Law Students and Young Lawyers

Keep it Simple, Start With the Statute, Stupid

You may be familiar with the “KISS Principle” attributed to one Kelly Johnson,  a renowned aeronautical engineer at Lockheed Martin.

It turns out that the concept of “Keep It Simple, Stupid” applies whether you are designing aircraft or solving legal issues.

There is nothing simpler than starting your legal analysis by figuring out if there is a governing statute and reading it. It appears, however, that at least some new lawyers have not read that particular memo, and that this is not a new phenomenon.

The first time that I ran across this particular particularity was back some twenty-five years ago when a lawyer who I will call Bart, and who should have known better, decided to challenge me about the correct interpretation of a provision of the Personal Property Security  Act. On my side, was the wording of the statute. On Bart’s side was, “this is what they taught me at [insert name of well-respected law firm here.”]  Now to Bart’s credit, his prior law firm was an excellent firm. Perhaps a lesser light at that firm steered Bart wrong. More likely, Bart misunderstood what he was taught. Whatever the proximate cause of his confusion, Bart failed to grasp that the statute has to be the starting point on the treasure map. Sure, what the courts have said about the statute also matters. But still, you have to start with the statute or you are not going to find the prize.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, and a young lawyer who I will call Erin called me to discuss her interpretation of a principle of law. Her interpretation was based on a clear understanding of basic contractual provisions. The only problem was that this was not a contractual problem. There was a statute. It did apply. Erin knew all about the statute. She just did not realize that there was a provision in the statute that answered her question, which left her to imagine that the issue had to do with contractual principles.

Now in fairness to both of them, neither Bart nor Erin was as clued out as the law student who I once employed who did all of his research by consensus. Get a question from Lawyer A. Speak to Lawyer B about it. Wander over to Lawyer C’s office and see what he thinks. Come to a tentative conclusion and check it with Lawyer D, and then report your findings to Lawyer A. Don’t stop at  your computer or at the library.  This particular genius did not even figure out that all of the lawyers talk to each other. No hire-back for you!

And then, of course, there are the new lawyers who have forgotten whatever they learned in Legal Research and Writing in law school and think that Google and Chat GPT are the repositories of all legal knowledge. Why read the statute when I can read something that tells me what the statute says (or maybe some gross misrepresentation of what it says)?

Keep it simple, start with the statute. Don’t be stupid.

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