The third of the Five Factors that distinguish highly successful attorneys is that they are continual learners.
Continually learning and seeking mastery are common practices of high achievers across all fields of endeavor. That is not a surprise. Now-retired defense secretary Jim Mattis, known for being a prolific reader and for his personal library of over 7,000 books, is an example of someone who is a voracious reader and learner in his area of professional expertise. Secretary Mattis is an example of continual learning, primarily to enhance professional competence.
But cultivating a learning mindset does not increase proficiency only in one’s chosen field or profession. Being a life-long learner on topics and in areas beyond career can enhance neuroplasticity and scientists are beginning to better understand the association between learning and neurotransmitters associated with the feeling of well-being. A recent article aimed at CEOs in Europe noted the importance of brain health to business leaders and the potential cognitive benefits of learning practices outside of the professional setting, including playing music and even quilting.
As lawyers, we need to pay attention to evolving brain science. Our brains are indispensable tools in our kit to assist our clients. They need to be healthy and functioning to do our jobs.
Despite what we are told in law school (usually on Day 1 in what was often the only reference to this critical part of our anatomy) – that we will learn to “think like a lawyer” – we simply do not have a “lawyer brain.” Nor, mercifully, can law school create one for us. Frankly, it’s a terrible phrase that tends to suggest to law students that they are somehow leaving behind their humanness.
And, lest we think lawyers, if not different in anatomy, are still somehow different in “personality type” and, therefore, predisposed toward or away from certain behaviors and problems, or need different things to feel happy and healthy (I call this the “Type A Personality” argument), studies have shown this is also not the case. In fact, researchers forcefully noted in a landmark 2015 study on the profession:
“Simply stated, there is nothing in these data to suggest that attorneys differ from other people with regard to their prerequisites for feeling good and feeling satisfied with life. Thus, it would appear that lawyers, and their teachers and employers, should banish any notions that law-trained people are somehow special in this important regard.”
What we’ve learned, not surprisingly, is that when subjected to the long-term stresses of law practice, our brains tend to fail us. The physiological stresses – long hours, poor sleep, etc. – and the psychological ones – constant deadlines, poor relationships with other lawyers, billable hour pressures, clients in crisis, etc. – conspire to dysregulate our well-being. Too often, our coping mechanisms are the maladaptive behaviors documented in the Report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being.
So what does all of this have to do with being a continual learner? Increasingly, it seems a lot.
Not only can continual learning increase professional competence (thus it is a not surprising characteristic of high performing lawyers), as noted above, it may also create a pathway to arguably better brain health through the increasingly, but not yet fully understood interrelationship between learning and the powerful neurotransmitters that also regulate mood.
Returning to the sailing analogy from our discussion of Factor Two and the characteristic of steadiness, being a continual learner is like the crew moving to the windward side of the boat. It is a balancing characteristic, a factor to help to keep the boat steady in the wind. That’s why we find it among so many high performing lawyers. They tend to be not only well-read professionally, but personally. They are interesting people with a variety of hobbies and outside interests that, but for our new knowledge of this factor, would surprise us.
We increasingly know from science that the benefits that come from being a continual learner are real. We know from observation that high performing and happy lawyers practice this habit. Whether it’s continual development of their practice area or the learning that comes from a new hobby, the discipline of playing music or creating art, or just reading (lots of reading), highly successful individuals and lawyers are, at the end of the day, continual learners.
I’m not saying you need a 7,000 book library or to take up quilting, but you can start practicing this habit now. Go learn something new.
Tell me how you keep learning.
My observations about successful attorneys come from my own nearly twenty years in the legal profession and my study of and work with some amazingly successful leaders in the field, but I want to know about you. Drop me a note and let me know what you do to keep learning.