Math is hard; let's (not) go shopping

Sybil Dunlop
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Lots of lawyers are scared of math. I used to be one of them. But not anymore.

As with many lawyers, words were always my medium of choice. In elementary school, I enjoyed reading on the playground instead of playing tag. Hunched over the latest Babysitters’ Club release, you could find me curled up under a tree during our 20-minute break after lunch. In high school, I joined the Model United Nations Club, where you could partner a facility with language with debate. To really gain an edge at Model U.N., I realized that I needed to know more about international relations. I started reading the New York Times every morning and asked my parents for a subscription to the Economist for Christmas.

But math was different. In third grade, you needed to demonstrate proficiency in the multiple tables (through the 12 table) to move on to new material. One through five were easy, but the sixes and the sevens were a mess. And don’t get me started on the eight table. It took me all year. I decided I must just be bad at math.

Throughout middle and high school, I remember struggling when the concept of a variable was introduced. I remember struggling to figure out the distance of a boat from a lighthouse (although I did draw really lovely lighthouses in my notes). And I remember struggling with the concept of rise over run. Don’t get me started on calculus.

When I arrived at my wonderful liberal arts college (where math was optional), I was relieved. The school, however, encouraged us to try a course in every discipline. So I registered for the History of Modern Philosophy (which counted). But I felt like I was cheating — we just read philosophy the entire semester. There were no numbers, so it couldn’t be real math. I loved it.

After working for a few years, I returned to law school. I was thrilled to be back in a classroom after a five-year respite. I devoured the material. Took dutiful notes in all my margins. But — about halfway through the semester — I begin to panic. I had no idea what was going on in Civil Procedure. I didn’t understand the difference between issue preclusion and claim preclusion. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what Erie was about. The difference between substantive and procedural law seemed entirely made up (it still does, but that’s another article).

But I loved all my other classes. And I wanted to be a lawyer. Unlike math, there was no History of Modern Philosophy class that I could take instead of Civil Procedure. I simply needed to make myself learn it.

So I doubled down. I bought all the hornbooks. I started waking up at 5 a.m. to reread assignments before class. I drew pictures to showcase the difference between issue preclusion and claim preclusion. I drew slowly. And I did it over and over again. I sang “Eye of the Tiger” in my head as I walked to the library to study each weekend. I earned an A-minus on the final exam. I had never felt so proud in my life. I had forced myself to learn something.
Then it dawned on me. I could have done the same thing with math. I didn’t have to just decide that math was hard and avoid it. I could have set my alarm for 5 a.m. and studied. I could have drawn pictures, slowly, until I understood it. I could have tried. I vowed that the next time math reared its head, I would conquer it.

These days, if someone asks me to calculate an interest rate, a damages calculation, or create a weighted risk analysis, I am all over it. The trick, I realized, is finding the right tools to help.

The internet is replete with calculators — even ones that tell you the formula as well as offer to undertake the calculation for you. I like to use both — I use the online calculator but check the result by doing it myself in Excel. And you can use these tools to figure out interest calculations, percent change, and even create complicated risk analyses to evaluate litigation choices.

I also love working with damages experts. If there is accounting vocabulary that I lack, they can help. But I can bring my understanding of the case and conceptual questions and strategies to bear as we work together. Deposing a financial expert simply involves knowing and understanding the documents.

In my practice as a lawyer, I realized something that many “math people” likely realized a long time ago. The more you do math, the easier it gets. And not only is it fun, it is a tool. You can wield it in litigation to gain an advantage. Because lots of lawyers are still scared of it. And math is powerful stuff.

When I was a little girl, they released a Barbie doll that talked. She said, “Math is hard; let’s go shopping.” People were outraged. Mattel got a lot of heat for its decision and later models of the Barbie had the phrase deleted. But Barbie was at least halfway right. Math was hard for me. But I didn’t need to go shopping. I needed to sit down and try. Law school taught me how to try. And it gave me the tools to confront math. Just another added benefit of the degree.


Sybil Dunlop is a partner at Greene Espel PLLP in the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area.


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