Earlier this week in my Research: Deep and Wide post, I wrote about the importance of reading for breadth as well as depth. I referenced quotes from two poets, Susan Howe and Kathleen Ossip, as examples of both kinds of research. It turns out (small world!) that someone forwarded my post to Ms. Ossip, and then this happened:

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Of course I immediately whipped up a scathing but hilarious response that alluded to Bukowski’s “poetry readings” and taunted academics about needing to get out a little more. Then I put it aside for a bit while I cooled off; that’s the advice I give my clients when they’re busting down barn doors and I try to abide by it myself.

I’m glad I did, because I’ve revised my response some and this is it.

First, permit me to point out, Ms. Ossip, that I never held you up as a role model for lawyers. For one thing, lawyers work really hard, even during the summer. (So this is still a bit snarky, but much, much less than it was originally.) I used your quote to suggest that good ideas often originate from disparate information absorbed over time. I drew it from a longer quote in which you were discussing how you researched your collection, “The Cold War,” a copy of which I actually have on a shelf in my living room. I liked it, which is part of the reason I was so pleased to see you quoted in Jeff Skinner’s book. Here’s proof:

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I included Mary Ruefle’s “Madness, Rack and Honey” in the photo so that a) it would be clear that I wasn’t using a stock photo and b) it would be clear that I am an actual, honest to God consumer of poetry. I go to work, earn money, pay my mortgage and use what’s left over to buy books of poetry and the Kenyon Review. And stuff.

If you read any of the other posts on my blog, you saw that I use literature and poetry pretty frequently. I’ve managed to cobble together a little knowledge of poetry despite not having obtained an M.F.A., I enjoy it, and I like to share it. I believe there is a place for poetry outside of academia, or at least I hope there is. Maybe I should ask you that question. Is it still okay for folks like me to say things about poetry? Or is that a privilege reserved to the faculty room?

Also, maybe you forgot that there are lawyers (and doctors, and clerics, and spinster women in Amherst) who write poetry. Maybe you are even familiar with some of them: Wallace Stevens, Lawrence Joseph, Edgar Lee Masters, Archibald MacLeish. Joseph doesn’t practice, but he’s not an academic either because he only teaches at a law school. And let us not forget Ernest Hemingway, who was not a lawyer or a poet but who did, I understand, chase ambulances at one time. I don’t include myself in that company by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just saying that there is some precedent for lawyers mixing themselves up with poetry. We’re not as boorish as you might think. We don’t even require animal sacrifice at ABA-accredited law schools anymore, although it’s still available as an elective.

My earlier draft came from an insecure, defensive place, because, yep, I do write poetry myself, and it isn’t pleasant when someone you look up to mocks you on Twitter. (Although in fairness and for the record, my post went out to my 2,200+ followers, and yours to your 250. I’m resonating with somebody, apparently.) Then it dawned on me: I’m a rarity in the world of poetry. I have money to buy stuff. And it’s my actual money, not a grant or a fellowship or a gift from Yaddo. I get to write what I want without using up the limited financial resources available to support writers based in academia. The fact that I have built a little audience for my writing means that I get to share poetry – not mine, because I’m not that arrogant, but poems and poets that I really like – with people who don’t subscribe to the Kenyon Review. The last time I checked, that is a good thing, as Martha would say. I’m going to keep doing it. That’s WTF.

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.