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All You Need is Patience and a Fully Developed Brain

how design thinking for lawyers can actually be pretty simple

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Sarah Staples, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

Our weekly journal prompts consistently ask us to do a little bit of thinking, followed by a little bit of writing. Most of the time, my journal entries are the result of me thinking and writing simultaneously. A recent journal prompt though actually made me want to think first, and write second. We were asked to explain whether or not we believed that the tools and tricks we read about in Creative Confidence had any potential for application in our future lives, both personally and career wise. If yes, how? If no, why not? For the first few minutes after I finally sat down to read the prompt, I imagine I looked a little bit like this:

I was rather unsure of how to proceed. I didn’t see myself in stories of people who designed an at home baby incubator, or started astronomically successful startups. I am studying to be an attorney, a profession where creativity and originality are generally frowned upon. And I chose this profession in part because of the low premium it places on creativity. I chose to take Legal Problem Solving because I thought it would feel like a more practical class than other classes I’d taken in law school. So my first instinct when I read the question was: “No, I do not envision myself having a use for Play-Doh in my career.”

Obviously I overcame that first instinct, because otherwise I would not have met the 500 word minimum requirement. I went back to the stories that on the surface had celebrated these great design achievements, and focused on the process these supposed visionaries followed. I noticed some consistent similarities throughout, which may have presented themselves in slightly different form but usually fell into two categories: emphasizing empathy and deemphasizing ego.

Literally every single success story in Creative Confidence starts with an extended exercise in empathy. Designers and engineers alike had to identify a problem that they wanted to solve, and in order to do so they had to observe people as they lived and ask them questions. They had to learn to empathize with the people they were going to design for, with the lives they lived and the choices they made. This doesn’t require an advanced degree or even the ability to color coordinate. All you need is patience and a fully developed brain.

Each of these stories also involved an almost torturous process of trial and error. Design teams generate tens, if not hundreds of ideas before they acted on any. And even then, they might return to the drawing board ten more times in response to feedback. Some of these ideas built off of previous ones, others may have sprung independently, like Athena from Zeus’ skull. But in order to come up with all these ideas, everyone had to be brave enough to share what they thought, and humble enough to know that their idea might not be the golden ticket. In short, they needed to keep their egos in check.

It sounds deceptively simple. Empathy over ego. What a lovely idea. Pat yourself on the back: you are officially a good person and a designer to boot.

Of course nothing is actually that simple. Attorneys in particular love cute little sayings that seem to prove that we hold ourselves to a higher moral code than the average person. “Fiat justitia ruat caelum” we say. Attorney-client privilege is sacred! We live in a government of laws, not of men! Etcetera, etcetera. But clients do not pay such conspicuous sums of money to hear all the clever sayings we learned in law school. They want to see such principles in action.

So what does that look like? It means learning to recognize opportunities for collaboration when we realize we are reaching the edge of our expertise. We do the profession and our clients a disservice when we pretend to know more than we do. Attitudes like that limit our ability to fully address the problems presented by our clients. Choosing empathy over ego means seeing the reality of the issues faced by clients, before we see opportunities to make ourselves look good.

It could mean making a conscious choice to follow up with clients after we think we’ve resolved an issue. The feedback loop shouldn’t close just because we’ve sent the bill. Customer service organisations have been doing this for years, but the legal profession seems to be far behind this particular curve. Every time you shop online, you get a pop up asking you to take a consumer survey about your experience. What would happen to client-attorney relationships if we simply asked if the service provided actually addressed their problem? Of course, in order to do this, we would have to be willing to put our egos aside for a moment so we can honestly ask our clients if they think we’re good at our jobs. Horrors indeed.

Empathy over ego is hard. It requires that we shed our professional veneer and take on some of our clients’ vulnerability. It requires that we humbly ask for feedback even if it might bruise just a bit. But it makes us better lawyers, and probably better people. Contrary to popular belief, these things don't have to be mutually exclusive.

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