Dickensian lawyers were inseparable from their books. Noses always pressed into some dusty, leather-bound tome, everyone knew lawyers loved to read. Subsequent TV and film portrayals of lawyers reinforced this image, with the hot-shot New York lawyer seen pouring over books for hours, before leaping up (Archimedes style) with the fact or theory that would win the case and save the day.
But in the ever-accelerating, information-rich days of the “attention economy” (interesting read by Davenport BTW), how many lawyers actually get the time, or indeed have the inclination, to read more than is absolutely necessary?
Before I explore this area, I need to pin my colours to the mast. I’m a huge reader. I probably read 75-80% non-fiction, but also love a good novel (Shantaram by David Greggory-Roberts is a top read). Around ten years ago I read a few books on speed-reading (I’d recommend Buzan or Kump as authors in this area) and taught myself to do it. This meant for example that for the year I spent commuting I could easily get through 3 paperbacks a week.
There are a whole host of myths around speed reading, but the important thing to realise is that you need to read at a pace that’s appropriate for the material you are reading. For example, if I had 30 min to read a stack of industry reports, I would use a faster pace than I would if I was reading an important judgement in a relevant area of law. There’s very little magic in speed reading, but if you are going to read a lot, it’s worth investing a small amount of time in understanding the principles and techniques, then you can incorporate any parts you find useful into your reading.
The example I used above (reading a stack of industry reports in 30 mins) summarises one of the challenges that lawyers face, both in practice and in-house. There is a huge amount of material to get through that falls into that difficult “important but not urgent” category (classification from Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – a “must read”). It’s the type of material that, in private practice, might for example show you are a bit more up to date than your competitors in following your client’s industry. In-house it might allow you to have a discussion with a senior commercial colleague about the legal implications of a particular product development. Unfortunately this material is also the type which gets piled on a desk (or the electronic equivalent) with good intentions, and slowly ages and loses its value before it either gets read or (more likely)is moved to the big bookshelf in the sky.
The view I’ve taken with this type of material for the past 10 years, is that it’s better to read it quickly and take on board a % of the key points (if indeed there are any; there may not be), than not read it all because I don’t have the time to do so thoroughly. If I do speed read an article and realise it’s particularly important or rich in some other way, I can of course return to it when I have more time. Using the Pareto principle (80% of the value will come from 20% of the resource) speed reading helps me identify where best to spend my time.
When I was in practice and in-house I used to block out small but regular periods of time each week to work through these type of articles. If you are free of other distractions, it’s amazing how much you can get through in 30 minutes. I don’t claim to have kept every single diary appointment clear, but generally I did manage to fit enough of these sessions in to feel I was keeping on top of things. I’m sure scheduling them early, before most clients and peers were operating helped me.
As with many things in these fast-moving era, time management is an important aspect of managing this challenge (Getting Things Done is a very popular book in this area at the moment, although the system didn’t work for me), but speed reading can give you a useful tool to maximise the time you do have available.
The other area I think is important is the breadth of material that is read. When I was in practice as a technology & outsourcing lawyer, I used to read lots about the technology itself, not just the market. Aside from product info from my clients, web resources like Wired and Slashdot, supplemented with a liberal dose of “gadget porn” (like T3 magazine) helped me speak to clients in their language and understand the culture of their core customers. When in-house, the aggressive reading schedule (120hrs per month) of my MBA introduced me to a host of great business authors that I hadn’t read before (Mintzberg and Porter being two of my favourites) . While I might have come across some of these authors’ theories before, reading their work first hand added a new depth to my understanding and definitely increased the richness of the conversations I could have with my commercial peers.
In both cases, I believe that this wider understanding allowed me to be a better lawyer too. Advice is of course not delivered in a vacuum, and while reading isn’t the only way of getting that broader knowledge, it’s certainly a good start.