Most lawyers and law students understand that attorneys often do not have a generalized expertise. Although law school and the bar exam cover important legal topics, a number of subjects are not ordinarily covered in law school and beyond since most lawyers learn the most valuable information relevant to their practices on the job. In addition, many lawyers focus on specific areas of the law when they enter practice, since there is a competitive advantage in having a commodified expertise about a legal subject. However, many people who do not practice law seem to think that all lawyers know everything about every legal topic, and this can lead to some frustrating interactions from time to time.
Throughout the course of my career as a lawyer, major legal news stories have entered the mainstream. The Supreme Court has certainly decided some major cases in the past decade that have impacted the lives of pretty much everyone within and outside the legal profession. Moreover, many civil suits and criminal investigations have entered the mainstream news cycle and have been discussed by nonlawyers and lawyers alike. Whenever there is a major legal development that spurns the interest of nonlawyers, I get peppered with questions about those matters from people outside the legal profession who seem to think I might have a special understanding of the matter because of my legal training.
I stay far away from politics in this column, but I hope it is not too political to say that a major public figure was indicted recently in a case that has been discussed by lawyers and nonlawyers alike. After this news broke, I received a number of questions from nonlawyers about the proceedings. Some of the questions asked about really specific aspects of state procedural law that I would have absolutely no idea how to answer, even though I practice law in the state in which the indictment occurred. Other questions asked about statute of limitations, preemption, and other matters that I had a vague idea about but about which I could not really offer an honest opinion.
When I was asked these questions, I generally replied that I did not practice criminal law so I couldn’t really offer a solid answer to any of these questions. The response I usually received was that I was a lawyer and criminal law must have surely been taught in law school, on the bar exam, or both. Most people did not understand that there was a separate bar of individuals that practice criminal law, and as someone who has never handled a criminal matter bigger than a speeding ticket, I could not offer any answers to questions about this news event.
The other types of cases that often prompt questions from nonlawyers involve Supreme Court decisions. Usually, people will ask why the Supreme Court ruled a certain way or ask me about broader areas of constitutional law. I’ll admit, I do feel a little bit more confident answering questions about constitutional law. I took two classes on the subject in law school and brushed up on the topic while studying for the bar exam. Moreover, federal constitutional law does not change state to state, so there is no state procedural rule or some other kind of particularity that I might not know that can impact the analysis.
However, I have not studied constitutional law in over a decade, so my understanding of constitutional law principles is pretty stale. Moreover, I rarely read Supreme Court decisions, since the opinions are extremely long, and I need to read other court opinions most days for my regular job. As a result, I am not qualified to offer opinions about Supreme Court decisions and answer questions that nonlawyers may have about the opinions. Furthermore, even if a question about constitutional law is pretty basic, I confess that it has been a while since I picked up a horn book, so I might just not remember the correct answer.
I am sure that the phenomenon of lay people thinking that professionals know more than their actual field of expertise is commonplace not just in the legal industry. Perhaps physicians, accountants, and other professionals also need to contend with this misconception. If anyone has any ideas about why people seem to think lawyers know far more information than they actually do, I would love to hear any opinions, I’m genuinely curious. However, until this misconception is debunked, lawyers like me will need to let nonlawyers down lightly about the limited scope of our legal expertise.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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