“Ill choose my targets with care . . . then give them my rapt attention. In short, I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”
Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work, provides any student, practitioner, or academic the insight to build and hone a successful legal career. Law is a notoriously complex, frustrating field. As a young associate, you must learn about novel issues in short amount of time, and subsequently produce valuable insight to demanding (rightly so) clients or supervisors. My experience with studying law, which has only been as a student and summer associate, has been vitally missing what Cal Newport calls Deep Work—a skill necessary to achieve optimal productivity. Fortunately, for those like myself who have up to this point been missing out on Deep Work, the rest of the population doesn’t possess the skill either. Why not? Well, it has to do with the fact that we are constantly consumed by online media and other day-to-day distractions that channeled through the internet and our smart phones.
Let me start by saying that at base, Deep Work is a really valuable asset. I have been engaging in Deep Work for the last couple weeks and my productivity in writing a Law Review article has increased tremendously. I also enjoy “going Deep” and receive a level of satisfaction (a type of emptied-out feeling) after that I don’t often experience when working in a distracting environment.
Thus, this book can help you gain an asset, but I don’t quite know how to categorize the book’s genre. It’s neither a garden-variety self help book, nor a business book with general principles about how to succeed in your respective field. It is really a “Skills” book that teaches you ways to become extremely productive in any field that requires periods of learning new tasks. In fact, it is really no different than a “how to” book describing the ways to build something. But instead of building something tangible, you begin to build something much greater: the ability to focus in a way unparalleled to the majority of the population. In a profession where you can see students and practitioners alike checking their email or other distracting websites every couple minutes, the ability to focus is becoming a lost art, but also a competitive advantage.
But what is Deep Work? It is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Newport explains that people have been engaging in Deep Work far before the writing of this book and describes the habits and satisfaction various professionals, old and young (i.e., Carl Jung and Adam Grant) gain from Deep Work. And, upon completion of this book, you too will be increasingly excited to start your next project or complete your next “Deep” task—not everything we engage in on a daily basis is considered Deep Work (think answering emails or reading a well-written secondary source vs. writing a research paper or drafting a motion on summary judgment). Upon completion of this book, you will be inspired to shut off your smart phone for prolonged periods of time and decline frequent ESPN visits or Reddit visits from this day forward. The difference in productivity is palpable.
In today’s industry, everyone wants to be productive. Everyone wants to be efficient. But not everybody wants to implement the steps to get there; this book will show you the steps and urge you to follow them in a decidedly persuasive fashion.
I could go into further specifics about the tactics Professor Newport applies, but, unfortunately, as experience dictates, my attempts to explain such tactics has proved unsatisfying. Thus, Ill leave Professor Newport to fill in all the gaps for you, but not before I leave you with my favorite principle from the book: Attention Residue. This principle dictates that people are increasingly less productive when they constantly switch tasks instead of focusing all their attention on a single subject. This reduced productivity results because the other less important task(s) work as a distraction that remains on your subconscious mind. So, when in the middle of performing a cognitively demanding task like writing a brief, think twice before you switch out of Westlaw and decide to briefly check Facebook; opening that tab will can a residual-type effect that impedes your ability to focus once you get back to brief writing.
Hopefully this review will inspire you to check out this book so you too can develop the skills necessary to cultivate both Deep Work and success in your profession. You can find the link to the book here:
Disclaimer: I am an Amazon affiliate and will receive a commission if you buy this book using this link. In addition, please let me know if there are any questions I can answer about this book, or Deep Work in general.
For a great youtube video on Deep Work, check out Brian Johnson’s channel here.
This post is meant to be the first of a series discussing what books I recommend reading prior to entering law school. I will recommend books that either explicitly have to do with law or teach general non-law techniques that can help you develop the skills necessary to thrive in law school.This series will actually focus on the latter type but I am going to start with a book that was written specifically for law students. That book is Getting to Maybe by Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul.
But first, I’ll start with an anecdotal story about my friend’s dad who took pre-1L reading to the next level. My friend’s dad, an incredibly smart individual who was a partner at one the very best litigation firms in LA for many years, finished top of his class in large part because of rigorous preparation prior to 1L. He did not read books on exam techniques, strategies, or books on general law school well-being, but instead, read the actual casebooks from all of his first year courses!
The details as to how in depth he studied these materials are unclear, but suffice it to say this gave him a substantial leg up on his competition. Note, to do this, you must also have a job that allows such free-time—he worked as a valet which explains his ability to read for extended periods of time. I am not really recommending that you do this, and many of you won’t be able to if you come straight from undergraduate to law school or work a full time job prior to law school; so for you people, try to read a few tactic oriented books. I’ll start with Getting to maybe which is one of the very best.
Understand this: This book pretty much saved me as a pre-1L. This was not because it gave me the ability to answer law school questions, I didn’t know the substance yet. But because I gained confidence, comfort and familiarity with law school exams after reading this book. Prior to law school, I had no idea what to expect, but this book concisely explains the different types of exams and gives you a good idea of what an “Issue Spotter” exam is vis-à-vis a policy question. Importantly, it also shows you how to analyze both.
The book explains the inherent ambiguity you will encounter when answering a law school exam and different tactics and techniques to look for, all while providing a comprehensive methodology to be used as a tool to answer questions. At the most basic level, it analogizes analyzing exam issues to taking forks in the road. But instead of meeting the road, you encounter forks in the law and forks in the facts. Depending on which road you take, you can end up with an entirely different answer. So how does the book resolve this question? Take them all. The more pathways you go down, the more points you will accrue because you are considering different scenarios your class-mates are failing to acknowledge. For instance, in a tort case, in deciding whether any defenses to a negligence claim exist, far too many students will just discuss comparative negligence and that defense alone. The student who has read Getting to Maybe, on the other hand, will analyze this issue, but then consider the outcome if we were in a different jurisdiction that applies contributory negligence. This would likely lead to an entirely different result, but whichever you reach won’t matter. As my Criminal Law professor used to proclaim: the answer is in the analysis. Hopefully this example gives the interested reader a brief intro into the types of concepts this book introduces.
The book will also give you all the skills needed to answer policy questions. For instance, analyzing the question from both sides. Although this seems simple, it is amazing how many students only put forth arguments from a single vantage point without addressing the other side’s concerns. Additionally, this section will supply you with broad policy concerns to apply in any policy question—i.e., the economic concerns in administering your proposed rule, the inconsistencies that might result in other areas of the law by your proposed rule, and the unfairness to the side who does not receive the benefit of your proposed rule.
In sum, reading this book will arm you with the weapons to do damage in your 1L year. It will eliminate the possibility that you will be that student who can’t fill up the pages during that issue spotter and leaves an hour earlier than the rest of the class. Reading this book will guarantee that you have more than enough to write about and show you how to do it in an organized, thorough, and efficient manner. In fact, this book was so good I read it once during the summer pre-1L and also once during my 1L semester!
Tip: I created a brief outline highlighting the major topics and concepts; please email me if you would like to receive it @ Mjgoodman90@gmail.com. If you would like to purchase this book, you can find it here:
Disclaimer: I am an affiliate for Amazon and will receive a commission if you decide to purchase this book.
 An upcoming post will discuss the book titled Deep Work by Cal Newport. This may be one of the best books a pre-1L could get their hands on but is not written for law students.