Are You Reinventing the Wheel?

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Traumatic events stick in your mind. I guess that’s why my first year of law school feels like it happened just yesterday, even though I graduated thirty-one years ago.

I remember John Oliver having to stand up and answer questions on the first day of our real property class. I haven’t seen John in years, but his face on that day is seared into my mind.

I remember when Mad Dog Walker turned to me in civil procedure with questions about International Shoe. It was like I was being electrocuted for an entire hour.

I remember my torts professor, a young guy with extraordinary height and energy. His arms waved, his body stretched out above us. It was like he could reach to the back row and poke me in the face with his long arms and gangly fingers, without even leaving his podium. His presentations were a fire hose of information and energy, punctuated by impossible questions about probable cause.

Each professor came to class with a different strategy for helping us learn. I’m not sure that any single pedagogical method is superior. They’re all good in their own way. I remember a shocking amount of what they taught me, for a guy who can’t remember what I had for lunch. I suppose, unfortunately, that the messages that are permanently stuck in my brain are the ones that were planted there with terror.

Professor James Bond, my writing instructor, implanted the reminder “ALWAYS CHECK THE POCKET PART” by screaming the words as he simultaneously slapped a yardstick down hard, loudly popping on the table. He startled the entire class every single time he repeated his act. It was like he was part teacher, part insane person. But I always check the pocket part. Always. He was crazy like a fox. Every lawyer who took his class remembers him and his message.

The recycler

I encountered different types of professors in law school. They each had their own approach, systems, and methods of delivering their work.

One professor–I’ll call him “the recycler”–really had his act down. He taught the Uniform Commercial Code class.

Most of the class had procured an old outline of his course handed down to us from the previous year’s students. The outline was comprehensive. It had all of his stories along with the punch lines to his jokes. He repeated the same stuff year after year.

If we’d been willing to draw attention to ourselves, we could have completed his jokes as a chorus along with him. We instead sat quietly and used our yellow highlighters on the outline.

I’m not suggesting that “the recycler” was lazy. He was, in fact, an excellent teacher. His stories were good. His jokes were funny. We all did well on that section of the bar exam, and I still have a warm place in my heart for security interests.

The recycler nicely met the standards. He got the job done well. And, as a benefit for him, each year got easier. He had worked hard expending abundant energy early in his teaching career. It paid off in the later years because he could rely on his outlines and notes, and his teaching time got easier with each passing year.

Not only that, but we had the benefit of hearing things in a way that he knew was most likely to stick.

I’ve got admiration for the recycler. His life got easier and the quality of his work product improved with each teaching experience. His approach works for him. His life is good.

The first-timer

Not every teacher could coast like the recycler. Some professors we had were new. We were their guinea pigs. There were no outlines for us to share. In fact, they didn’t yet have an outline for themselves. I regularly spotted one of them in his office scrambling to prepare moments before class. He was cutting it close.

Being a first-time teacher is tough. He had to do the reading just ahead of us, prepare notes, develop questions for discussion, and plan the assignments. First-time teachers are busy. They’ll have an easier time next year, but for this year they’ve got to hustle.

Their lack of teaching experience, and their untested lectures, make for a rocky road during their first year. They’ll get through it, but they end up exhausted, frazzled, and a little worse for the wear.

Hopefully, the first-timer is saving his notes for use next year. Hopefully, this year’s hard work will pay off next year.

As for the students–sometimes they get lucky with an approach that really works. But sometimes they get a dud.

Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious to the first-timer that this is a repeatable process. Sometimes, when you’re mired in week eight of a fifteen-week semester, struggling to prepare for a class that starts in twenty minutes, it’s hard to see the big picture. It’s hard to know that these last-minute scribblings might form the foundation of a long career, when you’re scrambling to prepare exam questions for the first time.

The master

The master is different. She isn’t satisfied with good enough when she knows that being more–much more–is within her grasp. She knows she can serve others in an exceptional way if she organizes her effort toward maximum impact. She sees the big picture, the patterns, long before others do. She grasps her mission early on and takes advantage of her insight.

The master is the hero of our story. The master has been doing this long enough that the frenzy of the first-timer experience is a faint and distant memory. The master is busy and doesn’t have time to sit around reminiscing about the early years of teaching.

The master knows the basics and doesn’t struggle with the teaching. This is not her first rodeo. She’s been there, done that, and gotten the t-shirt. She has comprehensive notes she can use to teach many classes. She’s a teaching machine.

So why is she so busy?

Because she’s not using the system she built to take more time off, hang out chatting under the trees on the quad, or extend her lunch breaks.

No, the master has a system for improving the system.

Each year she takes her notes and improves them. She spends as much energy now as she did in the first year of teaching. But instead of creating something from scratch, she’s creating something better, built on top of her existing system. She really is taking it to the next level.

If a student sits in this class with last year’s outline, she’ll find herself struggling to keep up with the newly added material. New cases are being used to illustrate the points, old stories and jokes are improved, and new ideas are incorporated into the lectures. Last year was good, this year is great. Next year? Who knows? But you can be sure it’ll be better.

It’s easier to see it in others than in ourselves

The first-timer can’t see it. He’s so overwhelmed by figuring out the job that he can’t see the potential for obtaining mastery. He’s lucky to even see the potential for recycling. He’s in the weeds.

The recycler doesn’t always see it either. He’s tired from the early work. He believes that he deserves a break. He’s ready for some downtime. He’s coasting, and it’s enjoyable. He has no idea what might happen if he kept layering improvements on top of this existing work product.

Those of us sitting in the back of the classroom can see the differences between the professors. We’ve got lots of opinions we happily share with the other students over coffee between classes.

But we rarely apply our observations about others to ourselves. We move from law school to practicing law, and we lose our powers of perspective. Unfortunately, most of us spend way too much of our time in the weeds, just like the first-timer and the recycler.

We see each case as a unique set of facts. Each new engagement feels like it involves a unique client, requiring custom handling. We know we’re doing similar tasks in each matter–drafting pleadings, dealing with discovery, scheduling events–but it’s easier to see the differences than the similarities.

We have a hard time seeing the potential for obtaining mastery. We have a hard time seeing how we can build more success on top of our last success. We’re lucky if we see the potential for recycling. We’re tired and ready for some downtime. It’s easier to coast–that’s enjoyable.

We often lack the perspective which allows us to see what might happen if we keep layering improvements on top of our existing work product.

Becoming “the master” requires keeping perspective. We’ve got to see the big picture, the long-term, the entire career. Can you see it now? It’s never too late.

I wonder if they called “Mad Dog Walker” the mad dog in his first year, or if it took a few years to get the terror worked into his act? I wonder if Professor Bond started off his first year screaming “Always check the pocket part” while slapping his yardstick down hard to scare us? I wonder if I’d remember these people and events so well if they hadn’t already had a few years to perfect their performances?

It’s hard, early in our careers, to see the possibilities for hitting the next level. It’s hard to know, especially when we’re scrambling, that the work we’re doing today is the foundation for the work we’ll do tomorrow. But we must see it if we’re going to get through being “the first-timer” and speed past “the recycler.”

BOOM! If I had something to slap down and make a loud noise, I’d do it right now. If I could scare you a little at this moment, I would. I hope you’ll take the lesson and apply it to your career. It’s worth your investment in you.

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