Old Dog; New Tricks

Law is precedent-based. Parties in a legal disagreement argue not about why their idea or position should be the new norm, but about how and why their position is akin to something that’s come before. It’s not surprising, then, that lawyers in general tend to favor doing the safe thing, looking back, and not to reinventing the wheel, or to getting creative.


In most of the situations that lawyers face, this is a good thing. Just as a patient doesn’t want their brain surgeon to “get creative,” clients don’t want their divorce lawyer to try out their new legal theories or practice management ideas on their case.

Yet no organization or group can survive today without change. On a small-scale level, human beings need to mix it up sometimes to stay effective and happy. But change, adaptation, or today’s buzzword, “innovation,” are much more important than simply improving one’s afternoon by doing something different. In a rapidly and radically changing economic landscape, with entire sectors emerging and vanishing within a decade, even precedent-based professions like law must learn to look forward to understand what’s coming, while simultaneously keeping necessary traditions. This is particularly important for the American legal sector. It’s suffering from a tragic inability to serve a wide swath of the American population and squandering what little respect and PR goodwill that it had.

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Some personality types are more naturally inclined to creative thinking than others, but everyone can be taught how to flex and exercise their innovation muscles. Over the past few years, I have not only evangelized new ideas in the legal sector, but have pushed lawyers and others in the legal field to be innovative or creative. From those experiences, I’ve picked up five tips to help anyone, but particularly lawyers, turn their creative lemons into lemonade.

Physicality Matters

Being creative is work. Like other challenging mental tasks, bringing out creative ideas can be physically taxing, so it’s important to engage your whole self, including your body. One way to do this is by starting out a creative endeavor with an icebreaker. Get people up and out of their seats and, maybe, even a little sweaty. Good icebreakers get people using their bodies as well as their voices to interact. Simple games to learn everyone’s name are fun and easy, as are games that help participants get to know each other by organizing by birthday, height, birth place or another fun personal characteristic. Icebreakers are also important to help get the creative juices flowing. Creativity comes from connecting unexpected ideas in unexpected ways. Silliness and play can help free those unexpected ideas. This is particularly true for lawyers who would normally be inclined to resist or deride efforts to be silly.


Empathy is a core value of the “design thinking” ethos dominating today’s innovation and technology discussions. Design thinking applies principles of product design and user-interface design to problems outside the realms of traditional design. Many design thinking experts say that the process of solving a problem—the process of innovation—begins with the user. Specifically, problem solvers must put themselves in the shoes of those whom they are trying to help. By being user-centric, or in more common parlance, empathetic, innovators can more effectively understand the problems of their users and then see solutions to problems. Lawyers seeking creative solutions to client problems either on an individual level or client group level would do well to work extremely hard to put themselves in their clients’ shoes.

Rules of the road

Creativity is a much more structured exercise than you might think. Even artists have some kind of mission or aim underpinning their creation. They draw boundaries, make binary decisions about what’s in or what’s out, what’s right or what’s wrong, not only on a given piece of art, but more broadly to bring their artistic vision to life. Rules can be important in creativity and innovation too. For example, it’s important for groups to understand that the exercise will proceed in stages. Particularly early on, and particularly for lawyers, leaders should emphasize the importance of putting analysis and critique to the side. Rules like “no bad ideas” or “turn off your issue spotter” will help foster the type of environment in which creativity can flourish.


It’s about time

Doing anything well—lawyering, playing the trumpet, cooking, public speaking—takes time. Creativity is no exception. If you want to get the most out of an effort to be creative or innovative, you must commit time. Whether trying to innovate in a group or individually, dedicate specific time to being creative. Most lawyers live and die by the billable hour because they believe (mistakenly) that they sell time (they don’t, they sell legal services, but that’s a different discussion). To be creative, to be entrepreneurial, carve out specific time to flex those muscles. For any meaningful creative or innovative endeavor, a half-day to full day is necessary, because it takes at a fair amount of time to simply clear one’s mind of the day-to-day stuff and focus on something new.

Just do it

Finally, just do it. The enemy of the perfect is the good. Too many issue-spotting lawyers can’t see past an initial good but rough idea to the gem it could become. Whether you’re trying to be innovative or creative in a group or individually, the main thing is to get started. Even if you can’t do a physical icebreaker, or dedicate specific time to being creative, do something. Start a blog, join Twitter, interview a client about their experience with your firm, create a vision board, sketch a mind map. Whatever it takes, just do something. Just like your first idea in a brainstorm isn’t likely to be golden your first attempt at being creative or innovative might feel clunky or forced. But take heart! The magic comes not in the immediate results, but in the process. The best thing you can do to “get creative” is to get started.

Innovation isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy either, particularly if you’re stuck in the billable hour, issue-spotting, analytical mindset most commonly found among lawyers. There are lots of ways to think about doing new things, but the most successful endeavors incorporate some or all of the principles described above. Lawyers may seem like the old dogs who can’t possibly be taught something new, but my experience contradicts that. The key is not changing who you are, it’s changing how you go about it. And the ideas above are a great start.

About the Author

Dan Lear is a lawyer, blogger and legal industry gadfly. He is the director of industry relations at Avvo, the online legal marketplace, and is a prolific speaker and writer. Dan is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Follow him on Twitter @rightbrainlaw.

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