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Legal work is a marathon, not a sprint

BY MARC GUSTAFSON

In the time of COVID-19 it seems particularly odd to compare the practice of law with running a marathon, but with virtual racing as prevalent as virtual hearings, maybe the comparison isn’t all that big of a stretch. Putting aside for the moment that I have completely abandoned my running partner of more than seven years out of virus-related fears, I think many of the things I have experienced training for and competing in marathons could be useful in my legal practice.

So, on the few runs I have been on lately, I have tried to think about ways running can make me a better lawyer. Here are just a few: (1) stepping into any legal matter should be viewed as a marathon, not a sprint; (2) it’s always better to run with others; (3) prepare for the terrain ahead; and (4) we need to nourish our bodies, which includes pausing for injury.

Legal matters are marathons

Despite many of our clients’ initial rush to get to a solution, legal work is often best compared to a marathon. In fact, I’ve got non-compete lawsuits that are older than the gel packets in the bottom of my running bag. So, as tired as the saying may be, it still holds true—lawsuits and legal matters really are marathons, not sprints. And, as many people that are new to running quickly discover, this statement holds true for the training, even more than the race itself.

A friend once determined that he was going to run a marathon. He had run some longer distances and figured his body could handle it. What he didn’t realize is that the test of your physical abilities doesn’t come on race day. Willpower alone can motor you through that, but the real test is in the training. I frequently run 3-4 runs in excess of 20 miles in the weeks leading up to a marathon. But it’s not just the miles run, or the skin lost, or the calories burned on these 3+ hour runs, it’s the time away from family, the physical recovery, and the anxiety that surround them that are the biggest hurdles.

The same is true for any lawsuit, and I try to be clear when I am explaining that to an employer considering filing a lawsuit or an employee who could be faced with one. There is a huge emotional toll of sitting in a hearing and having the opposing counsel throw rhetorical rocks at you, of having every nook and cranny of your life examined during a deposition, of experiencing the rise and fall of emotions that come with every motion granted or denied. There’s also the distraction. Like running long distances, there is time away from family, other diversions, and even work.

These things are hard to quantify, but I believe they merit a very serious discussion with clients before they endeavor to begin any legal course. After all, the worst feeling is quitting in the middle of a race. The second worst feeling is limping to the finish. And the third worst feeling may be the muscle fatigue, mental exhaustion, and downright agony that sets in after the adrenaline of finishing a marathon wears off.

Run together

I have frequently written about the benefits of having partners and associates to lean on for moral and practical support. Having others you enjoy working with and can trust to do a good job confirms the African proverb: “If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together.”

While I enjoy running with groups and the shared experience that comes with it, the vast majority of my runs are with my running partner. We don’t have to coordinate schedules, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we know when to pull and when to push, we know when the other guy just needs encouragement or just to be left alone. But I would never have seen the finish line, much less reached so many of my goals, if it wasn’t for Tim running right there beside me.

Sure, there are times when I love to run by myself to be alone with my thoughts. Over the course of preparing for a marathon, however, I know it’s better to have that running partner that shows up at 6:15 every Tuesday and Thursday and even earlier every Saturday during marathon season. Having someone to bounce potential legal arguments off, to stand in on a hearing, to cover you so you can take a needed vacation, or to jump in and lend a hand on a task that’s been sitting on your desk for far too long has been incredibly valuable to me.

On the other side of this, I think lawyers struggle with doing it quicker themselves or allowing someone to help. Despite the temptation to go it alone, I believe the latter results in a better outcome. After all, if my running success proves anything, it is that slow and steady may not win the race, but the results can still be very good.

Know the terrain

As a law school intern in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, I remember my supervising attorneys looking closely at the judicial calendar when deciding if/when to file an asset forfeiture matter. I came to learn that they knew exactly which judges would sign a search warrant or order a bank account frozen and how often that was critical to the ultimate success of their case. Put another way, these lawyers knew the course they were running.

In preparing for a marathon, which for me includes running what people call “tempos”—an anaerobic pace within a longer run—it’s tempting to find the longest, flattest course you can. However, the better practice is to find terrain that matches the race course. After all, few marathons are run on pancake-flat, out-and-back stretches of perfect pavement, covered in shade, nor can you always find the most favorable judge, jury or other decision-maker. Beyond knowing that legal matters are rarely linear and that the ability to change course can be incredibly beneficial, knowing your audience—the way you can know which miles the hills will come in a marathon—can be invaluable.

Take care of yourself

So much of a marathon is about the training and everything that goes along with running 4-5 times for anywhere from 20-50 miles a week for months on end. With that kind of mileage, you can develop issues with just about every part of your body, and probably ones you didn’t even know existed. And that’s before you even consider the mental toll of doing something that, as the legend goes, killed the Greek messenger who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce Greece’s victory against its invaders.

Like runners, self-care should be a primary concern for lawyers. Beyond the lost vision from staring at multiple screens, achy backs from slouching in uncomfortable office chairs, and arthritic fingers from overuse of iPhones, mental health is a near-universal hazard for our profession. Just as I use a coach to help me manage not just my workouts but to work around nagging injuries, lawyers would be well served to seek out help, which I think can range from legal confidantes to friends outside the profession to mental healthcare professionals. Not only will this allow you to continue to run the race, but it will make the journey that much more enjoyable.

We also need to find diversions from the stress of legal work. That can be running, but it can also mean volunteering, spending time with family, developing an interest in cooking, or writing that novel that you’ve been dreaming about. For lawyers that are used to a clock controlling our lives, it may be next to impossible to consider taking or even finding the time that we need for ourselves. But just as many marathoners report running even faster after taking time away, lawyers can benefit from stepping away from their work for some recovery time.

If reading this has turned you away from ever running a marathon, it hasn’t done its job. While I don’t call myself a runner or wouldn’t even say I enjoy running, I do get a lot out of it. I think the same can be said for my practice of law. It’s a hard job and can so often get you down. But I think there are ways to approach it that can make us more effective counselors and advocates, and maybe even more enjoyable, which sounds like a worthy goal for my next marathon.

Marc Gustafson is a partner at Bell, Davis & Pitt in Charlotte. His practice focuses on complex commercial and employment litigation. He is also a certified mediator.

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