Read Widely and Often

lady-reading-books-in-library

Over time, lawyers will consume thousands upon thousands of pages of text.  They will devour hundreds of articles, thousands of cases, and a baffling array of sections, headings, letters, emails and papers.

So I can understand that the last thing many lawyers want to do some days when they get home is to read more.

I get it.

You’ve been reading all day, or all week.  You’d rather give your eyes a rest and turn on the television or watch some cats doing funny things on YouTube.

But I propose to make the case for you to resist the temptation of those evil YouTube cats.  Rather, I want to develop the proposition that you should be reading more, not less.  Specifically I want to encourage you to read both widely, and deeply.  I’m primarily talking here about non-fiction, although I’m obviously not against fiction forming part of your recreational reading.

What about the Internets?

Books (including eBooks) are still by far the best method of communicating relevant and useful information in a structured, deliberate and comprehensive manner.  “How can this be?” you ask, “…when such an abundance of information is available on the internet – for FREE!!”.

For anyone out there who has a blog, you will know that articles can be really any length you want.  However, for people to read them, most articles of any substance have a tendency to be between 600 and 1000 words, sometimes more.

In comparison, my first eBook – Look Before you Leap – contains 13,580 words.  It is, by any measure, a short eBook.  In print, it is a mere seventy-something pages.  That, of course, was a deliberate decision on my part.  I wanted to make the book easy to read, readily accessible to cash and time strapped young lawyers.

Look at the difference though – a short eBook which deals in more depth with a number of different topics has more than 10 times the words of a slightly longer article, and something like 20 times many internet articles out there.

I’m sure you can find material of greater length (just look at a conspiracy theory site if you want a greater word count), but ordinarily internet articles are designed to be capable of consumption by readers in a shorter space of time.  They cater to the knowledge that people reading on their phones, tablets or in their lunch break want a nice, bite size piece of information which covers the big picture aspects of any given topic in a manageable space of time, but not necessarily gets into all of the minutiae.

So Why should Lawyers read in more depth then?

Depth of knowledge is important for a number of reasons.  On any given topic, there are likely to be any number of landmark books.  If you read the three most well regarded books on any given topic, the chances are pretty good that you will have a greater expertise in that area than many “lay” people.  That expertise will offer you a number of benefits.  Aside from broadening your mind generally, a depth of knowledge in an area will provide opportunities for presentations, will promote conversation, and will give you a greater degree of confidence generally.

I’m not saying you need to be an expert in every field that exists.  However, if you find yourself in a situation talking to an accountant, and you have no idea what “financial statements” are then you’re not likely to be participating very much.  Nor, for that matter, are you likely to enjoy yourself very much.  If, however, at the next networking function you go to you get immersed in a discussion about profit, and you happen to have recently been reading on that topic, you will be both more confident to engage on the topic, more knowledgeable to participate, and better able to demonstrate your understanding of the business of the person you are speaking with.

Don’t take this to mean that you should spend all day telling everyone how expert you are – reading is not an opportunity to turn into a self-obsessed jerk.  It can give you a degree of comfort in conversation, however.

What about Breadth – can’t I just nail one topic really well?

To be fair, you’re already doing that – the law.  Yes, “the law” is a bit of a massive subject and you’re probably not expert in all of it.  However, if you are a lawyer, you should be an expert in your field and through your practice you will constantly be developing greater skills and knowledge in that area.  Those skills will allow you to discharge your duties well.  However, they will not always allow you to engage with other people, which is fundamentally what this article is arguing as the primary benefit of broader reading.

A breadth of knowledge means that you have a wide array of topics that you find both interesting and “discussable”.  It means that you know what the other participant is discussing when you are talking with a financial planner, or a marketing expert, or a social media “guru” (and I use the term loosely).  Perhaps you know something about computers which lets you make friends with the IT guy that nobody else can get through to?  Breadth of knowledge in sufficient detail enables you to carry on a meaningful conversation with somebody in a variety of fields.

So It’s all about Marketing?

Yes.  Okay no.  Well – sort of.  Hopefully the concept of reading more, gaining knowledge and broadening your horizons is inherently attractive.  However, it’s also about client development.  There are not many niche legal areas where your clients will all have the same interests and backgrounds.  If you are going to develop relationships on anything more than surface level, then at some point you’re going to need to talk about more than just the legal matter you are doing for that client.  Reading widely and deeply allows you to do just that.

For me – I generally have 2 or 3 books on the go at any one time.  It’s not really efficient, but some days I feel like reading about social media, others about entrepreneurship, and others still about professional services (don’t worry – I read other stuff too – I’m not a complete nerd all of the time).

Continually growing in these ways has benefited my practice as I sift through new ideas, bad ideas, good ideas and read some classics in areas that have been around for a long time.  I adapt some principles in my practice, and not others.  I discuss these things with people who I think would find them beneficial or interesting, and then they, too, benefit from my consumption of more ideas and better practices.  Sometime if I’m lucky, they have read similar books and are kind enough to share their own knowledge or insight on a particular field with me.

In a practical sense, I recently gave a presentation on ethics that was based heavily on recent reading I have done about positive psychology.  Not many lawyers would put those links together, but the presentation was very well received and, I think, fairly unique for the topic.  The idea would not have come to me if somebody hadn’t been kind enough to identify and gift to me a book that they thought I would find interesting.

In a bigger picture sense, this website is really a function of my reading.  Here I articulate those ideas I read about and think would be interesting to you, re-purposed to be approached for the legal profession irrespective of where they came from initially.  Hopefully this idea has been.  I can’t remember where I read it – but I’ll bet I have done somewhere…

Happy Lawyering!

  • Great article! I must confess that I have fallen into the YouTube cat video trap more times than I’d like to admit (as opposed to reading the next greatest book). But I also strongly agree that reading non-fiction in particular, outside the law, broadens my horizons in meaningful ways. I hope your article encourages me to finally start reading after 7 p.m.!

  • Another great article Chris. Depth of knowledge is very important as having shallow knowledge really leads to one trying something and doing it incorrectly.

    • Thanks Luke completely agree – it’s always good to find the right balance between depth and breadth – so you’re neither too shallow on a topic, nor viewed as a one-trick pony.

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