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These lawyers turn to nature to nurture their bodies and souls

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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.

Tom Mullikin

Managing partner, the Mullikin Law Firm
Camden, South Carolina

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Tom Mullikin preparing to dive during a blizzard in Antarctica. Photos Courtesy of Tom Mullikin.

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.”

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Feeding sharks in the Caribbean.

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.”

Amy M. Emerson

Partner, Allensworth & Porter
Austin, Texas

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Standing Atop Mitchell Mesa (about 1,500 feet high) in front of the “Mittens” at the 25-mile marker of the Monument Valley 50K. Photos Courtesy of Amy M. Emerson

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.

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Amy Emerson running the Moab Marathon.

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.”

Kandis Gibson

Senior Associate at Foster, Murphy, Altman & Nickel
Washington, D.C.

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Participating in the Ironman North American Championship. Photos Courtesy of Kandis Gibson.

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.”

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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.’ “

Josh Reisberg

Counsel at Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider
New York City

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Photos Courtesy of Josh Reisberg

Growing up, Josh Reisberg spent countless hours outside, playing sports and exploring the woods near his suburban Maryland neighborhood. It was what kids did—he never thought much about it. Until he moved to New York City. Between law school and internships in Manhattan, Reisberg found himself drawn once again to the outdoors as he yearned for the kind of adventure he enjoyed as a kid. That led him to sailing, which not only involved outdoor adventure; it was also physically and mentally demanding. In 2013, he bought an offshore racing sailboat and christened her Abilyn, a combination of the first names of his twin daughters. Between representing clients in high-stakes IP cases, Reisberg spends as much time on the water as he can, honing his skills and planning challenges for himself and his craft.

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Last year, he competed in his longest race yet, the Around Long Island Regatta, sailing 250 miles over three days. Reisberg and his co-skipper took turns sailing and sleeping, taking three-hour shifts during the day and four-hour shifts at night. It was stressful and exhausting, but totally worth it. “Out on the open water, you get to experience natural phenomena that are just so sublime, like sunrise on the water or when the clouds open up and the moon shines on your sails,” he says. “That’s what draws you back—it’s not just the finish line or the nature of the endurance activity and the principles of sailing; it’s the environment, the beauty of the whole activity.”

At press time, Reisberg was looking forward to his most extensive endeavor: the Newport Bermuda Race on June 17. The 635-mile event has been called the world’s most glamorous and difficult ocean race, and he has been prepping for the two-man voyage for months. That the Abilyn is too small to be officially registered in the race isn’t a concern. “We’re doing it anyway as the ocean never closes. Our goal is to prepare the boat for an offshore voyage and to get there and come back safely, and maybe beat some official entrants,” Reisberg says. “The real fun is the journey—the adventure is being out in the middle of the ocean, miles from shore with 3,000 feet of water under you, in the middle of the night with a full moon and a full universe of stars above you. You don’t get that anywhere else.”

Eugene Holmes

Assistant general counsel, the Walt Disney Co.
Burbank, California

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Eugene Holmes. Photos by Earnie Grafton

For the past decade, Eugene Holmes has been running. He runs mostly marathons—he tries for two a year—but for the past three years he’s also competed in Oregon’s Hood to Coast Relay race, a 200-mile segmented trek from the slopes of Mount Hood through Portland and along the coast to the town of Seaside. Holmes trains up to seven days a week, and when he enters a race, he runs it to win it. But that’s where this employee benefits lawyer’s laser focus stops.

“I try not to make my running really structured because it’s about freedom and spontaneity,” he says. “My profession is about structure, so I try not to turn my hobby into a vocation.” Instead, Holmes goes outside to nurture his physical and mental health by breaking with demands and expectations of marathon training and reconnecting with the simple rhythms of nature and movement. It’s an approach that’s characterized as much by what he does as what he doesn’t do.

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For example, Holmes doesn’t follow a set training schedule. He simply runs wherever and whenever the mood strikes. “Whenever I have time to break away, I do that,” he says. By running at different times of the day, he can embrace changes in light and city sounds. Varying the location, terrain and sight lines ensures a different run every time, he says, whether he leaves from home, from work or undertakes a drive to a nature trail. “Sometimes,” he says, “I just take off from wherever I am.”

Holmes also never needs a portable device to give him a beat to keep up his pace. “My heartbeat, my breathing, the wind, the birds—that’s my music,” he says. (Of course, it goes without saying that Holmes doesn’t need to take a selfie at the mile markers.) Often, he’s not even wearing a watch. He simply doesn’t need it. “I’m not trying to go a certain speed or distance. I just run until I am fulfilled with running for the day.” Holmes isn’t sure which marathons he’ll run this year. Maybe Big Sur, maybe Detroit. It all depends on scheduling, on timing and, presumably, which destination happens to be speaking to Holmes that day.

Brandon Erickson

Associate, Kingsley Bogard
Folsom, California

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Photo Courtesy of Brandon Erickson

In 2006, Brandon Erickson was feeling frustrated. Three years earlier, while in the Army National Guard and deployed in Iraq, he had lost most of his right arm in a roadside bomb explosion. The usually optimistic lawyer was having difficulty adapting to his physical limitations and felt fenced in by a routine that was in stark contrast to the life he had loved, growing up on a 3,000-acre farm in North Dakota, where his family had raised crops and tended cattle since homesteading the property in 1888. But Erickson’s wife knew the combination that would restore his health and happiness, and at her urging, he took the first simple steps: He got back to nature, and he got back in motion. “I was just surrounded by city, and I needed the solitary time. Just hearing the sound of your own breathing—it’s good for the soul.”

Erickson also began competing in triathlons, and through them, he connected with the organization that would help change his life: the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Through its Operation Rebound program for physically challenged military personnel and veterans, Erickson received the encouragement, inspiration and adaptive accessories to recover from his wounds and begin competing in triathlons. His first year in law school, he took a week off to compete in an international triathlon competition in Australia. Three years ago, he competed in the Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands, New Mexico—an event Erickson describes as the most miserable thing he’s ever done, other than serve in Iraq. Today, a decade after his injuries, Erickson is fulfilled and at peace. He is a father and a lawyer at a boutique public-entity law firm near the foothills of Northern California. Although he has taken a break from athletic competitions, every weekend he and his family can be found outside, enjoying nature. “My 2-year-old can already do a 3-mile hike with me,” he says. “We go to the lake and throw rocks—it’s a blast.” Recently he took a solo elk hunting trip to the mountains of Idaho, an experience he describes as incredible. “My whole reason for wanting to be active and outdoors was to recover from Iraq and be mentally, spiritually and physically fit,” he explains. “That war will define me for the rest of my life, but I feel like I am on my feet now.”

Bill Burgess

Partner, Kirkland & Ellis
Washington, D.C.

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Photos Courtesy of Bill Burgess

When Bill Burgess needs to clear his head, his favorite thing to do is head outside and hit the ice. “Skating outside makes me feel like a little kid in Alaska again,” says the busy appellate litigator. His was a military family, moving about every three years for his father’s career in the Special Forces, but Burgess says that wherever they were, from Arizona to Massachusetts, outdoor activities were a constant. Some of his most cherished memories involve learning to ice skate with his dad, mother and sister in Fort Richardson, Alaska. The four would spend hours playing tag on frozen lakes, surrounded by majestic trees and clear blue skies.

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Burgess is a lifelong athlete—he’s completed five Ironman races, often bicycles to work and plays hockey late at night. In 2010, he was looking for a new challenge, and he remembered back when he was 15 and his dad told him about an epic race called the Elfstedentocht (11 cities tour). This speedskating race stretches across 125 miles of canals in the northern Netherlands. The Dutch dominate the sport of speedskating, and this race is a national obsession. Unfortunately, it only takes place in the years when the weather is cold enough to sustain thick ice, something that hasn’t happened since 1997. But Burgess wasn’t deterred. Although he didn’t even own a pair of racing skates at the time, he decided to do as diehard Dutch speedskaters do and race the same distance around a frozen lake in Austria. As soon as he did it, he was hooked.

For the past three Februaries, Burgess has participated in the grueling 125-mile event on Lake Kallavesi at the Finland Ice Marathon, another Dutch skater favorite. He even won the race last year, receiving his trophy from the Dutch ambassador to Finland. More fulfilling than the win, Burgess says, was that his dad was there to see it. “He got a big kick out of it, that he taught me how to skate, and now 30 years later, it’s led to this.”

Sarah Ames

Partner, Quarles & Brady
Chicago

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At the North Pole Marathon. Photos Courtesy of Sarah Ames

Sarah Ames has always loved to travel. Through her work representing companies based in German-speaking countries, the German-born business transactions lawyer travels to Europe at least three times a year. But she also travels extensively for fun, and many of her international adventures include running marathons. In 2007, she became a member of the Seven Continents Club, an exclusive group of runners who have logged 26.2 miles in certified races on every continent. She has since repeated the series four times, occasionally returning to the same race again, including the North Pole Marathon, billed as the only certified marathon run entirely on ice. “It’s an interesting way to meet new people, and I find it relaxing,” she says. “Trips like these may not seem relaxing, but they help you see how things can be done differently—you think, ‘I am at the end of my rope,’ but you can still keep going—and you learn a lot of different skills while traveling and running, like how to stay strong mentally.”

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Ames’ approach to running could be called “adventure-thoning”—combining a marathon with another outdoor experience. After a race in Zimbabwe, she traveled to Zambia to volunteer at a lion camp. Following a race in Singapore, she spent five days tracking orangutans in Indonesia. Not that the marathons themselves are not scenic: Ames has run past stone statues on Easter Island, alongside penguins in Antarctica and through the verdant highlands of Scotland. Even running through a city like Sydney reveals details she says she would have missed had she simply strolled through the streets as a tourist. A marathon in Ethiopia even inspired her to become a board member, volunteer and fundraiser for the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa, which provides free surgeries for women with gruesome birth injuries.

This year, she completed what many consider the ultimate endurance test, the World Marathon Challenge. Participants run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. One of her favorite parts was a night run in Marrakech—the second marathon in less than 24 hours—where she watched the sun rise over the ancient city walls. Although Ames admits the experience was grueling, she’s already surfing the internet for her next challenge. She’s been eyeing the London Marathon but, ultimately, she says, “I’ll just have to see what inspires me.”

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.

Adventurous Attorneys

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