned in law school. I wouldn’t trade the education I received because I use those skills and so many others every day working in local government. I still might want to wear a chic suit to work one day, though…

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