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Commonplace Books Are Uncommonly Useful for Lawyers

Use a journal of quotes and ideas to develop your most elusive soft skills

By Bull Garlington

Commonplace books are an old-school hack. Old school as in Marcus Aurelius used one. Seneca and Leonardo da Vinci swore by them. I use one, and I remember making calls on a party line. Commonplace books are not diaries, and they’re not exactly journals. They don’t record your thoughts as much as thoughts by other people. Quotes. Snatches of conversation. Passages from a book you’re reading.

You might be thinking, “Right. Like I have time for that.” But you do have time and you should make time because keeping a commonplace book helps develop one of the most elusive soft skills: being interesting.

Being interesting is what commonplace books are about.

Not that you’re not interesting. Just look at your resume. Holy moly, you have a lot of bullet points on that page. And the awards pinned up behind your desk, and your degrees — and look, all of that adds up to applause-worthy accomplishments. You know your stuff. You have the skills to converse at a professional level. But when all the eyes in the group cut to you, what exactly are you going to say?

Sure, you can spit out a halfway decent glob of words that will sound pretty good around the meeting table as long as everyone is secretly finishing Wordle and not really listening. Because this is you:

I don’t mean to talk out of school, but shouldn’t we leverage agile frameworks to provide a robust synopsis for high-level overviews? Iterative approaches to corporate strategy foster collaborative thinking to further the overall value proposition. Let’s organically grow the holistic world view of disruptive innovation via workplace diversity and empowerment. 

You Can’t Download Personality, You Have to Work at It

Best method? Reading. A lot. Read everything. Don’t just read the books about your industry (although some of these are pretty good). Read books that have nothing to do with your work. Read books to learn more about the stuff you’re not even aware of. Learn about salt. Discover how plants fight. Laugh at some idiot traveling through the U.K. Read novels, because there is remarkable value in how a story allows you to live the life of another person; how it allows you to experience their thoughts as yours.

Thoughts You Should Write Down in Your Commonplace Book

Because later, when you find yourself working on a case side-by-side with the junior partners you’ve been wanting to impress and she says, “I bet ancient Roman lawmakers didn’t work this hard,” you remember just that morning you’d added a quote from Cicero into your commonplace book and you say it out loud. And she stops what she’s doing, looks at you for a second, and then says, “You really got it going on, don’t you, Lauren?”

OK, maybe it’s not that on the nose.

But you get the idea. It’s not enough to be versed in how to practice law. You also need to know why. You need to develop that inner body, the mental library of culture and humanities, and the lived experience of applied ethics you get from reading. And listening. And observing. And writing it all down using a commonplace book system.

Which could be anything. Your system is about how your mind gathers and uses information. Ronald Reagan and Ryan Holiday used index cards. Mark Twain kept messy unorganized notes. I use a combination of the method from Gallaudet University and a zettelkasten system to keep notes. It’s helped me write articles and books, but it’s also the fertile ground for the creativity I need to come up with editorial strategies and relevant topics.

The commonplace system is perfect for journal freaks who can’t help buying gorgeous journals but don’t know what to write in them. Until your ideas begin to flow, keeping quotes and hoarding ideas will fill those pages with useful ink.

First, You’ll Need a Notebook

It doesn’t matter which one. There’s no right answer here. Whatever works for you. Even cheap notebooks last a long time, which is good because it takes forever to fill up a commonplace book even when you read a lot. But when you’re finished, it’s a treasure box of vital ideas and laser-focused quotes that become the architecture of a fruitful mind.

Any of these notebooks will work just fine.

Index cards are an excellent commonplace book system.

If they don’t seem portable to you, think again. Lock up a stack with a small binder clip and keep them in your pocket or bag. Or use an index card pocket system like this one from Levenger. At some point, you file them away in a box and keep them nearby. This becomes your ever-expanding exo-brain of brilliant ideas. Ryan Holiday uses a similar system to write best-selling books on stoicism. You’re in good company.

But wait, can we just talk about the elephant in the room?

Notetaking apps are OK for commonplace journals

Evernote is one of the most popular notetaking apps. It’s beautifully structured, constantly updated, and used by millions of people. I could levy some stats here about how science insists that taking notes by hand makes them stick in your mind 30% better, but if you’re an Evernote user, you’re just going to clip that and add it to a note. Apps make fine commonplace books if that’s how you roll. Evernote is the king, but OneNote ain’t terrible, and Obsidian is pretty cool. Analog Attorney will patiently roll its eyes at your choice, but whatever works for you.

Commonplace Journals Are Most Often a Pen and Paper Thing

If you keep a commonplace journal, these best practices that will make it useful.

  • Write clearly. It sounds like a no-brainer, but when we’re in a hurry, we tend to write like overcaffeinated doctors with a broken wrist. Chill out. Slow down. This passage you’re copying is for posterity. Take your time. Write in block capitals if you have to.
  • Use best citation practices. You don’t have to go all MLA on your quotes, but the essentials are critical for when you want to use them later. Do it like this: author, source, year, page number.
  • Keep a table of contents. This is important. As you fill up your journal with brilliant quotes, you’re just going to put them where they fit on the next available page. Reserve a couple of pages at the front of the journal to add the author’s name or the source and the page number in your journal where you’ve recorded it.
  • Number your pages. Because, oh yeah.

Interesting!

Commonplace journals will change your game. You’ll remember interesting quotes, develop great ideas faster, and charge your creativity with the same timeless tool as Seneca and Cicero.

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash.

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Bull Garlington Bull Garlington

Analog Attorney columnist Bull Garlington is an award-winning author, columnist and public speaker. He is the author of the books “The Full English,” “Death by Children” and “The Beat Cop’s Guide.” He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. His company, Creative Writer PRO, offers top-shelf content for small and medium-size businesses. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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