Successful lawyers are successful at lifelong learning.
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No lawyer should assume their education is over at any point in their career — and certainly not upon graduation from law school. That’s when the real education about what it takes to be a successful lawyer truly begins. Successful lawyers, like successful people in all walks of life, are lifelong learners who never stop growing.
If you don’t making learning a priority, you’ll become stagnant. You won’t get any smarter. And you’ll have trouble advancing in your career.
On the other hand, if you commit to getting a bit more informed by exposing yourself to new ideas every day, your potential will be limitless. Just as small monthly deposits into a 401(k) account compound into big returns over decades, an investment in yourself will pay huge dividends over the course of your career.
So What Stops Lawyers From Pursuing Lifelong Learning?
You guessed it: It requires time and dedication. It’s far easier to fall victim to distraction, or even bill another hour, than it is to summon the discipline to learn a new skill or absorb a complex concept. One of the great differentiators between highly successful people and those who drift through their careers is that those who achieve great success do the hard things that others are unwilling to tackle.
In an interview with Men’s Health magazine, billionaire investor and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said, “The best investment I ever made was investing in myself, first and foremost.”
While it took him a long time, Cuban taught himself to program, which allowed him to start and sell several technology businesses. While the process of learning programming was “painfully time-consuming,” Cuban explained that his “investment in myself has paid dividends for the rest of my life.” According to Cuban, anyone can set themselves apart if they’re willing to put in the work. “The reality is, most people don’t put in the time to keep up and learn. That’s always given me a competitive advantage.”
Learning Is a Skill Like Any Other
The more effective you are at identifying gaps in your knowledge and bridging those gaps by consuming and making sense of useful information, the more effective you will be as a lawyer. Some of the best ways to get smarter are to read, write and surround yourself with people who push you to perform at a higher level.
1. Lifelong Learners Read
Charlie Munger, legendary lawyer and vice chairman of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, advises: “Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading; cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.”
As a lawyer, you’re busy reading legal briefs or transactional documents throughout your day. But that type of reading, while important, isn’t going to expand your horizons. Read great books. Read old books (and most of the great books are old books). Don’t succumb to self-defeating thoughts that you’re not smart or capable enough to achieve greatness. Every challenge you face has been overcome before, and there’s a high likelihood that the path forward has been documented for you in a timeless book.
In order to read more, you must jealously guard your most important resource: your attention. Others, especially those residing in Silicon Valley, are trying to steal it from you. The deepest learning is not done on a phone or computer screen. Eric Schmidt of Google once said, “I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.”
While Schmidt’s take is a disheartening view of the culture at large, it suggests there is an opportunity for you to take advantage of. While others are losing out on the benefits of reading books, you can set yourself apart by developing a valuable reading habit. It’s one of the best habits of lifelong learners.
Do you have trouble finding time to read? Make the time. Prioritize it. As I advise in “The Productivity Pivot,” sell yourself an hour of your time every day to invest in yourself by reading.
2. Lifelong Learners Write
I don’t know about you, but I rarely know what to think about something until I write about it. Writing is what allows us to process information, clarify our thoughts, and become more persuasive.
Here’s what author Claudia Altucher has to say about the importance of writing:
“There’s a reason why so many successful people write every day — whether it’s a diary they keep or a blog they write. Writing things down forces you to clarify your thoughts into more concrete representations. It takes a lot of effort. But over time, it’ll become easier, and you start to notice that your thoughts become more crispy. You’ll also have fewer doubts about your own thoughts.”
Writing is a big part of the job of practicing law. But do you ever take time to write outside of your billable work? One of the best ways to grow as a lawyer is to consistently create thought leadership content.
Writing thought leadership content is an effective way to market your services. Often overlooked is the fact that it also makes you a more effective lawyer. Writing forces you to wrestle with complexity and come up with novel approaches to difficult problems.
The work you do informs your writing, and the writing you do informs your work.
3. Surround Yourself With Smart People
Your success as a lawyer will be determined, to a large extent, by your ability to cultivate a network of smart and supportive colleagues who will push and prod you to higher performance. As motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously explained, “We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” Choose wisely.
In a world in which we’re told to chase more Facebook friends, Instagram and Twitter followers, and LinkedIn connections, it’s easy to lose sight of what the purpose of a professional network really is. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Rather, a strong network is one that is supportive and consists of people who frequently and meaningfully engage with one another. In this sense, it’s far different from modern notions of what a network should be (that is, BIG). By purposefully surrounding yourself with a carefully curated group of intelligent, creative, hardworking and trustworthy colleagues, you’ll reap the benefits.
We get better when we surround ourselves with those who excel. Without Larry Bird, there may have been no Magic Johnson. Without John Adams, who knows if Thomas Jefferson would have risen to greatness. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Larry Ellison were bitter rivals, but they fed off each other’s breakthroughs and accomplishments. To advance in a law firm, you need to step up and immerse yourself within a cohort that includes other winners — ideally those who you can learn from every day.
Never Stop Learning
The practice of law is hard and stressful. There are tremendous demands on your time. But if you want to get ahead, you need to set aside the time to learn and continuously grow and improve. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”