David Mellinkoff’s Productive Lack of Productivity

A reader recently pointed me toward the 1999 obituary of the respected legal scholar David Mellinkoff. He flagged, in particular, this passage:

“After the war, David developed a successful law practice in Beverly Hills. He early discovered, however, that, in his words, “the law thrived on gobbledygook.” He wanted to learn how this had happened, but after searching for answers in standard sources, he concluded, ‘there wasn’t a single book that wove it all together.’ David decided to write that book. He closed his law office, sold his house, and moved to the woods of Marin County. Seven years later he published The Language of the Law (1963), the book by which he will be chiefly remembered.”

In 1956, at the moment when Mellinkoff decided to retreat into the woods, his decision to trade all the busyness, urgency, and, of course, remuneration of running a Beverly Hills law firm for the monasticism of Marin must have seemed shockingly unproductive. And yet, when considered through the distance of history, Mellinkoff’s nurturing of what became The Language of the Law  becomes self-evidently the most productive use of his talents.

I don’t think everyone should retreat to a quiet cabin. Probably most people would find such a commitment to intellectual minimalism intolerable. But I’m convinced that this option should be more common, especially among those with Melinkoff’s cognitive gifts. When you expand the time horizon for what you mean by “productive,” the options for crafting a deep life similarly expand.

11 thoughts on “David Mellinkoff’s Productive Lack of Productivity”

  1. I got a copy of “The Language of the Law” when a law professor threw it out and left it in the trash outside his office. I pulled the book out of the trash and have the copy in my hands right now. I greatly appreciate Cal letting everyone know to keep what is really important the focus in this age of aggressive distraction. I passed the bar exam by going off to a cabin in the woods and studying full time with no distractions. To accomplish big things we need to sacrifice all the little distractions that are keeping us from what is important. I hope to look again and read “The Language of the Law” considering it was Mellinkoff’s life work which he sacrificed his career to write so that we would have his wisdom. Thank you Cal for helping me discover the gem in the pile of books I have in my library. Now I have to do the same thing again and give up all distractions to pass the patent bar exam while living in the same cabin in the woods during a pandemic.

  2. Cal, I so love this story! The timing could not have been MORE IDEAL for me! Thank you so very much for sharing it!

    I haven’t been hiding out in a cabin, but I’ve using this down time during the coronavirus and several years before to mostly vanish from social media and to focus on completing my next (3rd) book. Interestingly, I’ve been calmer, happier, and more productive.

    Anyhow, as I’m nearing publication of my book, I’ve been trying to decide how much to get back on social media before my book launch.

    As I’m sure you can appreciate, I’ve been enjoying this down time! So much more peaceful.

    So I’ve been quite conflicted about my social media presence while seeking to turn my book into a bestseller that serves millions. .

    But then, in the nick of time before my book launch, I recently rediscovered your book. Woo Hoo!

    Oh, by the way, I even quote you (from something you wrote). (Will email you about it.)

    So thank you a million for being such an inspiration and showing me how to serve people while still not being required to be on social media.


    Anyhow, I’m just using you as a role model about what to do. Thanks again a million.


  3. I love the idea of this in a figurative sense. Very few of us could retreat physically to a cabin on a full-time basis, but I think there’s a lot of wisdom in trimming the number of things we are trying to tackle at once. Do less and do it better.

    • Unfortunately such monasticism requires tremendous wealth. I don’t have enough in savings to live that way for a year, much less seven. People engaging in such extremes either need someone supporting them (an advance on payment or something similar), or need to have a significant amount of money saved.

      Even if you don’t go to this extreme, there are still trade-offs. If you are hyper-focused on one thing you sacrifice networking opportunities outside of that one thing. All your eggs are in one basket. That’s fine as long as that basket continues to be viable, but if that basket can no longer support you, you are in a bad position. On the other hand if you spend so much time networking you don’t get your work done you’re in a worse one.

      This came up at work for me. I’m very focused on a jobsite. I have spent years learning the systems, the geology, the biology, the work our clients do, etc. A colleague of mine has worked on many sites in that time, and knows a LOT more people in the company than I do. At this jobsite I have a distinct advantage, because I have a wealth of information at my fingertips. If we ever lose this client, however, I’m in serious trouble!

  4. For me, this speaks to the vulnerable layers of the human spirit. I wonder if he simply got fed up trying to reconcile the painful, vivid realities of the war with the meaningless, superficiality of the law’s “gobbledygook”. Back in 1956, no one was talking about trauma or PTSD but so many died in WWII that even if he himself didn’t see combat, he could’ve easily know people who died. Maybe waking away from all the superficialities and setting about this meaningful work was his way of healing and making the world a better place.

    • I looked it up and he did indeed serve in the war. For part of that time, at least, he represented servicemen in court. So many were acquitted under him that a somewhat frustrated commanding officer was once quoted as saying, “If none were guilty, they wouldn’t have been court-marshalled.” He obviously had a knack for law even back then. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Buhahahha…im looking at the name calnewport and im like i have heard this name somewhere….
    Im reading the content of article and im like oh yeah its similar to the idea of “grand gestures” for prroductivity from deep work
    Damn…it took me a hot second to realise that cal newport is the author of the book in my hansa(deep work)
    PS: Im really bad with remembering names(i do remember the context/content tho)


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