Lawyers need to know a lot of information. Perhaps the most important trait a lawyer should possess is an interest in and an ability to acquire new information. It has been my experience that most of what a lawyer needs to know was not taught in law school. Law school infuses law students with background knowledge that is necessary but insufficient, and you’ve got to be eager to absorb new information all the time. Don’t believe me? Here is a list of things I’ve had to learn about in the four years I’ve been in private practice doing personal injury work:
— proper construction and operation of gas stations
— hydrogeology (when a gas station leaks, where does the gas go?)
— the anatomy of horses, the variety of foot ailments that can befall a show-jumper horse, and the business of buying and selling those horses
— safe playground construction and maintenance
— proper diagnosis and treatment of a variety of injuries to (human) muscles, ligaments, and bones
— the appropriate application and use of pesticides
— the physics and biomechanics of car crashes
That’s the short list. Now, add to it the need to regularly review new cases and new statutes that pertain to my practice area. Of course, this isn’t unique to me. That’s our job. Part of being a lawyer – especially a new lawyer – is embracing the task of acquiring knowledge. We have to be curious about a wide range of subjects.
One of the best ways to stimulate this ability for multidisciplinary learning at work is to read widely in your spare time. This comes naturally for some, but not for others. I happen to find it very difficult to find time for deep reading after work and after the kids go to bed, and I know I’m not alone in that. While there is no shortcut for doing the work, I’ve found that I can get some reading momentum going by following some blogs written by people who are much better at and more dedicated to reading widely than I am.
One such blog is Farnam Street Blog, whose motto is “mastering the best of what other people have already figured out.” If that isn’t a great description of what lawyers have to do, I don’t know what is. The author of that site, Shane Parrish, probably reads more books in two or three weeks than I read in a year, and he regularly discusses what he’s gleaned from his reading. Another blog filled with challenging ideas is a blog written by two economics professors called Marginal Revolution. One of the authors, Tyler Cowen, routinely posts about what he’s reading. The subject could be art, food, chess or international development, all written from a unique and stimulating perspective. If you prefer to stick to the law, take a regular look at Balkinization and The Volokh Conspiracy. These blogs provide a peek into the discussion taking place among legal scholars in journals and books about subjects that you probably don’t see in your practice and from academic perspectives that you may not have encounter in law school.
Reading blogs like these has exposed me to topics, ideas and perspectives that I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. It has led me to read many books on many subjects that I normally wouldn’t have touched. Concepts related to business, science, art, and even sports have found expression in my work in ways that I couldn’t have predicted. Delving into unfamiliar subjects in my spare time makes it easier for me to do so at work.
Most lawyers are smart, and because of that, it is often creativity and diligence, rather than raw intelligence, that leads to success in our field. Reading widely will add colors to your palette.
How are you keeping up with the demands of staying current on case law and mastering the broader subject matter of your practice? What tips would you offer to a less experienced lawyer?