“You’ll find that as you start working, you have less and less time to think.”
I have just started my second year of law school. One of my professors said this to us on the first day back in class this semester. He was, of course, primarily admonishing us to read our case assignments and come to class prepared. But he was also reflective about the fact that once you leave school, you may not have time to think about and consider lots of different ideas. You won’t be required to read so much, so you may not read enough because there are more pressing things on the agenda.
He had put his finger on what I like most about school: the whole point is to think. There are subsidiary goals, like performing well on exams and writing good briefs or papers, but in the end the greater goal is to think about stuff, often in a critical way. If you learn how to do that well in school, you can apply that skill to anything later on.
I spent the summer working full-time at a small firm outside of Washington, DC and riding my horses in early mornings and evenings. Learning the law and practicing it could not be more different, and as usual, I have been thinking about how the horses relate to what I have learned. Here are some themes I noticed:
The thinking happens behind the scenes. Great horsemen and great lawyers have a few things in common: they make mistakes, they use their brains, and they are able to not only work in the dredges of the everyday but also pull back and see the longer view. In short, they are able to keep thinking, even if the majority of their time is spent in the day-to-day of managing the smaller pieces.
One of my favorite things to do is watch the warm-up or practice arena at a major horse show. Watch it as the sun is rising, and you see how the riders prepare their athletes by stretching and relaxing them, or allowing them to have a playful buck on the lunge. Watch closer to the time of the class, and you see how they put the horses through their paces a bit, or school some fences and get the horse ready to perform. When they get to the arena, the “proof is in the pudding,” but getting to watch back-stage means you get an idea of how the pudding is made.
Watching lawyers work—and trying to work like they do—is similar in many ways. We have all seen lawyers on TV, speaking and reacting and presenting at a trial. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg (assuming the case actually goes to trial). Preceding those moments are hours and hours of thinking, revising, strategizing, and researching. Just like preceding the moment in the show ring are hours and hours of training and conditioning and preparation.
Problem-solving, teamwork, and creativity lead to success. I have worked in the barns of two former U.S. Team riders. When you show up to someone’s barn, you know that it will run in a particular way. It will function a bit differently from anywhere else you have been. This is particularly true in a high-performance setting. The owner or head trainer will have philosophies and preferences, whether they be the way blankets are hung, the manner in which manes and tails are trimmed, or the frequency of fitness work the horses do. A law firm is a bit like a high-performance stable: there are specific house rules to follow, and the tone of teamwork and excellence is contagious. Unlike riders, lawyers generally have the luxury of air conditioning, but like great riders they spend most of their time problem-solving and working with a team to figure out how to succeed.
Everyone has their own style. In law school, they taught me how to write like a lawyer should write. Not many frills; lots of formatting and other technical rules; no room for metaphors or even an ounce of humor. Needless to say, I enjoyed writing horse blogs more than legal briefs. But at work, I read and edited briefs that were written in all manner of styles. Within reason, there is room for creativity, as long as it is in the service of being persuasive.
People skills matter. I know some amazing riders who can hardly hold a conversation for over five minutes. They could be the next Michael Jung, but without communication skills to connect with the people to help them get there, it doesn’t really matter how well they ride. Interacting with so many lawyers over the summer—as well as my colleagues and classmates at school—has made me realize that people skills are very important, perhaps over and above anything else. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in: building a relationship of trust through communication, whether it’s with a client or a colleague, leads to new opportunities. That doesn’t mean you have to be someone other than you are in these situations. You should be authentic and true, because people need a feeling of connection to build bridges, and in this sport and this life we can’t get to the places we want to go without those kinds of bridges.
Competitiveness and the “winning feeling” are important, but they aren’t everything. Lawyers are competitive people. Most good riders I know are also competitively-minded. One thing that I have learned from horse people is that if you do the sport to win, you won’t last long in it. Even the best people don’t win all the time. The day-to-day of training and improving has to be motivating to you, because even when you do everything right, there’s a chance that you won’t win. The same is true in lawyering, especially in litigation. There has to be a winner and a loser. Just like you cannot get mad at your dressage judge for giving you an unfair mark, you have to accept the results of a ruling—although you may have the opportunity to appeal it in some instances. The point is that circumstances beyond your control may determine whether you win, and you certainly won’t win every time.
It’s fun to win, and it’s important to enjoy it. But I imagine that relying on that “winning feeling,” whether you’re a lawyer or a rider, is not the secret to longevity.