Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “the health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.” For many lawyers, however, sight lines extend only as far as the office door, and the horizon is truncated by walls and window edges. They’re in a box, literally and figuratively, held captive by tasks, deadlines, rules, expectations and stress. But these eight lawyers have discovered that to get out of this box, one simply has to get out—to step outside and seek adventure in the great outdoors. Whether on a bike, in a boat, on foot or even on ice skates, they turn to nature to nurture their mental and physical health, finding peace and happiness along their journeys to that horizon.
On any given day, environmental lawyer Tom Mullikin might be in the Amazon rain forest discussing a cleanup of a contaminated site, in Alaska scouting a potential project for Global Eco Adventures—the environmental nonprofit he founded—meeting with indigenous leaders in Fiji about the impact of tidal changes, or leading a group of middle schoolers on a hike through South Carolina’s Jocassee Gorges. Mullikin has spent his entire professional career actively engaged with environmental issues, educating companies, students, lawyers and lawmakers on how to respect and preserve nature, and how to better understand complex issues such as global environmental management. “What I do in the outdoors helps me be a better counsel to my clients,” he says. “If I have any added value, it’s that I am not only thinking about the environment in terms of just the law and legal documents—I’ve been there, too, and I can offer a holistic approach to what you should do.”
Mullikin even takes people with him when he can. “If you’re going to talk about the ice melting off Mount Kilimanjaro, the best place to have that conversation is on Mount Kilimanjaro,” he says. He’s taught lawyers about environmental law by taking them diving to feed sharks and observe coral, and he has led groups of climate change researchers on expeditions to Peru, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and Africa’s Namib Desert (all of which he highlighted in a documentary that was broadcast on a national network). He’s advised corporations on how they can reduce their environmental impact, while also becoming more profitable. He has studied water-related issues in scuba dives in every ocean on earth including in Antarctica—he’s a certified ice diver—and has summited the highest peaks on four continents. (Climbing the highest peaks on the three remaining continents is his next goal, and it’s one that’s both personal and professional.)
“Climbing is the most stress-relieving activity I could ever be involved in,” he says. “On summit day, when you’re breaking the clouds, it’s an experience that stays with you. It’s this aspect of climbing mountains, of diving, that I try to bring into focus for my clients, to show them that respecting and protecting the environment can be done in a way that is consistent with solid business principles.”
As a litigator in a construction law firm, Amy M. Emerson specializes in looking into the future, anticipating and preparing for anything and everything that could go wrong. When she leaves the office, however, her strategy is to live in the moment. Which is why she loves trail running. Emerson has always craved the outdoors. Growing up in rural West Texas, she and her family hunted and fished; these days she enjoys kayaking, cycling and hiking. When she turned 30, she took up running, mostly as a way to relieve stress. It wasn’t entirely successful. She found that her mind wandered as she ran—and mostly, it wandered back to work. “To be a creative litigator, you have to be thinking about a lot of things, but you also have to be able to turn it off,” she says.
In 2014, she tried trail running, and the difference was immediate. Navigating often challenging terrain allowed Emerson to find the focus that eluded her on the road. “When you’re on the trail, you have to concentrate all of your attention on what you’re doing so you don’t fall and bust your face open,” she says with a laugh. In March, Emerson completed her first trail-running ultramarathon, a 50K trail run in the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park on the Arizona-Utah border. She had so much fun, she’s planning on doing it again, this time along the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
For Emerson, the extreme distance was both the challenge and the return. “Running through these amazingly beautiful places is the biggest reward for me,” she says. “You get to see landscapes you would never see unless you went on a multiday hike.” Emerson always allows herself to stop along the way to absorb the beauty around her. She drinks in the silence and appreciates the peace. Sometimes, she even takes pictures. For her, the accomplishment isn’t the time—it’s the finish. “I compete every day in my job, so I don’t want to go out there and have to compete. This is the best way to decompress, and it just makes me really happy.”
Many lawyers can be described as having “Type A” personalities. Kandis Gibson says she’s been told she’s a “Type A+.” During the day, she focuses on Section 337 litigation, a specialized practice she describes as “IP litigation on steroids.” Cases often involve multiple parties located across the globe, meaning office hours are long and she’s frequently on call 24/7. Once she exits her office, however, Gibson transforms into a triathlete. For the past four years, she has been competing in triathlons. She started with 5Ks and 10Ks at the age of 30, when she realized she was spending too much time on her couch after work; when a friend died of cancer at 33 and her grandfather was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Gibson decided to step up the intensity. “It’s almost like a responsibility that I can do something that many others can’t do,” she explains. “My grandmother says, ‘Don’t wait until you’re 50 or 60 to do something you want to do,’ and that’s how I feel when I’m out there running.”
Last fall, she completed the Ironman North American Championship in the Woodlands, Texas. The competition was entirely outside. And that, she says, was the fun part. “The outdoors adds this unknown variable—it adds excitement. You can swim forever in a pool, but when you get outside in the open water, it’s spontaneous—anything can happen.” Biking is her favorite segment of the challenge. “It’s a bigger stretch of time in nature,” she says. “Nobody’s on a laptop or a phone; it’s just beautiful, quiet and peaceful.”
When training, she likes to bike a path, then run the same route to observe how her perspective changes at different speeds. “You see the big picture when you’re biking, but is there a detail you missed because you were going too fast? Going back, taking the time—it helps you keep an open mind. It focuses your concentration and gives you patience and perspective.” All of which helps her work performance, she says. “I know what it’s like to find that mental strength, to find inner peace and to work through the problem,” she says. “It’s kind of awesome to be able to say, ‘Difficult client? I just did an Ironman—this will be fine.’ “
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Outside Interests: These lawyers turn to nature to nurture their bodies and souls.”
Jenny B. Davis, a former practicing lawyer, is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.