Journal of Leadership and the Law

Making a Case for Legal Cross-Training: How Increased Interdisciplinary Work in the Legal Profession Will Benefit the Profession - 2012

Andrew RealonAndrew Realon '14

ELON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW

A person who runs a few days a week finds that his or her performance in running generally improves with practice; the muscle groups become disciplined and trained to perform the act of running.  However, when the same muscles are applied in a context other than running, the runner may find himself challenged with an inability to keep up pace even though seemingly athletically fit. As a result of this unexpected shortcoming, many runners are now beginning to engage in other sports, such as biking or swimming, to increase their overall athleticism. This note examines the talents of the legal profession and advocates for a wider application of their use, which in turn strengthens the talents of the lawyer.

As a second year student at Elon Law, my ability to brief cases in preparation for class increased dramatically since my first day in law school. Further, the act of outlining a course in preparation for an exam has become routine. Similar tasks hold true for seasoned lawyers, such as preparing a brief or appearing before a court to argue a motion. These activities become second nature to a student or lawyer just as the act of running becomes routine to a seasoned runner. 

So if the analogy holds true, and lawyers are in the habit of ‘running’ in their practice, what could the practice of ‘biking’ or ‘swimming’ mean to their ‘overall athleticism’? I solicited two interviews with lawyers who engaged in interdisciplinary work outside their general law practice, and asked them how their outside work has affected their lawyership.

Charles Meeker is a partner at Parker Poe in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has recently finished his fifth consecutive term as the mayor of Raleigh. Meeker continued to practice at his firm while he served since the office of mayor is a part time position. In his practice, Meeker assists clients with local government issues, including public finance and tax assessment. Most of Meeker’s legal clients are not in the Raleigh area, and even so, the context in which Meeker serves the clients’ legal needs is entirely different than how a mayor would reach constituents. However, Meeker says that he brings to his practice a better understanding of how his public entity clients make decisions.

I asked Meeker how the two parts of work affected each other. There was a clear and direct benefit of a law education to being a public official (understanding procedures better, for example). It was not as direct concerning how holding - public office has benefited his practice. The biggest draw was an increased knowledge of why public officials make certain decisions the way they do.

At Parker Poe, one of Meeker’s colleagues, Russell Killen is also a serving as a mayor (Knightdale, NC), and a few other lawyers are engaged on non-profit boards or other civic engagement opportunities. Meeker, suggesting that one requirement for engaging in interdisciplinary activities is flexibility, said that, “People who expect weekends and nights free would face a challenge.” For Meeker, the opportunity to work on specific projects, such as revitalizing downtown Raleigh, has been worth the time sacrifice. 

I also spoke with John Flynn, who practices at Carruthers & Roth in Greensboro, North Carolina, and teaches at Elon University School of Law. In his practice, Flynn works with commercial clients doing business drafting. At Elon Law, he teaches legal writing and business drafting courses. Before becoming a professor, Flynn served as a preceptor at Elon, allowing him to act as a mentor to law students. When the opportunity for a legal writing teaching position arose, Flynn eagerly accepted, and has fervently appreciated that decision.

Flynn believes that the business drafting has been a “wonderful complement” to his practice. As a result of teaching the class, he has become a better legal drafter. Flynn also suggested that some of the other lawyers at his firm are envious of Flynn’s position where he spends time away from the office because he is teaching, and have suggested that they would like to guest lecture on campus in the future. Flynn spends two days a week with school and three days in his legal practice; he confirmed that the balance is manageable, and he is able to adjust if a client has an urgent need, or if a student requests to meet.

There are others, Flynn suggested, who might question why he would spend time teaching when it means less billable hours. Flynn attested that the time he spends working with students is so rewarding the loss of those hours is not as important to him because of the positive impact of teaching. In summarizing his teaching style, Flynn compared his students to clients, saying, “We’re here to do something together.” 

However, Flynn did expose a potential problem: the need for a paradigm shift before increased interdisciplinary work can occur for lawyers. As long as the billable hour sits on a pedestal, rigid lawyers will resist the position that spending time away from their primary practice would do anything but detract from the profession. However, Meeker and Flynn are cases in point of how the opposite may be true. Meeker allowed the position of mayor to positively enhance his lawyership by shaping his understanding of how his clients think. Likewise, Flynn has allowed teaching to improve his abilities in his own practice.

Meeker and Flynn are great examples of ‘runners’ who have engaged in ‘biking’ or ‘swimming’ to increase their overall athleticism, but what can their example mean for others? Flynn suggested that not every lawyer should consider taking a teaching post; smaller scale opportunities, such as serving as a moot court judge, can provide lawyers opportunities to engage in other contexts, allowing them to flex their legal muscles in a different way.

Other benefits can be gleaned from legal cross training as well. Cross training has been proven to not only increase overall fitness, but also to prevent burnout and minimize boredom. Lawyers’ interests in new areas can be provoked. By pushing lawyers out of the courtroom and into the community, lawyers will be less likely to become complacent or lazy in their work because they are given a fresh perspective and new and exciting challenges. The strengthening of core legal muscles and these additional benefits are reason enough for lawyers to begin using legal talents in alternate contexts. 

It is up to us to decide whether we are satisfied as ‘seasoned runners’ or -- alternatively, if we are up to the challenge, we may begin to utilize legal cross training to improve our ‘overall athleticism.’ I can say for myself that I will be taking cues from John Flynn and Charles Meeker, and upon admission to the NC Bar, will begin to apply my legal muscles outside the courtroom.