be a lawyer.
Really? I thought. So, I’m good at this
lawyer-thing? Alright then.
Of course, life did not take me in such
a straight direction. I later decided on a
BFA in creative writing, then I worked at
the mall, was a bread-baker, a high school
tennis coach and a waitress before getting
my MFA in poetry. Then I was an English
Composition and poetry teacher before
finally making my way to law school.
Now, I am a real estate attorney. I have
not yet stepped foot inside a courtroom.
Was that junior high teacher right? Did I
have the makings of a good attorney back
then? What are the skills that will help
young lawyers make a career of this law-
Law schools would argue that they can
teach the necessary skills to those who are
willing to work hard and withstand the
Socratic method. I would argue that of all
the education and work that I have experienced, while it has all contributed to my
ability to work as a lawyer, some of the
most helpful skills were those I learned
while working at the mall and waiting
tables—learning how to sell to and deal
with clients of all shapes, moods and sizes.
Lawyers are salespeople whether they
like it or not. Law is a service industry. Just
like travel agents, cupcake-makers and shoe
salesmen, we are selling a product. In the
lawyer’s case, it is his or her legal skills
The problem is, while law school hones
one’s ability to analyze cases and holdings
and gives students the background and
organization of the law, it does not (at least
in my experience) teach students how to
deal with clients or how to get new clients
or work. I am not saying that the things
taught in law school are not valuable or
wonder how many
lawyers and young
future lawyers braving
away at their law school
texts have ever worked
at the mall? Probably some. There are like-
ly just as many who have never worked in
sales or retail—who have never had to
explain why the more expensive cookware
is worth the extra money, or the fine print
on its lifetime guarantee.
When I was in junior high, I remember
being the prosecutor for a mock trial of
The Hound of the Baskervilles. After my
vicious cross-examination of the 12-year-
old boy playing the groundskeeper, the
language arts teacher told me that I should
JENNIFER UNDERSTAHL is a partner at Perkins Coie LLP in Phoenix, Ariz. She focuses her practice
in commercial real estate transactions, including purchase and sales, leasing, financing and joint
ventures. She is the chair of the diversity committee for the firm’s Phoenix office, leads the firm’s
national senior housing industry group, and is also actively involved in the Urban Land Institute, both
locally and nationally.
The good lawyer is a great salesman.
The Well-Oiled Law Office Machine