Memorization and Legal Practice


For those people not familiar with law school and legal practice, there seems to be this assumption that memorization skills are critical in order to be a successful lawyer. It's somewhat easy to think this when hearing lawyers reference particular details and nuances in statutes and case law.

Contrary to what you may think, lawyers aren’t intimately familiar with every statute, regulation, or case. They often need to consult Westlaw, LexisNexis, or other electronic sources to determine how certain laws will affect their clients.

What comes to mind are some of Elon Musk’s comments on technology. We’re essentially all cyborgs now. We have access to so much information through our computers and smartphones, and we consult these devices hundreds of times per day. So there’s less of a pressing need to memorize each and every statute, regulation, and case in your practice area.

Having said that, lawyers do need to be able to deliver competent legal advice on a time sensitive basis. For example, a client may ask you a question that you haven’t necessarily thought about. Delivering advice here is more often a product of experience rather than pure memorization. Through prior matters, you get an intuitive grasp of the most important laws and regulations and thus rely on this foundation to answer difficult questions. And you can always tell a client that you (or a colleague) will research a particular law or statute and revert an answer at a later date.

The situation is a bit trickier if you’re being grilled by a judge. There, you won’t have an opportunity to research case law; you’ll have to respond immediately. Here, preparation does pay off, and that preparation may include a thorough analysis of statutes and case law. However, even here, I’d argue that it’s less about pure memorization and more about having a deep understanding of the relevant law and how it applies to your facts.

As an aside, one of my favorite books about memory is Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein. It’s a fascinating book on how you can create “memory palaces” to remember discrete pieces of information. I’d highly recommend it.