5 things law school taught me about relationships

By: January 13, 2017

A relationship is a lot like a legal contract

handshake of man and woman

Two years of law school has changed me. I’ve become a critical thinker, hunting for evidence behind everything I hear. This new way of looking at the world has altered the way I view relationships as well, such that when girlfriends come to me with boy troubles, my lawyer instinct kicks in. Here are five pieces of relationship advice I gleaned from law school:

1. Look before you leap

Consensus ad idem is Latin for meeting of the minds. It’s also a bedrock principle of contract law that requires both parties to get on the same page before sealing the deal. Similarly, for a relationship to work, both partners must want the same thing. It won’t work if one person wants something serious and the other wants to fool around. So, it’s important to have an open discussion about each other’s intentions. Don’t enter into a relationship unless you both agree to the same thing.

2. Make sure the relationship is balanced

Like business contracts, relationships should be quid pro quo, or give and take. In common law, if a contract appears excessively one sided, the court can nullify it. In a relationship, usually one person loves and gives more. That’s okay if it’s mostly balanced — but not if one person is always giving and getting nothing in return.  Always ask yourself: “what value am I getting out of this?” The answer can be anything: happiness, companionship, or a good laugh.

3. Know your walk-away point

A good lawyer won’t settle for less than she deserves. Law classes like alternative dispute resolutions (ADR) groom students to become skilled negotiators. Suppose you’re an M&A lawyer working on a big deal: if you and your client decide not to sell the company for less than $10 million, you better stick to that number. Relationships are the same: set limits to protect yourself. If your partner wants to push them, walk away. As my 67-year-old yiayia (Greek for grandmother) likes to say, “If he really wants you, he’ll make the sun rise from the west.”

4. Be mindful of your actions

Tort law says one must take reasonable steps to avoid intentionally harming another person. Did your partner know, for instance, that he would hurt you when he cheated on you? If the answer is yes, then he was negligent. In court, the negligent party would be liable and forced to pay for the damages. So, take your relationship seriously, and be mindful of your actions.

5. Value the little things

When courts review contracts, they know money is not the only thing that matters. When your crush surprises you with coffee in the morning, surely the value of the gesture is more than $2.99. Or, how about a boyfriend who takes a dozen photos of you, so you could post the perfect one on Instagram? He knows everyone is watching, but he doesn’t care, because it makes you happy. We often take these small gestures for granted. But if a “relationship court” existed, it would find sufficient value in these acts of care to enforce a contract. Perhaps then, little things aren’t so little after all.

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