The Mental Fortitude Necessary to Practice Law

From the moment you start practicing law, people are going to tell you that you aren’t very good at your job. Sometimes they will be right. Sometimes they will be trying to intimidate you. Sometimes they will just be jerks.

If you aren’t prepared for this (because your law school artificially boosted your GPA, for example), you won’t be very good at being a lawyer.

It is crucial for law students — would-be lawyers, that is — to learn to deal with people telling them they aren’t very good at things. Bad grades in law school don’t make you a bad lawyer. Moping about them because you can’t deal with criticism, does.

As a first-year lawyer, all kinds of people are going to tell you that you aren’t very good at what you are doing. In fact, they will keep telling you that for years. Many of the opposing counsel I have faced during 9+ years of litigation have told me I am stupid, my client is lying and I am gullible for believing him, my claims are frivolous, and I should feel lucky if they let me voluntarily dismiss my own lawsuit with prejudice. I have been threatened with sanctions numerous times, and a few lawyers even filed the motion.

If you work for a firm, you will get the same sort of criticism, but it will mostly come from more-senior lawyers. You will probably get flak from staff and even your new-lawyer peers, too, depending on the culture of the firm in which you work.

Being a lawyer takes thick skin. (So does being a blogger, for that matter.) That’s because your job, in serving your client, is to tune out the bluster, stay cool, and make good decisions under fire.

That includes mean partners and opposing counsel who are jerks. Regardless of their tone, swearing, or insults, you have to be able to assess their criticism, decide if there is any merit to it, and respond appropriately. In order to serve your client, sometimes you have to suck it up and withdraw your motion even though opposing counsel is being a sexist pig (n.b., there are plenty of appropriate ways to deal with sexist pigs). Other times, you have to just get up and walk away. And no matter how upset you get, it is almost never a good idea to respond in kind.

I am not stupid, my clients aren’t usually lying about anything important, I don’t bring frivolous claims, and I’m not likely to voluntarily dismiss my lawsuit. Neither are you. But the practice of law is not always collegial, and withering under fire is not an option for a lawyer. Your job is to serve your client, which means controlling your emotions and responding appropriately at all times.

That’s why the argument that law students shouldn’t have to get Cs because they will feel bad seems so ridiculous to a lawyer who has actually practiced law. When your partner is making your research memo bleed red ink or opposing counsel is threatening you with sanctions, your feelings are irrelevant. Your client needs you — and your professional obligations require you — to make the right decision no matter how you feel.

Maybe there’s a reason why the saying goes “A students become professors, B students become judges, and C students become litigators.” Maybe it takes a few Cs to learn how to be a real lawyer.



  1. Avatar Marilyn says:

    Great post. I always heard “As are professors, Bs are judges, and Cs are fees.” :)

  2. Great insight Sam. As one who graduated “cum diploma” from law school and never had the “pleasure” of being in the to 5% and working at a large firm, I believe that my practical skills have been honed by necessity.

    That said, there are the few, the proud, those that are both practical thinkers and did well in law school.

    I do agree however, that a thick skin (or even skull) is a job requirement.

  3. Avatar Uzo Akpele says:


  4. Avatar Kalvinder says:

    Interesting article and perspective. But what about corporate lawyers? We are affable and attentive and our attitude is unlike any if this. Because we are focusing on the job and not disparaging others to get an advantage. Thank god I am not a litigator. I would love to be a judge but it is very unlikely and as for being a college professor I might die if sheer boredom although would love the young people’s enthusiasm as this does seem to disappear with the years. I am not that old but feel old when surrounded by litigators. They are so aggressive and not all lawyers are like this!

  5. Avatar John says:

    It took me about 10 years of practicing law to figure out that opposing counsel will lie to you, call you names, be nasty, rude, and insulting, all in an attempt to get you off track, to keep you from representing your client to the best of your ability, to prevent you from getting to the truth. Now, when I see opposing counsel becoming mean and nasty I know that I am on the right path. I now know that I have a good case, a good point, a good argument. Whenever the other side says I am making a ridiculous or unsupported point (or when they object at a deposition) I now know that I am usually on the right track. Never back down. Never.

  6. Avatar kathleenryanpc says:

    Thanks for the post, Sam. This takes me back to all of the challenging moments – in school, starting an associate position after graduating, facing opposing counsel for the first time…all of these require a very thick skin. But in the end, for many people (like myself), it’s so worth it. I really wouldn’t want to be doing anything else, and I feel very fortunate to say that.

  7. Avatar Chuck says:

    Great post. I mean, what an idiotic commentary. Just kidding. It really is an excellent commentary.

  8. Avatar David Falstad says:

    The low life behavior of opposing counsel described herein is apparently derived from civil litigation. I practice civil litigation for years before going into criminal. The ethical standards in criminal are much higher as are the standard of decorum. I would not want to go back.

  9. Avatar Timothy A. Dinan says:

    Hard lessons harden one’s resolve. The job is solving the problems of others. It requires honesty with yourself as well as your clients. It’s the essence of the practice. Every line of work has its shortcomings and parade of jerks. Being yourself and true to who you are means you’ll be more comfortable when the unpleasantness begins. That’s what I have learned over 23 years of practice. And, get your money upfront.

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