Biglaw life can often seem like one big exercise in trying to get your mind around new and complicated concepts. It starts immediately—on your first deal, on your first case—and it never stops. You’re constantly challenged to take on more responsibility and tackle more complex challenges.
Fortunately, most Biglaw lawyers are good at research and figuring things out. They tend to pick new concepts up quickly and easily—which can be a huge asset, given Biglaw workloads and timelines. But when you have a facility for picking things up quickly and easily, and you’re also under intense time pressure, you can be at risk for short-circuiting your own learning process—for assuming that you understand a concept “well enough” and moving on prematurely.
In order for you to be able to deploy and rely upon your understanding of a new, complicated concept in forming your best legal analysis for clients in light of the unique facts they face, you need a deep and well-rounded conceptual understanding of the topic at hand. You need to understand not only the headline rules and ideas, but how and why they work. What exceptions might exist, and how they might apply to a novel set of facts.
That’s why I believe it’s incredibly important that, when trying to get your mind around a new and difficult concept, you test your understanding before moving on. And in my experience, there’s no better test for whether or not you truly understand a new or difficult concept than this: trying to explain it to someone else.
Explain It to Someone
I think it’s easy for smart people to read someone else’s explanation on a research topic—a law firm memo, a hornbook, a PLC article—and think, “Ok—I’ve got it.” But it’s one thing to understand someone else’s words; it’s entirely another to be able find your own. Nothing reveals the flaws and gaps in your understanding better than trying to describe a topic, conceptually, in your own words.
But it’s one thing to understand someone else’s words; it’s entirely another to be able find your own. Nothing reveals the flaws and gaps in your understanding better than trying to describe a topic, conceptually, in your own words.
So next time you’re getting up to speed on a new concept and think you have a handle on it, stick your head in a colleague’s office and try to explain it to them. If that’s not an option, explain it to an imaginary audience. But in either case, actually say it out loud. I mean it. Force yourself to find your own words, and see how it goes. On your first try, you’re almost guaranteed to get tripped up and find some holes in your understanding to fill. Odds are it’ll be the trickiest, most confusing points. And when you fill those gaps, those points will stick in your head that much better because they will be contextualized in your memory by a real conversation you were actually having.
Loyal readers should be sensing a theme here. At a high level, this notion resonates with a number of points we’ve made in prior posts about contextualized learning and letting your own work product be your guide, such as the discussion of “The Unknowns” in our “Best Training” post, our process of asking the right questions in our “To Ask, or Not to Ask” post, and last week’s post on “Just Getting Started.”
There’s a reason these things keep coming up. This stuff works. And it’s central to your development. I began using the trick described above during my clerkship—trying unravel all the little strains and wrinkles of federal habeas law—and it served me well throughout my time at the firm. I know it will serve you well, too.