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How Zagging Can Fix the Futile Creativity Process in Law School

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 Brendan Bailey, Vanderbilt Law School class of 2019.

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Creativity is something that I, along with many of my peers, feel is stunted slightly in law school. Thinking outside of the box and attacking difficult issues in unique ways is something I feel the case method hinders rather than assists. Yes, obviously you can approach a legal issue creatively, but by doing what? You apply a specific method that a case taught you, a specific test, or a specific approach that usually yields one or two results. But problem solving, true problem solving, is something that we don't genuinely have the opportunity to approach. For example, many have begun to claim that a “ lack of curiosity is the #1 killer of legal innovation…and law school is the #1 killer of curiosity.”

Legal Problem Solving addresses the problem of a lack of creativity in law school directly, and attempts to introduce what has largely become a mundane and monotonous educational journey into something that breaks the mold … and looks more like something that has had a new, creative breath blown into it. Whether it’s a lack of creativity, or the lack of opportunities to be truly creative, this issue has become widespread and, in my opinion, has begun to seriously affect students' law school journey.

For this reason, I found the Spark chapter in Creative Confidence, by Tom and David Kelley, appealing over many of the other interesting methods discussed throughout the book. More specifically, having just travelled to Italy through the Vanderbilt in Venice program this past summer, I was attracted to and thought I connected well with the mental processes that the Think Like a Traveler mindset provides.

I believe the message Tom and David attempt to impart is incredibly relevant to any law student's journey. Throughout Legal Problem Solving we have spoken at length about technology; its benefits and detriments, and how it will affect attorneys throughout our careers. Creative Confidence does a great job of pinpointing the one thing that will always place us a step ahead of technology: the human ability to perceive differences in clients and legal issues by paying close attention. That ability to understand differences puts us a step ahead of technology, because we understand the human element and can connect dots before technology can even be told by a user what to do.

A little sidebar ... I think law and medicine are incredibly comparable. My girlfriend, and I'm not proud to say this, has gotten my hooked on Grey's Anatomy. An episode I was just watching focused on the fact that patients have different responses to surgery because every patient's body reacts differently to procedures. I think the same can be said for the law. We implement thought processes and issue spotting maneuvers, improve procedures and client approaches over time, all with the hope of providing our client (patient) a better outcome. We are able to do that if we embrace technology, but we are still the controllers. We diagnose the issue, we understand what possible conflicts can arise throughout the process, and we try to anticipate what is going to happen next. Understanding the minute differences are what I think Legal Problem Solving has attempted to emphasize the most. Not only should we focus on the legal environment, but we should take the time to understand everything external to the legal environment that could either directly or indirectly affect our day-to-day objectives. Our job is to bring new ways of thinking into the firm, to help improve systems and processes, and to overall improve the product we present to the clients. The original thought still stands strong: technology can only be implemented correctly if the initial connections or issue spotting are done intelligently and accurately by the attorney.

I entered law school with what Tom and David refer to as the “beginner's mind”, and to be frank, I think it was beaten out of me through class after class of cold-calls. The beginner's mind is akin to a newborn discovering the world surrounding him, able to look at things in their base form and inquire from there … basically, it is a mindset that isn't clouded by the expertise that is inherent to any person who has been involved with a process for a considerable amount of time. Students come into law school like newborns, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to save the world through a legal lens ... but by the end of 1L, we want to turn our appellate brief in and get the hell out of Nashville. The thought process is drained from us, we don't look at things in novel ways; we try to read the encyclopedias of cases we are assigned and figure out what has been done for the last hundred years and what will be done for the next hundred.

As one lawyer put it, this type of conformity in law school has stifled creativity, to such an extent she actually left the profession. She went on to discuss how the “punch-list life” goes to law school. In short, the “punch-list life” is where someone gets great grades, does things that look good on a transcript because they look good (not out of self-interest), and doesn't “question what makes you come alive.” Maybe the author is insinuating that a different type of person needs to go to law school ... but I think she is wrong if that is the case. I think the specific creativity the legal profession demands CAN be taught in law school ... and schools are starting to offer classes to push students in that direction. Look at our own school, Vanderbilt, who not only offers Legal Problem Solving, but offers courses focusing on the future of the profession, such as Law 2050.

I think a massive effort at rediscovering this creativity in law school was depicted through LPS's Design Sprint, when we designed prototypes based off of our partner's statements/needs. We attempted to get back to the basics of forming the foundations of a creative idea or, as the Kelleys would put it, “rediscovering the familiar.” Working with complex ideas and basic inputs to create something novel that carries a meaning beyond words on a sheet of paper ... something the case method will never provide.

Honestly, and I feel like I'm getting off topic again, but this mode of thought has helped my relationship. I have approached daily events with my girlfriend through a different point of view. Thinking outside of the box has helped me disconnect from the legal mindset and align more closely to a normal human outside of our four Vanderbiltian walls. Delaney (girlfriend) has a funny way of putting it (and this is where the travelers part comes in). When you have a plan you consistently zig. You go step-by-step, like when you have an itinerary. Long story short, you just get through the day. But what happens when you zag? What happens when you take the right turn instead of the left, or you don't follow the itinerary but instead go into that dive bar across the street. Travelling is a great viewpoint to assess this zig-zag notion through. Don't plan things out, don't be static, things aren’t going to remain that way. You have to be dynamic.

That's what the message of this class is. We all need to ZAG! Don't come into a meeting or a day at work willing to embrace monotony. Come in with a fresh mind, with no plans or predefined routine encumbering you. Do for the client what the dynamic story they are presenting obviates. BE CREATIVE! Create a prototype, if it sucks, do it again. But eventually, you will provide exactly what your client/friend/wife/boss is looking for. Idea flow matters. Open yourself to as many viewpoints and ideas as possible, because it will eventually change the way you approach things daily. The more ideas you hear the more vantage points you possess to approach something simple with.

If you're to do anything, avoid stagnating. Staying creative and attempting to improve the processes you approach daily will not only improve the client's experience, but it will improve your mental health at work by continuing to feel challenged and accomplished when you improve even simple tasks.

I certainly fall victim to feeling threatened by different thought patterns and ideas. Partly, I'm selfish, I want to have the best idea, but understanding and having a willingness to hear people out matters more than anything. And it's not just teamwork, we can all work great in teams and still be selfish. A major part of this is the inability to zag. You refuse to move onto the next thing because your mental process won't let you or your pride won't. That's zigging. We need to zag; open ourselves to ideas and other paths of thought. Understand what someone is really asking or needs, we need to separate ourselves from our technological competition and understand we operate in a dynamic (zagging) environment. Like they said on Grey’s Anatomy, every patient's body reacts differently.