I Wish I'd Known

Vol. 42 No. 3

By

Brad Meltzer is the author of eight New York Times bestselling novels. He hosts Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on the History Channel. He received the Eisner Award for his work on the critically acclaimed Justice League of America. His newest works are History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time and children’s book I Am Amelia Earhart. His first published novel The Tenth Justice, was written during his final year at Columbia Law School. He is A Florida-licensed attorney.

There’s something I wish I’d known. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let me explain how I came to be a lawyer and how valuable my legal training is to my career.

I went to law school because I was afraid. I was scared of having my father’s life. His whole life, he struggled financially. At 40, he lost his job. Seeking work, he moved my family from Brooklyn to Miami. My sister and I were 13 and eight. We stayed with my grandparents in their one-bedroom condo (all six of us). Indeed, my parents took us with them on job interviews because they couldn’t afford babysitters. I remember eating french fries in a Wendy’s while my dad interviewed for a job there. I had this overwhelming feeling that my future was being decided on the opposite side of a fast-food restaurant.

From that day on, I knew I didn’t want that to be my life. I didn’t want that struggle. So I went to law school. But I went so that, if it all went wrong, I’d always have a trade to ply. Lawyering was my “Plan B.” Was that the best reason to go to law school? No. But I don’t regret it. My legal training has been and is critical to my career. I write fiction and nonfiction. In both disciplines, research is everything. Without the research skills I learned in law school, my fiction work would lack believability. I couldn’t write nonfiction if I didn’t research my subjects thoroughly.

As a writer, my job is much like a trial lawyer. I research and tell a story. A trial lawyer does the same. She tells her story to the jury in hopes of captivating and persuading them. I tell my story, hoping for the same from my readers. If the lawyer is successful, the jury finds in her client’s favor. When I’m successful, I persuade readers to invest their time in my book. Without well-researched facts woven into a compelling, understandable narrative, neither of us could succeed. Period.

In the end, law school gave me the skills to do what I love (plus, think of all the free legal advice I got). But what law school didn’t teach me, and I wish I had known, is that sometimes we all just need to shut up. Law school teaches you to advocate, persuade, and counter your opponent’s arguments. This training complemented the communication style I learned growing up. In my household (especially if there was food on the table), not talking was a sign of foolishness and weakness. Law school helped me hone those arguing skills. But not the listening ones.

I realize now that listening is one of the great superpowers. Take a try. Just listen sometimes. Instead of preparing to respond to your opponent’s best argument, listen to what they’re saying. You’ll hear their needs, concerns, fears, and wants. You’ll better understand your opponent. This alone may lead to a meaningful discussion. And if you can get to that point, you’re a lot closer to a satisfying result than you would ever be by just waiting for your turn to respond. Trust me. Just listen. Such a simple lesson. And one of the most vital.

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