Cultivate Outside Interests to be a More Interesting and Productive Lawyer

I’m working on a new book (launching in April!) that is meant to address some of the common challenges that young lawyers face when getting started in their careers and prescribes a formula for success. To create the formula, I spoke to scores of successful senior lawyers at firms across the country to get their opinions on what it takes to build a successful legal career. One of the most surprising results from my research was the number of attorneys who placed high importance on the need for young lawyers to cultivate outside interests.

This surprised me at first, but after giving it more thought it makes perfect sense. The practice of law can be all consuming if you let it. I know this from my own experience.

Early in my career I worked a lot (even by busy lawyer standards), thought about work all the time, and checked my Blackberry (yes, I’m that old) incessentantly. The blinking red light on my Blackberry indicating a new message in my inbox was my personal Pavlov’s bell.

This focus (bordering on obsession) on work left little room at the margins for anything else. My single-track mindset didn’t result from ambition. I wouldn’t say I was particularly motivated to climb the rungs at any firm I worked at. I think it was just the result of the way I’m wired. When dealing with stressful situations I have a tendency to crowd out all else. This was certainly the case when I was a young associate. I stopped doing almost everything – exercise, cooking and creative writing – that I considered to be my hobbies during law school.

If you’re going to enjoy your job enough to put in the long hours required to get ahead, then you need to have something to look forward to outside of the office to act as a counterbalance. In fact – and this is the primary point I want to get across – outside interests aren’t just helpful distractions from the rigors of work, they help fuel a successful career.

For one, having something that you want to do outside of the office makes you more efficient with time you spend while at the office. Also, lawyers with outside interests tend to be more effective at business development. They get out of the law firm bubble and meet new people who share the same passion. They connect dots through new experiences. The point is that if you want people to be interested in you, then you have to be interesting. And interesting things happen outside of your law firm office.

One of the most common refrains from those who insist that outside interests and the practice of law are incompatible, is that there’s not enough time to pursue both. But there’s always time – you just need to set priorities and, perhaps, accept the trade offs.

Take Amelia Boone, for example. She’s a corporate lawyer at Apple, and previously was an associate at Skadden Arps. She’s also a world-class endurance athlete, and has won a number of brutal obstacle races including World’s Toughest Mudder, the Spartan world title, and Vermont’s “Death Races.” She didn’t start training or racing until after she became an associate at Skadden. Her Skadden colleagues convinced her to sign up for her first Tough Mudder.

Boone was asked why she endures such a grueling schedule – which includes waking up at 4:00 a.m. to train in the wee hours of the morning – required to balance a successful legal career and athletic career. “I love the law, and I love being an attorney, and that’s mentally engaging and stimulating,” Boone told the Chicago Tribune. “But I definitely need to be physically engaged and push myself.”

Boone explains that finding time for outside interests involves trade-offs. “I always tell people: You have time, you just have to make it. I can’t guarantee when I’ll be done with work at night, but I can guarantee no one will be calling me at five in the morning.” What she does outside of work enables her to perform better at work. “I know plenty of professionals who unwind with booze. Hey, if it works, more power to you. But I’d rather be running around somewhere.”

Crawling through barbed-wire, running through semi-frozen pools of water, and climbing up ropes and hurdling over walls may not be your thing, but what’s important is finding a thing and carving out time for it. Young lawyers should focus on developing and pursuing outside interests early in their career. Humans are creatures of habit, and if your habit is work, then it will become harder and harder to break the habit as you progress in your career. Find something outside of the office that you love and can’t wait to get back to, which will lead you to become more efficient and effective with your time in the office. You’ll also have something interesting to talk about at the next networking event.

Cultivate outside interests. Otherwise all you have is work. If that’s the case, it means you have very little.

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