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Do Something: Fail Your Way into the Right Solution

As part of the coursework for Legal Problem Solving (LPS), all students contribute a post to this course blog. Students develop posts from a weekly journal entry, which also is required coursework. The purpose of journal entries is to invite deeper, personal reflection on the subject matter in LPS, reflection being a key component of content understanding and mastery. This course explores how human centered design and other creative problem solving methods and mindsets inform three areas: (1) the delivery of legal services, (2) how we solve clients' (legal) problems, and (3) how law students can intentionally shape their professional journeys. Each student post will touch on one or more of these three areas.

This LPS post is by Mitchell Galloway, Vanderbilt Law School class of 2019.

One thing I’ve never struggled with is making a decision. I’m not impulsive, but I don’t tend to dwell on decisions that have to be made. I run through a quick analysis, gather a little input from others to ensure that I haven’t missed anything, and keep moving. Stopping has always been hard for me. I enjoy being on the move, constantly changing, and always exploring. I despise wasted time.

While reading Creative Confidence for Legal Problem Solving, I highlighted three sentences—all within the same chapter:

  • “Since there was no single ‘right’ solution, you could have as many ideas as you wanted and ask ‘why?’ a lot.”
  • “Sitting in that cosmopolitan cafe, they were immersed in a sea of future customers, all sipping their coffee and reading the news.”
  • “The first step toward being creative is often simply to go beyond being a passive observer and to translate thoughts into deeds.”

This chapter discussed the story of Ankit Gupta and Akshay Kothari, the co-founders of Pulse, a news aggregation app. Stanford students at the time of the iPad’s release, Ankit and Akshay were tasked with creating a business in 10 weeks for one of their classes. So they created an app. They watched their target audience, prototyped with sticky notes, and built a beta version. One let interested coffee shop patrons test out their app on the new iPad to get constant user feedback, while the other took the feedback and constantly tweaked the app with both small and large changes to improve the performance. In 2010, Pulse was one of 50 apps added to Apple’s App Store Hall of Fame.

One of my favorite pastimes is to sit in a coffee shop and read (or pretend to read and actually talk to people), and I’m not going to lie, this might have biased me to pay closer attention to this chapter. But maybe I truly just connected with the lesson being expressed: “Do something.”

For me, life is a constant struggle between wanting to move on to the next problem and wanting all the details to perfectly solve the one in front of me. I loved the fact that the partnership behind Pulse split their duties: one observing and one acting on the observations.

My deepest and truest friendship was formed in a similar situation. During my junior spring of undergrad, I was hired as the intern for a local nonprofit’s CFO. One of my classmates took the complementing marketing internship. The week before I started, the CFO left to lead another nonprofit in town. However, the nonprofit kept me on, and I ended up interning there through the end of the summer.

The next spring, Lanie—my classmate, fellow intern, and by that point my best friend—had taken a full-time role at another nonprofit as its ‘Marketing Director.’ I came on in an interim capacity to fill a gap that cancer had left in their employment. While primarily hired for a finance role, I also helped with some of Lanie’s bigger marketing projects: redesigning the nonprofit’s website and envisioning an inaugural black-tie fundraiser. Many YouTube videos later, I developed a working knowledge of Photoshop and was creating graphics for both projects. But what I learned quickly—and most relevant to this discussion—was that what she said she wanted never fully encompassed what she actually wanted.

So I developed a strategy: supplement her instructions with our history of friendship and come back to her with a draft within 30 minutes—catering to my need for quick action. No matter how many creative liberties I took or how far off base from her instructions my graphic seemed, my drafts weren’t far off from her vision, but were also never the desired product. However, upon seeing my interpretation of what she wanted, she knew what was missing and could fully describe what she actually needed.

It works for graphics and marketing, but what about the law—or even law school? Let me tell you a secret: it works the same way. Sometimes we allow our immersion into our industry—whether law, accounting, marketing, sports, communication, education, medicine—to allow us to become short-sighted and pretend that lessons and skills are not transferable. Determine who your client is, what they say they want, what they actually want, and how you can get there.

Writing a law school final or paper? Your client is your professor.

Submitting a brief to a court? Your client is the judge.

Researching a topic in an intra-firm memo? Your client is your managing partner.

Developing an argument that someone has been wronged and deserves relief? Your client is the party you represent.

In some situations, it may seem as if you only get one shot. You can only take your law school finals once. If your partner hates the memo, he may not give you more work. Once you file the brief with the court, it has been submitted. But take the opportunity to iterate anyway.

Find a model answer that your law professor has written and compare your answer to that practice test to the model. Read (well, skim) your law professor’s articles and books to learn how they structure ideas. Read the judge’s opinions to get a feel for how she writes and then imitate that style. Read submissions to that judge from past winning parties to learn what that judge finds persuasive. Ask for sample memos that the partner has liked in the past so you can present your writing in the preferred manner. Involve your client in the development of your strategy and arguments so they receive the solution they actually want.

When you hit a roadblock, assess if you are trying too hard to make it perfect on the first try. Take action without worry of perfection, finish the job, and then compare to your client’s standard. Fix the mistakes and repeat. When you have sufficiently fulfilled the need, stop working, hand it in, and pick up the next problem.

Do. Something.

No one knows quite what they want the first time. Stop staring at that half-finished assignment and stressing about whether you’ve done it perfectly or should start over. Finish and then assess. If you love it, you found the way. If you hate it, you found yet another way that doesn’t solve the problem, and you are one step closer to the solution. Thomas Edison used “a thousand” attempts before finally creating the light bulb, yet never viewed himself a failure. Edison knew the truth: the failure to act is the only failure that counts.

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