In one of my recent posts titled “The Qualities of Tomorrow’s Top Lawyers” I addressed seven qualities that lawyers should master if they want to be a leader during the next decade. One of the qualities is “Improve & Innovate.” There are many aspects of improve and innovate, but creativity is one of them. Lawyers who want to be leaders and really help their clients cannot do so by simply repeating the past.
Creativity: Nature or Nurture
We like to imbue many skills with a mystical “it’s in her blood” or “he was just born with the gift.” For some skills, there is an element of genetic luck. I could have worked as hard and long as I wanted to, but I would never have been the center on a National Football League team. At five foot eight and 170 pounds, genetics worked against me on that one.
We tend to throw a lot of skills into that luck-of-the-draw pool, but reality shows us that luck or innate talent isn’t what drives most world-class performances. The good news is that we all have within us the power to rise well-above average. Anders Ericsson, Ralf T. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer identified what it takes to perform at a high level in their 1993 paper titled, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” For a more recent and easier to access description of what it takes, you can read Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.
Ericsson and his colleagues described what it takes in their paper, saying “the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” Today, we know this as the 10,000 hours or ten-years of deliberate practice rule. If you want to achieve that above average or even world-class level, you must put in around 10,000 hours or ten years of deliberate practice in your domain.
Note that the phrase is “deliberate practice” not just practice. You may have been tasked with learning to play an instrument when you were young. For many of us, that meant 30 minutes a day of practicing the piano, clarinet, trumpet, or other instrument of choice (or torture device for siblings and parents). The thirty minutes usually entailed desultory efforts to learn scales or play simple tunes. If your heart wasn’t in it, you made little progress and eventually the instrument ended up in the attic (except for the piano, of course), was passed on to a younger child, or sold at a yard sale. You were not engaged in deliberate practice, you just practiced.
Deliberate practice rises to a much higher level. As Colvin describes it, deliberate practice “is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.” Most importantly, there is no shortcut or circumventing deliberate practice. If you want to achieve world-class performance, you must earn it.
The Five Habits to Build Creative Legal Services
The question of how to earn it brings us back to lawyers and creativity. Law generally is not classified as a creative art and, while there are many lawyers who are musicians, painters, sculptors, etc., most lawyers still do not think of themselves as creative. Yet, to be a leader – a top lawyer for the coming decade – you must improve and innovate. Recognizing that much of what we call creativity comes through deliberate practice, one way to achieve creativity is by doing what others do who we view as creative.
Art Markman published an article in Fast Company titled “Five Habits of Creative People” that tells us creative people actually do some pretty mundane things to achieve creativity. Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He also is the Founding Director of the University of Texas Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. Markman gives us a five-part structure covering what we need to do help ensure we achieve results through creativity deliberate creativity practice. What do they very successful creative people do?
- “They Study the Details.”
“Creative individuals delve into the details of the problems they are trying to solve.”
Lawyers love to delve into the details, so it would seem like this habit would be easy for lawyers to follow. Look further, however, and you will see some issues. The details lawyers love to look for are isolated to the facts of the matter. If a lawyer could just know all the facts and all the law, he could give the perfect answer. Law practices in the next decade will require knowing other details. Lawyers will need to know the personalities of the individuals involved in the matter, the business context in which the issue arises, the details of how society’s views of the situation are evolving, and where technology is headed. Creative lawyering will mean knowing enough to solve the problem, not just treat the symptoms.
- “They have Developed a Disciplined Routine.”
“The standard image of the creative genius is one of a tortured soul who works in fits of inspiration in between bouts of self-destructive behavior. But, many of the most creative people are much more disciplined than that. They treat their creativity like a job and work at it consistently. … [As Stephen King describes it, you] cannot wait for the muse. You have to work hard before it appears.”
Too many lawyers want the quick fix, the silver bullet, the fast solution. It doesn’t work that way. Those lawyers who deliver top performances work at it every day, just like great writers who practice their craft diligently. To get clients, lawyers must build relationships. With social media, that is both easier and harder. You can reach out to more people than ever before through social media. But, it is easier to think that a tweet or post replaces in-person relationship building. Social media is the start not the end. Relationships require work every day. So does creativity. To build better service delivery systems, lawyers must study what exists and then work each day to improve it. Make a small improvement today, then again tomorrow, and then the next day, and you have both a better system and a disciplined routine for improvement.
- “They Realize that Everything is Important.”
“A key to creativity is to pursue knowledge without a sense of whether it will be relevant in the future. Too often, people assume that they can judge in advance what they need to understand and what they do not. Instead, creative people build up their knowledge base so that they will be ready for the opportunities that come later.”
Like most people, lawyers like to talk about what they do. But, if you are not a specialist in the same area of law as the lawyer in your conversation, things get boring fast. Lawyers must constantly read about what is happening outside the profession to understand how to excel within the profession. Almost all the ideas touted as “new” in law today come from other industries where they are treated as “old.” We desperately need to improve the efficiency of legal services delivery, but productivity improvements are old news in business. Our clients have moved on to behavioral economics. Had lawyers kept up with the world outside the legal industry, we would be much more productive and relevant to our clients today. Lesson learned: build your knowledge base outside the legal industry if you want to stay relevant within it.
- “They Consider the Timing.”
“Truly successful creative endeavors are products that fit into their time. That means that creative individuals need to understand both the technical aspects of their craft as well as the context in which the work is being done.”
Yogi Berra is a legend in American baseball (one of the best catchers ever) and also is known for his pithy sayings. Berra knew something about timing. He was considered an expert at hitting bad pitches. When asked about his skill, Berra supposedly said “You don’t have to swing hard to hit a home run. If you got the timing, it’ll go.”
Timing has a lot to do with creativity in legal services. I learned lean thinking over 20 years ago. At that time, it was incredibly difficult to get lawyers to think about efficiency. Creative approaches to legal service delivery were not well received. Today, efficiency is a hot topic in the legal industry. Creativity involves that mix of finding a new direction, but knowing that you aren’t so far ahead of the parade that they lose sight of where you are going. To die a starving artist only to be “re-discovered” 50 years later is interesting for art historians, but not so much fun for the artist. For the creative lawyer, success means finding the new direction and staying within sight of the parade while still around to enjoy the success.
- “They Know When to Give Up.”
“Good decisions do not allow sunk costs to have an undue impact on choices. Just because you have already spent a lot of time or money on a project does not mean that time will have been wasted if you walk away from the project. Instead, you should evaluate projects by whether they are likely to succeed with continued effort, independent of the investment you have made so far.”
Take heart lawyers, this also is a tough skill for businesspeople to learn. Once you have invested yourself (and money) in an idea, it can be difficult to accept that it is time to drop that idea and move on. Startups often face this issue. Thankfully, there is a way to handle the problem. Work hard – deliberate practice – on the skills of being a top lawyer, including innovating and improving. But, be willing to pivot when your idea doesn’t pan out. Become wedded to innovating and improving, not to a particular innovation or improvement. Your clients value improved legal service delivery, not a particular improvement. Sticking with what doesn’t work helps no one. Showing you can pivot to a new idea and have the resilience to do that until you find success will mark you as a top lawyer.
With the legal industry in transition, many have entered the industry attempting to be overnight sensations. We have consultants, pundits, and experts pitching a wide variety of fixes for what ails us. To succeed, we need to deliberately practice the skills our clients demand that we have, always know that first and foremost we must excel as lawyers, and embrace technology. Creativity will come to the prepared lawyer.