Study & Work Habits

Glancing back on a lifetime of educational studies and the practice of law I thought some reminiscence about work habits might prove mildly diverting. Unquestionably my work habits were more plodding than ideal, not exactly the work of a Whizz Kid.  To qualify as ideal the scheme would had to have been both efficient and productive.  While I can claim some modicum of success with productivity I am less convinced that I was efficient.  Anyway what matters here and now is only a chronicle of how I worked.  I am not marketing my habits as a reliable instrument of erudition.

While I must have “studied” to some extent in Grades I – IX, it was only after I entered Grade X (or what we called “Fourth Form”) that I was conscious of having to study. I was submerged in a rigorous scholastic system in which we were regularly drilled about the lessons of the previous day.  If one were a sluggard it was impossible to escape detection for more than 24 hours.  The atmosphere – invoking as it did public accountability – was highly charged with competitiveness.  To heighten the stakes, the rewards for accurate regurgitation were instantaneous.  It didn’t take long for me to develop a Pavlovian and admittedly somewhat obsequious relationship with my Masters (a trait which in the Lower Forms – until I was put in a more academic stream – did nothing to endear me to certain of my colleagues who delighted in verbalizing detracting insinuation at my personal expense).  What was going on in the background was quite simple:  I studied my books (and spent a lot less time devoted to sports as many others did).  Because my day was filled from morning until night with both school and sports (certain compulsory participation was unavoidable), I regularly studied as early as three o’clock in the morning.  I was at a boys boarding school at the time.  In my first year I had a roommate (who also happened to have an occasional snoring problem). Once I was out of bed in the middle of the night, I would gingerly turn the head of my sleeping roommate to adjust his breathing.  Then I draped a T-shirt over the gooseneck lamp on my desk to confine the light to the page of the book I was reading.  I did more than just read the material, I reiterated the information by making written notes.  Repetition – hopeless repetition – was integral to my digestion of the information.

I quickly learned that time was a necessary function of what I learned.  That is, without time I was in trouble.  Accordingly if I were pressed for time I had to make it up later.  When for example my father visited me from Europe around Christmas, he effectively interrupted my studies for the upcoming exams.  I excused myself as soon as possible from an otherwise protracted dinner engagement to return to my studies.  It turned out to be another very late night. It is of course somewhat of an embarrassment that I preferred my studies to being with my father but such was the cost of the laurels of triumph.

My high school days were highly regimented.  Several hours were set aside each evening for studies (followed by a quaint “milk and cookies” break).  The study period was strictly enforced by the House Master and Prefects so its routine had nothing particularly to do with personal working habits. I believe I often recited things to myself as a technique for learning them, things such as conjugations.  It was only in my last two years at boarding school that I had a room to myself so it was probably then that I muttered to myself most volubly.

My undergraduate days during which I studied Philosophy were very much a continuation of the rigorous study habits I had developed in high school.  Once again I was living in a men’s residence and this time I had my own room from the outset.  Initially I had tried to study in the library but I preferred my small room instead.  The courses I was taking were focused more upon reading than memorization.  We were required to prepare essays which addressed particular topics. The work therefore became directed to the achievement of a particular goal.  I have always enjoyed reading so the studies were effortless for me.  Writing of course was much different then in the era before computers.  Everything was tediously written by long-hand.  I was careful never to miss an assignment but my performance otherwise lacked distinction.  My direction was now more pragmatic (which meant my former preoccupation with getting high marks was replaced with mere satisfaction to achieve a passable grade).

When I went to law school two things changed.  Most of my studying was done in the law library (as was the case for most students).  We needed to be near the references for legislation and jurisprudence. I imagine it also mattered that I was living in Domus Legis which in addition to housing four rooms for law students also housed the law school pub in the basement where the rowdier members regularly cavorted and seemingly carried on target practice with empty beer bottles against the stone walls.  The library had both long open tables (where I customarily sat) and private carrels (where I note in retrospect most of the better students sat).  While I hadn’t the drive to prove my intellectual talent I was nonetheless diligent.  It was for example nothing for me to work on a Saturday evening (at least until a friend convinced me to accompany him to the Lord Nelson Hotel for a quart of beer).  My roommate in my first year of law (when we slummed it at Domus Legis on Seymour Street) seldom went to classes.  He ritually donned a blanket about his shoulders and bent over his books at his desk upon which was invariably planted a bottle of wine.  He ended by graduating with higher grades than most students.  The second thing that changed at law school was that we hired the secretaries to type our essays.  There still were no computers or spell-check but at least the finished product looked better.

Law school demanded more thought – and less repetition – about what we were studying. As astonishing as it may sound, we were being taught how to think, not what to think.  Very often research was involved and competing theses were not uncommon; we were obliged to draw our own conclusions. The formal education I had previously had in undergraduate studies about syllogistic reasoning began to pay off.  I also discovered that some of the more scholarly students were actually quite discriminate about what they studied. That is, there were students who both excelled at studies which amused them and who also came close to failing studies which they disliked. This was for me an entirely new way of approaching things and  it heralded what was to follow in my career; namely, the value of making calculated choices.

My experience as an articled clerk with a law firm wasn’t particularly uplifting as a study in work habits.  We were really just doing what we were told to do. Seldom were we invited to deliver anything approaching novelty or ingenuity. When I did occasionally venture into creative thinking I quickly learned the value of consulting a primary source, usually legislation. In other words I learned to start at the beginning.  This valuable insight spilled over into my studies for Bar Admission at Osgoode Hall.  It turned out to be one step in front of the other.  Every two weeks.  Punctuated by sometimes excessive behaviour between bouts.

The practice of law as a career brought me to unprecedented territory. Everything was new and I was expected to know it already!  This meant a lot of work!  Nothing was easy!  And the amount of detail was unbelievable!  If I thought working in the middle of the night was taxing as a student, nothing competed with what was required as a lawyer on my own.  Beyond the regular working days, working spread into evenings, nights and throughout weekends. Holidays were unheard of!  Even towards the end of my career (after 39 years of doing it) I was still frequently prompted to get out of bed in the middle of the night to go to the office to address some point about which I had been stewing.

I came to accept that most other lawyers had learned to delegate.  Delegation was a luxury I had never cultivated.  I knew that whatever singularity I might have depended entirely upon me.  It wasn’t a question merely of running a business profitably.  It was only about doing the best job possible.  In fairness I did learn to delegate research to people who were in a better position to do it – which meant lawyers or law students in large law firms.  But the day-to-day work was always handled by me.  Generally the tasks were not particularly difficult; occasionally I would stumble upon a fine point. But always the theme was primarily plodding work which meant being thorough though not especially imaginative.  It might appear odd that the two can co-exist without one contaminating the other, but they do.   It also meant that I learned to live within my obvious limitations, an art it took me years to appreciate and develop.  If there is anything I would encourage young people to do it is this: Live within your means.  And that applies to everything not just work and study habits!