On Oct. 6, I ran my first marathon. Over 26.2 grueling miles, I kept asking myself why I set out to conquer this challenge. What was it about pushing the limits of my endurance that appealed to me? And how could I connect it to the person I am when I’m not wearing running sneakers, high-tech performance shirts and (too) short shorts that I would have laughed at two years ago? Over the four hours, 43 minutes that it took me to reach the finish line, I did not have much else to do besides think. And somewhere in between “I’m tired” and “I am really, really tired” (at which point rational thought largely ended), I came to a realization that at least somewhat answered my questions.
Marathons—the dedication, patience and sometimes outrageous hours they require—are a lot like the practice of law. Even the words “trial” and “trail” are separated by only a couple of transposed vowels. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a marathon is a pretty good metaphor for the life of a case and the course of a legal career.
As anyone who has run a marathon knows, long races have stages—each presenting its own particular challenges. The first few miles of a race are all about getting warmed up and avoiding burning too much energy on the excitement of the starting line and cheering crowds. An unusually fast start can wreak havoc on the back end of a race. The next 10 to 15 miles are all about hitting one’s stride, taking care to stay hydrated and energized. The last six miles of a marathon are notoriously difficult (they certainly were for me). At that point, a runner is tired and cramping; it is all about endurance and determination rather than fitness. Finally, with 26 miles down and the end in sight, a runner only has to get through the last two-tenths of a mile. This last push requires a final burst of energy and will.
Although I did not realize it during the beginning part of my career (because most of the class actions I worked on took years to get beyond the pleadings stage), taking a case from start to finish has stages and rhythms that are very similar to a marathon. In the beginning days of a new case, I find myself getting my bearings and working hard just to get my arms around the legal and factual issues my client has presented. In this period of warming up, it is important not to move too quickly and jump to any conclusions, particularly as strategic decisions made early (from forum to the inclusion of parties) can have significant impact on the case over time.
Just like the middle 15 miles of a marathon, building a case and conducting discovery are all about hitting a stride. This is the time to learn the case inside and out, without overwhelming pressure or influence of impending deadlines. Just as managing hydration in the middle 15 can have a significant impact on the final miles of a race, successfully managing the discovery period can make the later stages of a case far easier. The final six-mile stretch of a marathon is much like dispositive motion practice: difficult and grueling, as the whole of the case must be shaped into a coherent, persuasive argument. And, finally, the trial itself is not unlike those last, troublesome two-tenths of a mile: The hardest work has already been done, and a successful outcome relies on a final application of total commitment, focus and effort.
From my experiences and conversations with older colleagues and friends, I have come to think of a marathon as a metaphor for a legal career as well. In the first days (or years) of a career, young lawyers are essentially warming up. The danger, just as in a race, is of starting too fast and burning out. I did not take a vacation for the first year-and-a-half of my career. I thought I was fine; I was mistaken. It was not until I actually took some time off that I realized how thoroughly tired I was. Working hard has value, but needs to be approached with the same care as the first few miles of a marathon. Over time, young attorneys hit their stride. In this middle 15 of a career, attorneys build expertise, professional reputation and a client base. Even the final stage of a career can have certain similarities with the end of a race. Although they would certainly deserve a rest, the lawyers I know who have enjoyed long, successful careers rarely slow down; to the contrary, they often choose to focus their intellect and experience on the cases that most interest them. Even if they lack the energy of their earlier years, they can rely on their determination and experience (and a team of younger colleagues) to keep pushing through.
Why do I run? I think it is a similar reason to why I became a lawyer. Whether on the trail or in a trial, I like the challenge of pushing myself further than I thought possible. I enjoy the process, where early morning runs mean as much to getting to an eventual finish line as the late nights of reading cases mean to putting on a strong case before a jury. In sneakers or a suit, I crave the satisfaction of working hard and doing well—whether it is battling through a long run or cogently explaining a complicated argument. And, notwithstanding the existence of other runners to race and opposing counsel to litigate against, both pursuits have a strong component of personal growth and commitment. So, who wants to train with me for the next one?
Michael J. Newman is an associate in the litigation department of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller. He has broad experience in complex commercial litigation involving contractual disputes and insurance coverage issues. He has counseled clients facing serious allegations such as securities fraud, insider trading and breach of fiduciary duties.