Creative Lawyer is Not an Oxymoron

Use the phrase “creative lawyer” and many people (including lawyers) will scoff or imagine the worst. Thoughts of novel but spurious legal arguments come to mind, or examples of unethical time keeping and billing practices. At best, people may think of a lawyer’s hobby of painting or playing music. Few people will appreciate that creativity plays a role in successful lawyering and an even larger role in effective leadership and management.

There are aspects of lawyering that are certainly repetitious, routine, and require little creativity. They may be the bane of a new lawyer’s existence, but familiarity with them is necessary before they can be fully understood and mastered. Technology has now made many of these tasks less onerous, time consuming, and costly. With greater experience and responsibility, a lawyer’s need for creativity grows: litigators use creativity when deciding how to address a jury; transactional lawyers use creativity when settling on an approach to negotiating; and mediators use creativity when searching for win-win solutions.

Although lawyers may exhibit creativity in the practice of their craft, it is all to often lacking in the way they lead and manage. This is particularly true in how law firms are responding to the economic, social, and technological changes that make up the “new normal.” (Corporate legal departments seem more adept at dealing with these changes.) Lawyers are typically slow and late adaptors. Whether it’s a new software system, management practice, or strategic direction; they want to know who else has tried it, and how well has it worked for them. Simply put, they don’t want to go first regardless of any benefits and competitive advantage that may bring.

Lawyers’ caution and resistance to innovation is not difficult to understand. When compared to the general population, lawyers have been found to be more skeptical, cynical, pessimistic, autonomous, and risk averse. These are great qualities to have when lawyers are representing clients or protecting the interests of their company. On a daily basis, lawyers manage risk while planning for the worst and hoping for the best. Is it surprising then that they have a tendency to focus on the downside of innovations before exploring their benefits?

The constant demands and frenetic pace of legal practice also sap a lawyer’s ability to think deeply, creatively, and strategically. For most lawyers, client matters take precedence over management and leadership activities. But there are several things lawyers can do to cultivate their creativity.

1. Recognize the limitations of the lawyer mindset. Appreciate that many of your lawyering skills and attitudes (no matter how well they work for you when practicing) are detrimental to activities like brainstorming, big picture thinking, and relationship building. Learn to shift gears and leave those skills behind for a while – they will be there waiting for you when you need them again. Try thinking and approaching problems like an entrepreneur or even as an artist.

2. Make and protect time in your calendar. It’s virtually impossible to think creatively while being constantly interrupted. Schedule regular times for creative and strategic thinking. After you have made an appointment with yourself, respect and protect it. Resist the urge to cancel or interrupt it because a client has just called. Close your door, have your admin or phone service hold your calls, and turn off all devices that let you know you have just received an email or text. It’s also a good idea to leave a few hours of “white space” in your calendar each week for creative activities and thinking.

3. Do your creative thinking outside of the office. Our environments affect our thinking. It’s simply easier to let go of the lawyer mindset when you are out of the lawyer environment. For some lawyers, moving to a conference room for an hour is all it takes. Other lawyers need to leave the office altogether in order to resist the constant interruptions of calls, clients, and colleagues.

4. Let your brain reboot. Many people get their best insights and ideas when showering or taking a walk. A lot of the work of creativity is done when we are not purposefully and analytically thinking about things. It’s not just okay – it’s actually useful – to stop and let ideas percolate down through your consciousness. New perspectives and solutions emerge from taking these breaks.

5. Don’t go it alone. Creative and strategic thinking doesn’t have to be a solo activity. In fact, creativity is often enhanced when people collaborate. Ideas can be exchanged and developed at a much faster pace. And there is the benefit of having many rather than one set of eyes. At the same time, lawyers must be on guard that they don’t reflexively rush into critiquing one another’s ideas and stifling curiosity and creativity.

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