When I was a boy growing up in the suburbs, I was fascinated by the common area that separated my subdivision from the next one over, with its mile-wide stand of deep woods, layers of decaying leaves, and hidden creeks and ponds. It’s where my friends and I built our first forts, started our first fires, and pretended to smoke our first cigarettes. It’s where we hunted for animals like possums, hedgehogs, and snakes. Especially snakes.
Although I said I was fascinated with the woods, it was really the snakes that fascinated me. By the time I’d finished the third grade, I had a shelf lined with books about snakes, many of those filled with colorful photos of other exotic reptiles like alligators and Gila monsters. I had another shelf filled with the items I used as snake-hunting equipment— gloves, a golf putter, and an empty pillowcase. On my dresser was an aquarium I’d filled with the garter snakes I’d caught with my friends. Although I suffered many of the typical problems of youth—most particularly, a dread at having to memorize spelling words—I could always drift off into my hobby of snake-collecting when things became too difficult.
As I got older, my interest in snakes gave way to other hobbies—astronomy, photography, guitar-playing, song-writing, record collecting—until seemingly overnight, at least as I look back on it, I wasn’t memorizing spelling words anymore, but legal rules. Three years of that and I was back in the world of snakes, having seemingly come full circle.
In my maturation from boy to lawyer, another thing that didn't change was my need for a satisfying hobby. For lawyers trying to remain both sane and happy, which I think describes most lawyers, a satisfying hobby is a necessity. It is not an overstatement, in fact, to say that all lawyers should have a satisfying hobby, and that any lawyer who doesn’t is flirting with madness. By way of example, it might be helpful to consider a lawyer I’ll call Richard. On the outside, Richard seemed perfectly ordinary, at least for a lawyer. He was of medium height, slightly overweight, and wore glasses. The only clue that Richard might be harboring a secret, life-altering tension was a nervous tic that made him appear, every so often, to be biting at the air. Even with this tic, however, Richard had a thriving and successful law practice built around his special ability of convincing appellate courts that it had been wrong for trial courts to certify class actions against his clients, most of which were auto companies.
Auto companies, of course, are known to be very demanding clients, and Richard’s clients were no exception. While lawyers who have been out of law school more than ten years hardly ever pull all-nighters, Richard pulled all-nighters at least once each week. Behind his back, it was said that Richard was a “control freak” who “lacked the ability to delegate.” Looking back, however, it is clear that Richard’s biggest problem was that he didn’t have anything to engage his giant brain except for work—in other words, he lacked a satisfying hobby.
One day, Richard’s secretary came to him with the news that his wife was going to call him on the telephone to ask for a divorce. It didn’t seem strange to Richard that his secretary should give him this news; after years of being busy at work, Richard’s wife had grown to become quite good friends with Richard’s secretary. The secretary, whose name was Alice, advised Richard to hurry home at once to put his finger into the dike of his failing marriage. “Do something with her,” Alice said. “Give her a hug. Take her somewhere. Take her to the movies.”
Richard, of course, felt completely lost; as a lawyer who lacked a satisfying hobby, he’d never learned how to properly structure his free time, which included journeys home in the middle of the day. Nonetheless, Richard took his secretary’s advice and went home. Inside the house, which he entered very quietly, he discovered his wife sitting at the piano, playing a difficult Chopin sonata with tears running down her face. Although the piano was one of his wife’s favorite pastimes, Richard couldn’t recall that he had ever really listened to her play. As he stood in the next room watching from behind the cover of a ficus tree, he couldn’t believe that she could play the piano so beautifully, so sublimely, so gracefully. While it made him feel a bond with his wife that he hadn’t felt in years, it also reminded him of the striking contrast between the depth of his wife’s passion for music and the shallow emptiness of his own personality. After watching her for ten minutes, Richard left the house without greeting her. He was thinking that his wife deserved a divorce from him.
Although Richard’s marriage was later saved by the efforts of his secretary Alice, who interceded at the last moment by promising Richard’s wife that she’d prevent Richard’s all-nighters by taking away the control card that turned on the firm’s lights after hours, the efforts of Richard’s secretary weren’t enough to change him as a person. In fact, his situation never really improved, and he lived out the remainder of his life more unhappy than ever, haunted by the vision of his wife’s passionate piano-playing as he’d watched that afternoon from behind the ficus tree. Without the ability to prioritize between work and play, a lesson that a satisfying hobby can provide for the cost of a set of golf clubs, Richard was completely unable to understand how to bridge the gap between what he’d once been before law school—a compassionate, caring person—and what he’d become, mere grist for the law firm’s billing machine.
In rejecting a satisfying hobby out of hand, Richard failed to understand that a satisfying hobby can teach a lawyer how to cope. There are many lawyers like Richard who can’t cope. You can’t miss them, in fact: they’re the ones who are always whining and bellyaching about the horrors of being a lawyer. At least half their problem is that they never tried stamp-collecting or sweater-knitting or dog-trick-teaching. Lawyers who yell at their associates? They should be learning to fly an airplane. Lawyers who get so caught up in the competition to bill more hours that they engage in double billing? They should be working to memorize all the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Lawyers like Richard who are so focused on winning the next case that they don’t know how to satisfy their wives? They should be growing roses in their backyards.
So there you have it: proof that a satisfying hobby is something that’s important to every lawyer. If you’re a lawyer, don’t make the mistake that so many other lawyers are making even as you read this weblog: the failure to get a satisfying hobby. Do it now, before it’s too late.[Like this post? It's one of many included in my book How to Feed a Lawyer (And Other Irreverent Oberservations from the Legal Underground). Details here.]
1. The Circle of Advisors, One in An Ongoing Series of Essays on "Things Important to Every Lawyer"
2. The Lawyer's Briefcase, Another in An Ongoing Series of Essays on "Things Important to Every Lawyer."
3. A Giant Brain, Another in An Ongoing Series of Essays on "Things Important to Every Lawyer."