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Skills we can learn from elementary school teachers

Jeremy Rachlin

Jeremy Rachlin

Montgomery County Public Schools were open yesterday for Columbus Day and hosted their annual open houses for parents to observe their children’s’ classrooms. As I explained to my daughter, who asked how much interaction there would be between parent and student at her school’s open house, I consider it somewhat akin to a trip to the zoo where I merely observe students and teachers in their natural habitat without getting too close.

As I watched my daughter’s third-grade class go through the rigors of math, I was initially struck by the fact I would last a day at most as an elementary school teacher. Further observation led me to conclude there are quite a few skills that we as lawyers can learn from elementary school teachers:

Communicate appropriately. How do you explain to a client that, in the American system, legal fees are generally only recoverable by statute or by contract? What about the concept of a taxable estate versus a probate estate? Perhaps we can model ourselves after the teacher who uses age-appropriate verbiage to explain, at a level understood by the students, three-digit-from-three-digit subtraction using place value and decomposing tens and hundreds.

Know when to let annoyances pass (or, Pick your battles). Should we file a motion to compel when an opposing party needlessly objects to an interrogatory if we know we can get the same information in a deposition later in the case? Perhaps we can model ourselves after the teacher who, instead of intervening every single time a student got too fidgety or spoke without raising his/her hand, picked when and how to mete out discipline, maximizing the impact of her intervention when it really is necessary.

Think on your feet when the crazy happens. No matter how many times we prepare a client to testify, we never ever know how the client will perform when the bright lights of the witness stand or deposition are shining. Similarly, the teacher never knows what best-intentioned comments may come out of a student’s mouth when he/she raises a hand. Keep your composure and don’t laugh (or cry).

Keep a finely honed BS detector. We’re not always going to get the full and complete truth from opposing counsel, opposing parties and even our own clients sometimes. We rely on our own experience and intuition to know when we’re being led down the path of “alternative facts.” Similarly, the teacher relied upon her experience and intuition to make an educated guess as to which students really needed to use the bathroom and which just wanted a short break from math. She called BS from time to time. Politely, of course. Just as we would. With civility and professionalism.

Lest you think that drawing similarities between the skills of an elementary school teacher and the skills of a good lawyer is a step too far, need I remind you that our own chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals is herself a veteran of the elementary school classroom?


Jeremy Rachlin is a principal at Bulman, Dunie, Burke & Feld Chtd. in Bethesda, where he practices estates and trusts and civil litigation.