Brandeis and Harlan Watch

Louis D. Brandeis’s Advice to Young Lawyers


On February 2, 1893, Louis D. Brandeis wrote a letter to William Harrison Dunbar, a young man who had been practicing law in Brandeis’s firm for over five years. Dunbar was a bright man who showed a lot of promise, yet Brandeis apparently felt that his career was not advancing the way it should. In response, Brandeis wrote the letter I have transcribed below which outlines the steps be believed Dunbar should have been taking. (The advice must have worked–four years later he would be named a partner of the firm.)

Some of the advice is specific to Dunbar, but most of it is universal in its scope, which is why I am reprinting it here. Brandeis’s central points are that knowledge of the law is not enough to make a good lawyer, that an active social life will inform a professional one and that rest and recreation are essential components to an effective career–points that are probably rarely mentioned in law school. The letter was first reprinted in Alpheus Mason’s biography Brandeis–A Free Man’s Life, and it has since then gained a reputation as a classic example of advice to beginning lawyers. I am reprinting it here to make it more widely available for everyone who are just starting their legal careers.

(The first two and the final paragraphs of the letter are specifically about Dunbar, so I have not bothered reprinting them here.)

…Cultivate the society of men–particularly men of affairs. This is essential to your professional success. Pursue that study as heretofore you have devoted yourself to books. Lose no opportunity of becoming acquainted with men, of learning to feel instinctively their inclinations, of familiarizing yourself with their personal and business habits, use your ability in making opportunities to do this. This is for you the indispensable study–as for another the study of law–or good habits of work are the missing desideratum.

The knowledge of men, the ability to handle, to impress them is needed by you–not only in order that clients may appreciate your advice and that you may be able to apply the law to human affairs–but also that you may more accurately and surely determine what the rules of law are, that is, what the courts will adopt. You are prone in legal investigation to be controlled by logic and to underestimate the logic of facts. Knowledge of the decided cases and of the rules of logic cannot alone make a great lawyer. He must know, must feel “in his bones” the facts to which they apply–must know, too, that if they do not stand the test of such application the logical result will somehow or other be avoided….

If you will recall [Sir George] Jessel’s opinion you will see what I mean. Knowledge of decisions and powers of logic are mere handmaidens–they are servants, not masters. The controlling force is the deep knowledge of human necessities. It was this which made Jessel the great lawyer and the greater judge. The man who does know intimately human affairs is apt to make of the law a bed of Procrustes. No hermit can be a great lawyer, least of all a commercial lawyer. When from a knowledge of the law, you pass to its application the need of a full knowledge of men and of their affairs becomes even more apparent. The duty of a lawyer today is not that of a solver of legal conundrums; he is indeed a counselor at law. Knowledge of the law is of course essential to his efficiency, but the law bears to his profession a relation very similar to that which medicine does to that of the physicians. The apothecary can prepare the dose; the more intelligent one even knows the specific for most common diseases. It requires but a mediocre physician to administer the proper drug for the patient who correctly and fully describes his ailment. The great physicians are those who in addition to that knowledge of therapeutics which is opened to all, know not merely the human body but the human mind and emotions, so as to make themselves the proper diagnosis–to know the truth which their patients fail to disclose and who add to this an influence over the patients which is apt to spring from a real understanding of him.

You are inclined to look upon your duty as if it were merely to take a rule of law and apply it to the facts given to you, to blame the client if he fails to give you all the facts and to assume that the “blood must rest on his head” if the rule of law when applied to those facts work badly. On the contrary, your duty is as much to know the facts as law–to apply from your own store of human experience the defects in the clients’ statements and to probe the correctness of those statements in the light of your knowledge. That knowledge must also enable you to determine the practical working of the advice you are to give.

What I have said in regard to your relation to clients is of course equally true of your relations with others when acting for clients. Again, acquaintance with men and knowledge of them is essential to the expedition of business, and impressing and satisfying the clients.

Your law may be perfect, your knowledge of human affairs may be such as to enable you to apply it with wisdom and skill, and yet without individual acquaintance with men, their haunts and habits, the pursuit of the profession becomes difficult, slow and expensive. A lawyer who does not know men is handicapped. It is like practicing in a strange city. Every man that you know makes it to that extent easier to practice, to accomplish what you have in hand. You know him, know how to talk, how to treat him; he knows you and the transaction of business is simplified.

But perhaps most important of all is the impressing of clients and satisfying them. Your law may be perfect, your ability to apply it great and yet you cannot be a successful adviser unless your advice is followed; it will not be followed unless you can satisfy your clients, unless you impress them with your superior knowledge and that you cannot do unless you know their affairs better than they because you see them from a fullness of knowledge. The ability to impress them grows with your own success in advising others, with the confidence which you yourself feel in your powers. That confidence can never come from books; it is gained by human intercourse.

Intercourse with and knowledge of men will also develop in your power to assume responsibility without which the successful practice of the profession is impossible.

You are prone to defer to others in the settlement, or rather to ask the advice of others in the office for the solution of trifling matters which you ought to decide yourself and which if you were knocked about a little among men you would readily so decide–in the office this is a matter of internal economy and it is very expensive; but as to the clients the willingness to assume responsibility and the ability to carry out responsibility so assumed is indispensable. Clients want support–if they did not they would rarely be clients.

Again intercourse with men would afford you what you greatly needed–relaxation. A bookkeeper can work eight or ten hours a day, and perhaps twelve–year in–year out and possibly his work may be always good (though I doubt it). But a man who practices law–who aspires to the higher places of his profession–must keep his mind fresh. It must be alert and he must be capable of meeting emergencies–must be capable of the tour de force. This is not possible to one who works alone–not only during the day but much of the night–without change, without turning the mind into new channels, with the mind always at the same tension.

The bow must be strung and unstrung; work must be measured not merely by time but also by its intensity; there must be time also for the unconscious thinking which comes to the busy man in his play; I am convinced that your work would be better if it were more varied.

You have, I think, been led to underestimate the importance of having clients of your own. The fact that plenty of work has always been supplied to you has not doubt let you imagine that you need give yourself no concern about getting personal clients. If so, you have overlooked the important educating influence of clients. If you had more clients of your own you would be led to feel their dependence on you–the necessity of your help and with it would come willingness to assume responsibility, ability to carry responsibility and that confidence in your powers which begets confidence in others…

You can find quotes from this letter and other advice to lawyers in The Quotable Brandeis, on sale now at higher quality book stores everywhere.