Although they’re rules of thumb rather than rules of law, the following “Rules of Three” apply to law students and/or lawyers:
● Class Participation. Some recommend that law students try to be called on at least once during every three sessions of each course, but not more than three times during any one session.
● Choosing Courses. I’ve suggested that law students take care not to overload their schedules (and minds) with statutory courses (like Evidence, Federal Personal Income Tax, Securities Regulation, and Secured Transactions). Three such courses per semester might be a useful limit.
● Maximizing Productivity. “The Rule of 3” featured in J. D. Meier’s Getting Results the Agile Way (2010) involves identifying, and focusing on, “three outcomes for the day, the week, the month, and the year.”
● Clarifying Causation. According to the management manual, The Seven-Day Weekend (2004), written by Ricardo Semler, the CEO and majority owner of Brazil’s Semco Partners, “If we have a cardinal strategy that forms the bedrock for all our practices, it may be this: Ask why. Ask it all the time, ask it any day, every day, and always ask it three times in a row.” (By contrast, Toyota asked the question five times, “going to a deeper level with each ‘Why?’ to get to the root cause of the problem.”)
● Billable Hours. At a minimum, law firm associates might aim to bill enough hours per year to produce, at their current hourly rate, an amount equal to three times their annual salary. One-third would return their salary to the firm; one-third would help pay the firm’s rent and other overhead costs; and the remaining one-third would be profit for the firm.
● Categorizing Counseling Content. Advisors should keep in mind three key communications components identified by Colin Powell, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in It Worked for Me (2012): “I developed for my intelligence staffs a set of four rules. . . I’m told they hang in offices around the intelligence world. Tell me what you know. Tell me what you don’t know. Then tell me what you think. Always distinguish which from which.”
● Making Decisions During an Emergency. Cade Courtley’s SEAL Survival Guide: A Navy SEAL’s Secrets to Surviving Any Disaster (2012) advises that in “life-threatening situations,” one should “Come up with three—and only three—possible options or courses of action. Look at the pros and cons of each option. Honestly weigh factors like risk, your ability to accomplish each option, and whether your plan is realistic. . . Then, without debating and rethinking each of your options, make the call and choose the one your gut tells you is the best. . . [M]ost importantly, be confident in your decision and proceed.”
● Negotiating (1). Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, in his best-selling Never Split the Difference (2016), recommends obtaining someone’s agreement “to the same thing three times in the same conversation[, b]ecause it’s really hard to repeatedly lie or fake conviction. . . The first time they agree to something or give you a commitment, that’s No. 1. For No. 2 you might label or summarize what they said so they answer, ‘That’s right.’ And No. 3. could be a calibrated ‘How’ or ‘What’ question about implementation that asks them to explain what will constitute success, something like ‘What do we do if we get off track?’”
● Negotiating (2). Voss identifies, among his hostage negotiation skills, as “the closest one gets to a Jedi mind trick” the “almost laughably simple” technique of “repeat[ing] the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. . . . [Y]our counterpart will inevitably elaborate on what was just said and sustain the process of connecting [with you].” (In Star Wars, however, the Jedi mind trick actually most often involves compelling another party to repeat, and to believe, one’s own statements.)
● Marketing (and Eliciting Testimony). Relying on the theory that encountering a statement, or a reference to a product or company, for a third time dramatically enhances someone’s perceptions of its truth or reputation, commentators have encouraged law firms to market their services to potential clients through a variety of methods (including online); and have suggested that a litigator enable a witness or expert to make the same critical statements three times in her testimony.
● Creating a Motto or Mission Statement. Sixteen of the states, and many groups, organizations, and institutions, have adopted three-word mottos and/or mission statements. For example, the motto of the American University Washington College of Law is, “Champion What Matters.” Several years ago, a Maryland church posted on its outdoor display the powerfully simple message, “Find Hope Here.”
● Making Presentations. Many believe that information—whether it’s presented orally, in writing, or in some combination of the two– is best received, best understood, and best remembered as part of a group, list, or sequence of three items, reasons, or (as in Cade Courtley’s case) options.
● Refraining from Reacting and/or Interrupting. Lawyers are certainly not the only professionals who have been advised to, in some circumstances, restrain themselves for three seconds before interrupting or otherwise reacting to someone.
In Agatha Christie’s Afternoon at the Seaside (1961), a component of her trilogy play, The Rule of Three, one character instructs another, “Hold your breath, count three, and don’t say anything you’d be sorry for afterwards.”
● [Bonus Rule:] Structuring Presentations. Common wisdom offered to those making oral or written presentations is: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to say; tell ‘em; and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”
I hope that this collection of “Rules of Three” has been of some interest, use, and enjoyment to law students, lawyers, and others.