As you know, our firm’s guiding principle is that exceptional matters. So what does it mean to be exceptional?

My brother once wrote an article for freelance developers. In it he provided examples of actual emails from freelancers responding to a job posting. Most of the emails were pretty lousy, and my brother’s takeaway was easily proven: it’s easier to stand out than you think.

One of the ways that I’ve seen that it’s possible to stand out as a lawyer is much easier than I expected. I say easier, but that’s not really accurate. It’s probably more accurate to say it’s much more straightforward than I expected–a differentiator hiding in plain sight.

So what’s the secret? Read the documents.

I remember a day in college when a classmate pulled me aside after class. “Do you actually read everything that’s assigned for class?” he asked me skeptically.

“Yes,” I replied, a bit surprised by the question and thinking to myself, “Doesn’t everyone read what has been assigned?” But his amazed look informed me that in fact, no, everyone does not read what has been assigned.

Since that enlightening encounter, I’ve seen more examples that have convinced me that you can offer exceptional, stand-out results simply by reading what you’re expected to read.

I mentioned earlier that while this might be straightforward, it’s not necessarily easy. I mean, it’s easy in some ways. It’s an easy task to identify. For example, if I told you the secret to Warren Buffett’s incredible success as an investor was reading, that would seem like an easy thing to identify that might help you become a bit more successful in your own investing. Well, Warren Buffett himself has said that reading is a key to his successful investing career.[1] But while he also told a class full of business school students that any of them could do the same thing–sounds easy, right?–he said that most of them, if any, probably would not–ahhh, it’s straightforward, but it’s not easy.

So it turns out reading is straightforward, but not always easy. Reading legal documents can be especially tedious, monotonous, even boring. Reading documents takes discipline. It takes effort. It takes time.

One of my favorite examples of discovering that I could stand out as an attorney merely by reading came while helping prepare a set of documents for an investment matter. One of the world’s premier law firms was working on the same matter, representing another client. At one point, someone asked for a certain document, and the other firm offered to provide its “form” version (basically a template). As I read through the form, I came to the section on notices and found that among other mediums of providing notice, a party to the agreement could theoretically provide notice via a telex machine. A telex machine? Unfamiliar with what a telex machine was, I did a quick online search and discovered it to be a mix between a telegraph and a telephone–a machine that received a message via a telephone network but printed it out kind of like a typewriter or telegraph. Perhaps most importantly though, it appeared that to be able to receive such a message, you needed to be connected to a telex exchange, which I highly doubted any party in the deal still was. It’s a simple and small thing, but I was amazed that perhaps no one had read through the document in years and questioned whether notice could still be sent and received via a telex machine.

The morning after the 2017 Super Bowl, I was listening to NPR on my way to work. Tom Goldman was asked by David Green how the Patriots pulled off their amazing victory. Goldman responded, “[O]ne of the Patriots’ mantras is everyone do your job. . . . It’s not the dazzling kind of explanation we want to hear to describe why the team is great year after year. But it is exactly how they pulled this [win] off last night.”[2]

Everyone do your job. Do what it is that you’ve been asked to do. If you’re a student, do your homework. If you’re a tight end, make your block. If you’re an attorney, read your documents. Reading what you’ve been asked to read sounds like a simple enough way to be exceptional, but sometimes it’s all it takes.

[1] http://www.omaha.com/money/investors-earn-handsome-paychecks-by-handling-buffett-s-business/article_bb1fc40f-e6f9-549d-be2f-be1ef4c0da03.html

[2] http://www.npr.org/2017/02/06/513388136/super-bowl-victory-is-decided-in-ot-patriots-beat-falcons-34-28