You Think You're So Smart

I remember a professor in law school, obviously very, very bright, whose glib, rapid-fire presentations were so dazzling he intimidated all of us who supped at his table of knowledge. Wow, I thought, so this is what law is all about; discussing elusive concepts in polysyllabic words at such a high intellectual level that everyone who listens is completely bewildered. That’s what it must take to be a good lawyer. I would leave each of his classes confused and intimidated, convinced I could never play on the same field as he and his peers.

What I have come to understand over the years is that I was completely wrong. So, in his own way, was my professor. The qualities a good lawyer can clarify, not confuse. Being able to take the complex and to make it understandable is what distinguishes the exceptional from the ordinary.

The first time I recollect learning this was many years ago when I practiced with the Public Defender’s Office in the District of Columbia. We were twenty, young, enthusiastic lawyers, all equally inexperienced. We prided ourselves in working on the side of the angels, defending the downtrodden and disadvantaged, but because of our inexperience we had almost no judgment. We pushed every issue, whether earthshattering or inconsequential, with the same barrage of high volume hyperbole, so much so that judges regarded us like the boy who cried wolf. They had a hard time culling our serious issues from the trivial and we didn’t help them.

One of my fellow public defenders was a former clerk to the late Justice Brennan. Though equally inexperienced, he understood more than the rest of us; he saw more of the field and knew better how the pieces fit together.

The topic at a training session was eyewitness identification. A factual scenario was outlined which, with typical enthusiasm, we young Turks attacked with machine gun rapidity, never considering how advancing a tactic on one flank could impact to our detriment on another. The specifics of the discussion have been blurred by memory, but I remember that about twenty minutes into a heated discussion Brennan’s former clerk defined the issues, cast the problem in a new light and resolved the discussion all in one blow. And he did it all by asking a single simple question. The brilliance of his insight brought it all together in an understandable way.

That one question was worth all the murky waters I had spent three years trying to swim through in law school. So then, maybe being intelligent didn’t mean talking big words or abstract concepts; it was making things understandable.

I had a similar experience, also in the District of Columbia, that reinforced that lesson. Joseph Raugh was one of the most prominent lawyers in DC at that time. He was a labor lawyer, famous for his high profile work on the legal barricades of the civil rights movement. I knew his storied reputation as an exceedingly smart and effective advocate. I learned one day that Raugh was arguing a motion before a judge one courtroom away from where I had a calendar call in the Federal Court. He was right next door. What a chance. It would be like watching Babe Ruth take batting practice. I could seen a master in action.

I eased into the courtroom expecting to re-live my law school experience, listening to an erudite presentation of abstract concepts presented formally in words I would later have to look up. But at least I would be able to say I had seen this great lawyer at work. I was wrong. What I saw was a gray-haired man in a bowtie and hornrimmed glasses standing at a lectern having a conversation with a judge, explaining in a language even I could understand why his side of the motion was right simply because it made more sense. Simplicity and clarity, not a polysyllabic deluge of the incomprehensible. And this from a guy who really knew his stuff.

I felt I was beginning to catch on; but sometimes it takes a while to sink in. Years later I attended a discussion at The Yale Law School on the soon-to-be-implemented Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The defense bar was in high dudgeon, incensed that Congress had effectively grafted a kind of lock-step tax code onto the sentencing process. We attacked the presenters, challenging every assertion, observation and recitation of this new evil that would soon infect and undermine the system we had deluded ourselves into thinking we had mastered. “Draconian” became the operative adjective. A hypothetical was presented to which we were to apply these new rules. We carped, moaned and wailed against a background chorus of the unfairness of it all. This went on for a while until Judge Jon Newman, not yet Chief Judge of the Second Circuit, asked a short, piercing question that was so precise and penetrating it not only resolved the issue with startling simplicity but did so in a way it left all of us saying “Of course that’s the answer. How could we have been fighting about something so stupid.”

Another lesson that the gift of true intelligence was in simplifying and clarifying, not in confusing. For the really intelligent, I guess, this ability comes naturally. The rest of us have to work harder at it.