Lawyers do a lot of research.

It might surprise you to learn that poets also do a lot of research.

We tend to assume that poetry springs from the mind of the writer like Athena from the mind of Zeus: fully formed.  But not so much.  Image

From Jeffrey Skinner’s “The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: A Self-Help Memoir” (Sarabande Books 2012), two quotes from writers who are more than moderately successful:

I need to ground my work in particulars.  In my case this usually means a material object such as a book, or a manuscript, most recently lace.  Often a historical moment, or a specific person.  Not a made-up character – I could never be a novelist – but I try to understand all aspects of the person I am writing about the way a playwright or an actor might.

– Susan Howe

I’m usually more comfortable dealing with atmospheres and sensations than irritably reaching after facts.  “American Myth” began, really, when I was a kid, dipping into books I didn’t understand on my parents’ bookshelves.

– Kathleen Ossip

Lawyers tend to be pretty good at the first sort of research because it is the sort of research that develops answers to specific questions.  A client wants to know whether he has a cause of action based on a discrete set of facts.  We plug the facts into the Westlaw search bar and come up with an answer.  This is deep research: time spent accumulating information responsive to a specific problem.  Like Susan Howe, we “ground” ourselves in the facts presented in a client’s matter.  What we learn might be helpful to us again at some point in the future, or it might not.

Kathleen Ossip, on the other hand, relies on what we might call wide research.  She doesn’t start out with a topic to write about necessarily; instead, having read widely she draws upon what she has accumulated and comes up with something interesting, a connecting line between two points that no one else has spotted before.  And she writes about that.

Now I am going to suggest something that the lawyer marketing gurus would probably consider heresy.  Which kind of research is more important to a lawyer’s success?  I say the second, and here’s why.

The fact is that anyone of moderate intelligence with access to Westlaw or Lexis or Google can answer a distinct legal question.  It may not be the most polished answer, and you won’t want to bet the company on it, but realistically as information has become readily available online it has become less and less necessary to pay a lawyer for access to the information.   We are no longer gatekeepers because the fences are down.

The value a lawyer brings to a particular transaction is no longer information but knowledge.  Knowledge is to information as a shopping cart is to the items on the shelves at the grocery store.  A person with knowledge understands which items are relevant and necessary, which are too costly or of too poor quality, and which should be purchased and stored for future use.

This is why I pointed out in an earlier post that Justice Scalia is wrong to critique the “Law and . . .” seminars offered by law schools.  Yes, it is important to understand legal subjects in depth.  It is equally important to bring the contexts of history, culture, psychology, politics, and economics to bear on legal issues.  No legal problem exists in a vacuum.  It is nonsensical to expect that its solution should.

My background is in literature and I continue to read a great deal.  I probably average two or three novels a month, sometimes more, sometimes less.  I am certain that my reading informs my work and my thinking.  Personally I believe literature is the best source for understanding all of those contexts I mentioned in the preceding paragraph.  You might not, and would prefer to read pure history.  Or maybe you are a film buff.  Do whatever just so long as you are acquiring breadth as well as depth.

The better able we are to think and reason and exercise discretion, the better prepared we are to practice law.  These are skills not taught in law school or any CLE and not available for purchase online.  They are acquired over a lifetime of learning and they are exquisitely valuable.