Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Tao of Studying Law

It is the second week of November. Tension is in the air. Law students have donned the full body clench of anxiety, self doubt, and despair. The time for reckoning is approaching. Law professors can sense the rising tide of anxiety. A student raises a hand in what appears to be a question about the current discussion. Instead she asks: "Will this be on the exam?" A subtle wave of nervous laughter ensues. The professor takes note. The game is on.

These days, law students are not thinking about law. To the contrary, they are becoming hostile to new information of any kind. These days, law students are focused on how to study law for the exams. Ok, let's talk about that.

I offer to you advice I received from an extraordinary man, Bill Irwin. I met Bill ten years ago in Columbia, South Carolina at the University of South Carolina Solomon Blatt Natatorium. Bill is a former swim coach at Adelphia University, a collegiate All-American at Rutgers, and a Masters All-American in 2000 in the 70-74 age group. I went to the pool to get my laps in, to blow off stress, and fight off middle age. Bill came to the pool to coach. He is a swim coach and he coached all of us who were open to it. In the years that have passed since I first met Bill in the deep end of the water, I have discovered that what he taught me about swimming is good advice for the study of law.

1. Studying Law (Swimming) is a Mind/Body Practice, Like Tai Chi.

Bill said to me, "Reilly, you are a much better swimmer than you think you are." Nobody had ever said that to me before. I was a functional swimmer. I filled the lane. I finished. I was never fast. At my age, I had no thought of swimming fast. I had no thought at all about swimming other than to get it over with. I left my mind on the side of the pool.

I learned that the point of swimming -- like studying -- is to swim better. Swimming better requires a conscious connection between mind and body. By focusing both mind and body on swimming more efficiently (more like a fish), speed comes. This concept is known as "Total Immersion" -- a practice of swimming that focuses on grace, balance and efficiency of movement in the water. Think about what you are doing with every inch of your body every moment in the water, and speed will come.

As you study, think not only about what you are to learn, but also how you are learning it. Like a swimmer makes subtle adjustments in stroke and breath to correct for wake, drag and fatigue, watch for and correct the little things that hold you back in your study. Do not leave your mind by the side of the pool.

2. The Shape of the Vessel is As Important As the Size of the Engine.

As you study for exams, consider the mistake many people make when learning to swim. They believe that swimming faster is simply a matter of more effort and power. Sure, swimming fast takes physical strength and stamina. But, speed through the water, as a scientific matter, is a product of a balance between the shape of the vessel and the size of the engine. Bill told me to stop thinking about my arms (puny), and lungs (wimpy) -- aspects of the big engine I lacked. "Reilly," he said, "You are a long canoe." A canoe does not need a big motor to slip over the water. A canoe moves fast and a long way with a single stroke of a paddle, thoughtfully placed.

Rid your mind of its fixation on what you are not. Focus on the attributes you have. Use them, all of them, to their maximum advantage. Consider what activity you consider "studying." Perhaps you have made the mistake beginning swimmers make in emphasizing drill, drudgery and exhaustion as the key to success. In swimming, after each wall there is a "push off"-- a long glide in which a swimmer rests and focuses on the lap ahead. During the push off, a swimmer seems to be doing nothing. But the glide off the wall before the swimmer turns on the big engine are typically the swimmer's fastest yards. Use the glide to your advantage. Consider redefining "studying" to include not just the time you are actively bent over the books, but also the time you spend reflecting, sorting, and wondering throughout your day. Sometimes the less you appear to be doing, the more you are actually doing.

Of course to reap the benefit of the Tao of Studying, you must actually commit to studying and follow through. For swimmers, the key to swimming better is to go to the pool and get in the water. The concept in swimming has a name: TIW (time in the water). The idea is that the more time a swimmer spends in the water, the more sensitive he or she will be to inefficiency in movement. Swimmers call this "feel" for the water. Law students who spend TOS (time on studying) in law school will experience the same effect -- feel for how they are learning. Lawyers understand TOS. What swimmers call "feel" for the water, lawyers call judgment.

3. If You Want to Swim Fast, Practice Swimming Fast.

If you want to earn A's, study like an A student. Look around. Who among your classmates is training for the Olympics? You know who they are. You may think they are weenies, gunners, kiss ups or worse. You are wrong. The best swimmers got out of bed at 4AM every morning in the dead of winter to get to swim practice. They got no glory, just goggle eyes and green hair. Most of us never noticed them, until they were champions.

Instead of ignoring those in your class with the hearts of champions, resolve to study like they do. Your actual results may vary. But this I learned from Bill and I know to be true. Results depend on commitment and consistency. Every day is a chance to train.

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