The ABA has graciously invited me to write for its law school audience. In the first post, I wrote about why the law school you choose to attend matters. In the second post, I wrote that your grades matter, just not equally. Without further ado, here is the third thing many of us wish we had known before starting law school.
Be selfish with your schedule but generous with your time
Last week, Bentley Tolk of the Legal Marketing Launch Podcast and I had the opportunity to review and discuss several principles from Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. I wish this book came out before I enrolled in law school. Needless to say, I highly recommend this book – as well as Jeff Olson’s book, The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines Into Massive Success & Happiness – to anyone who is going to embark on the law school journey. And believe me, it is quite the journey.
Newport defines “deep work” as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Alternatively, he defines “shallow work” as “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
To successfully transform into a “depth devotee,” Newport outlines four rules: i) work deeply; ii) embrace boredom; iii) quit social media; and iv) drain the shallows. His main tactics for developing “deep work” muscles are to create artificial constraints on your schedule, carefully block out deep work hours, and preserve these hours against incursion. Newport’s four rules set the foundation for developing these “deep work” muscles. If done properly, law school is the ultimate intensive training course for becoming a “deep work” expert.
If one treated law school like a full-time job, he or she may spend forty hours a week in class and studying.
Through my encounters in law school, I’ve discovered that many students who just finished undergraduate school and many professionals coming from the work force have a hard time adjusting to the daily mental grind and exam-focused approach of “law school life.” But the top 10% of students seem to have an innate understanding of the “deep work” principles. The most successful law students are selfish with their schedule. They are not Facebooking, Tweeting, or texting during their study hours. The most successful students are more productive in less time than the other 90% of their peers. As the random motivation poster states, “it’s not the hours you put in, it’s what you put in the hours.”
In law school and life, habits can make or break you. They can be your best friend or your worst enemy. To support the best habits, Newport highlights an “arsenal of routines and rituals designed with the science of limited willpower in mind to maximize the amount of deep work you consistently accomplish in your schedule.” It may sound counterintuitive, but by being selfish with your law school schedule you will actually have more free time to allocate to outside activities. Students who are most committed to their daily-study schedules will have the most free time.
If one treated law school like a full-time job, he or she may spend forty hours a week in class and studying. I know many successful law students who spent less time than this, I know several students who spent more time. Law school can become quite insular if you let it. But if you are committed to a study schedule, you will have more free time than you peers to get out of the law school bubble. In my law school experience, I have witnessed people have mental breakdowns, gain weight, and end relationships due to unhealthy “work-life balances.”
Hopefully by the end of law school, you will find a purpose, not just employment. If you treat law school like a full-time job, than you still have eight free hours a day (assuming you need eight hours of sleep). Newport suggests you view this free time as a “day within a day.” In other words, you should and can make deliberate use of your time outside of law school. By committing to a study schedule, you will have more free time to volunteer and do pro bono work, network and participate in your state and local bar association, stay in touch or reconnect with friends and family, and enjoy your favorite hobbies. By being selfish with your schedule, you can be generous with your time. There is no reason you should wait until after law school to network or volunteer.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned another book, Jeff Olson’s The Slight Edge. In his book, Olson reminds the reader of Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Parkinson’s Law is another critical reason to set a schedule, or create artificial constraints. If you don’t run your day, your day will run you. Olson warns his readers that if they have bad habits time will expose them, but if they have good habits time will promote them.
At the beginning of this blog series, I promised that these posts would contain the information my peers and I wish we had known before embarking on our law school journey. I hope an idea or two has resonated with you. For those readers who plan on attending law school in the fall, I wish you all the best.
Please remember, with experiences like law school, it is easy to become one-track-minded and singularly focused. But it is important to regularly recognize people who have helped you achieve your personal success. After reading this article, maybe you plan to put your phone on airplane mode during “deep work” study hours. But don’t ever become too busy to return you parents’ phone calls. They deserve to hear from you more often. In fact, call them right now and thank them for everything they’ve done for you. Make this a habit.