You may be surprised when I tell you this but you don’t have to be smarter than your opposing counsel to win. You just have to outwork your opposing counsel. Easier said than done, right?
My first real experiences with success amongst my peers was not in my massive high school or college experience, but when I was in law school. I wasn’t quite sure how to do this whole “law school experience.” It wasn’t until about halfway through the semester that I realized that everyone, literally everyone, was smarter than me. My only hope was to outwork them.
So I completely changed my schedule and started waking up at 4 a.m. every morning. I had never done that before. I committed to working at least 3 hours before my first 8 a.m. class. I came to find out that I was a morning person. And deep work was incredibly meaningful to me in the wee hours of the morning. I got more done in 3 hours than I could get done in 6 evening hours.
After learning that I could never outsmart my colleagues, or rely on my quick wit, I hunkered down and decided to outwork everyone else. Now, I know my friends worked hard. And some may have worked harder than me. But this was my motivation to succeed in a very competitive space.
Here are a few things I learned that have helped me outwork opposing counsel in my law practice:
1. Get up early every morning and sharpen the saw
In Stephen Covey’s seminal work The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (affiliate link), he discusses this one habit that is common in people who are successful. He calls it sharpening the saw.
Covey breaks life into four different areas: physical, social/emotional, mental/intellectual, and spiritual. He recommends doing something every day that helps you grow in each on of those areas. So, for example, under physical Covey recommends eating well, exercising and resting. For mental/intellectual he recommends reading, writing, learning and teaching.
The point is that every day there needs to be something that we do that “sharpens the saw.” Something that focuses on you as a person. Perhaps reading a book that isn’t related to one of your cases. Or studying history. Or studying a religious text (this might overflow in to spiritual).
I still like to wake up early in the morning to work on things that are important to me. That is sharpening the saw. I’ll spend some time in prayer, read scripture, exercise and, if I have time, read something out of a book I’m working on. Then, I’ll go on with the shower, get dressed, get the kids to school, and the work-day begins.
When you have 2-3 hours of quiet, reflective, peaceful time to work on yourself, your day will flow so much better than if you stay up late and get up late in the morning.
2. Commit to working deeply
I’ve mentioned this on the podcast but I’ll mention it again here. I just finished reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (affiliate link). In it he goes into intricate detail about why we need to learn to work deeply as opposed to the shallow work that is so incredibly unsatisfying. Things like responding to emails, making phone calls, sorting through mail, organizing your desk. All of those things have to happen, but they are not the meaningful work that you signed up for.
At the end of a day full of shallow work you probably feel drained, unsure of where the day went. When you finish a day full of deep work probably feel accomplished, on top of everything, and successful. Let’s replicate that last feeling.
Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is your craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.
Newport, Cal, Deep Work, page 90. Newport quotes science writer Winifred Gallagher in support of his thesis that deep work is meaningful:
Like fingers pointing to the moon, or other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavior economics to family counseling, similarly suggests that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.
Id. at 77. If the skillful management of your attention is indeed to sine qua non of the good life, what are we, as lawyers, doing to manage our attention? Nothing, until now. If you work with your email inbox open, close it. If you work with your facebook feed up, shut it down. If you work with your cell phone alerts cranked up so you won’t miss the latest political rant, turn it off. If your receptionist buzzes you 150 times a day, tell her to hold your calls.
None of these things help you create meaningful work in your life or your practice. I’m not saying those things don’t have their place, but their place is not at work. Lawyers are generally workaholics and I think it is because we have difficulty working deeply. If we were able to work deeply, we could work less and enjoy life more.
Try it. What do you have to lose?
3. Use a case management system for all of your tasks, calendar items, and workflows
In the law practice of 2017, we have incredible tools right at our fingertips to help us outwork opposing counsel. Case management systems have come a long way. While they used to be clunky and cumbersome, now they are seamless, integrated, and beneficial to every aspect of law practice.
My greatest affection toward MyCase (the CMS I’ve chosen) is the task features and the workflow features. These tools help me trust my system that things will get done. If it doesn’t get done, it is not because I forgot it. It is because I ignored the task staring me in the face.
This has enabled me to implement my Getting Things Done system into one comprehensive center that houses everything I should be thinking about. It is my external brain. I heard David Allen speak on the EntreLeadership Podcast with Ken Coleman and he said several times, your brain is a great place for creating ideas, not keeping them. Wow. This is essential to understanding the need to create an external system that manages your case files instead of your fallible memory.
So, while your opponent may rely on his incredible, or not so incredible, memory to drive his cases, you rely on an external brain that tells you when things needs to be done, what things need to be done, and how long you have to get it done. This frees you up mentally to explore alternatives, to create new ideas, to think out side of the box. This eliminates the constant worry that is always present in the imposter syndrome that we all carry with us.
I always preface this plug for case management systems by saying that, as with any system, garbage in, garbage out. So if you aren’t going to do the work to put the information into the system, it will not help you in any way shape or form. But, if you use it the way it is intended, it will make your life and your practice that much more successful.
All of these things will help you outwork opposing counsel instead of trying to outsmart him or her.
What do you think? What are other ways that you have found to outwork opposing counsel? We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or leave us a voicemail in the upper right hand corner of this page. Or you can email us at email@example.com