What Lawyers Can Learn From Designers

Written by Teresa Matich7 minutes well spent
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What can lawyers learn from designers? A lot more than you might think, it turns out.

Far from being just about aesthetics, design is about problem solving. Designers think about problems deliberately and take steps to consider multiple angles and build towards a solution—a useful approach for a lawyer who wants to start their own firm, or who has an idea for an alternative business model.

In the #1 New York Times Best Seller Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, designers Bill Burnett and Dave Evans write about how to use design thinking and design processes to build a more meaningful, fulfilling life. The book includes at least one example of a lawyer designing a better life, and there are many other ways that Bill and Dave’s ideas can apply to your legal career. Here are just a few:

Note: Bill and Dave are keynote speakers at the 2018 Clio Cloud Conference.

1. Start where you are

According to Bill and Dave, the first step of the life design process is to objectively take stock of your current position in work and in life. You may already have problems in mind that you’d like to solve, but it’s impossible to properly choose and frame the problems you’d like to take on if you have a misconception of what’s really going on. As stated in Designing Your Life, “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you are.”

For example, according to the 2017 Legal Trends Report, the average lawyer only bills 2.3 hours per day, but when the report first came out with a similar figure in 2016, lawyers were shocked—many thought they were billing a much higher number of hours.

As Dustin Cole points out in his commentary on the 2017 report, “Lawyers often think it’s cheaper to do all their own stuff rather than hire someone. And frankly, some hide out from their work, their marketing, and their worries by sticking their heads in the sands of office stuff. What they miss is that every hour they spend here is an hour they’re not billing—or marketing for billable work.”

If you have any inkling that you’d like a change in your life or your legal career, start by taking stock of your life and practice right now to see where you stand. Bill and Dave suggest using the “health/work/play/love dashboard”—to use it, rate yourself as more empty or more full in each category, and take stock of whether any one area needs extra attention.

2. Reframe the way you think about gravity problems

Bill and Dave differentiate between problems that are actionable and problems that are not actionable by calling the non-actionable ones “gravity problems.” From the book:

If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. It’s a situation, a circumstance, a fact of life. It may be a drag (so to speak), but like gravity, it’s not a problem that can be solved.

However, this does not mean that all is lost. Far from it, in fact. As Bill and Dave explain, reframing gravity problems allows you to move forward with alternative solutions. They provide the example of a person who wants to become a doctor but who doesn’t want to spend 10 years going to medical school: This person could reframe their thinking, (i.e., they could focus on the fact that many medical students get to start treating patients in their second year). Or, since they can’t change the time it takes to finish medical school, they could pursue a career as a physician’s assistant instead, getting their degree in a fraction of the time.

For lawyers, this might mean letting go of the gravity problem of having the same 24 hours in a day as anyone else: If you’re only logging 2.3 billable hours per day, it will be difficult to increase that number simply by pushing yourself harder. You may need to invest in apps or services to help you work more efficiently, or you may need to consider an alternative business model, such as charging flat fees instead of an hourly rate.

3. (Seriously) consider multiple options

If you’ve ever been unsure about the next step in your legal career (or your life in general) this point from Bill and Dave will resonate with you. As they explain in Designing Your Life:

There’s always got to be a better idea, a better way—even a best way. That kind of thinking is pretty dangerous to life design. The truth is that all of us have more than one life in us … and if you accept this idea—that there are multiple great designs for your life, though you’ll still only get to live one—it is rather liberating. There is no one idea for your life. There are many lives (no matter how many years old you are), and there are lots of different paths you could take to live each of those productive, amazingly different lives.

You may have had one career path in mind when you first started practicing law, but whether you choose to join a thriving practice, start your own law firm, work at a pro bono clinic, or use your legal education to pursue a different career entirely, you definitely have more than one option ahead of you.

This goes for smaller decisions as well. Considering a new business model? Want to try a new practice area? Need to fix administrative processes at your law firm and just aren’t sure where to start? Thinking through a few options may be more productive than obsessing over making the right choice.

Bill and Dave speak in more detail in their book about how to brainstorm, consider, and test multiple life or career paths. They stress the value of deliberately considering a few possibilities in order to continue moving forward while keeping an open mind.

4. Play an infinite game of growth

Jeena Cho has written at length about the pressures many lawyers put on themselves. While fear of failure certainly isn’t unique to lawyers, the legal profession is a demanding one, and the stakes are higher when mistakes are made.

That said, Bill and Dave’s concept of life design may offer some respite from this pressure, especially when it comes to making legal career choices and law firm business decisions. Consider their concept of “failure immunity,” from Designing Your Life, which references James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games:

[James] asserts that just about everything we do in life is either a finite game, one in which we play by the rules in order to win—or an infinite game, one in which we play with the rules, for the joy of getting to keep playing … when you remember that you are always playing the infinite game of becoming more and more yourself … you can’t fail … Sure, you’ll experience pain and loss or serious setbacks, but they won’t make you less of a person, and you don’t experience these setbacks as an existential “failure” from which you can’t recover.

If you’re thinking about hiring another lawyer, trying new software, or packing up and practicing law while traveling the world, give it a try. At worst, you’ll learn something new, and at best, you might just find yourself enjoying the latest stage in your own, incredible life.

About Bill Burnett

Bill Burnett is an award-winning Silicon Valley designer and the Executive Director of the renowned Design Program at Stanford University. Having worked at companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies, his innovative thinking has helped create award-winning products such as Apple’s PowerBook laptops and the original Hasbro Star Wars action figures. He is the co-author of Designing Your Life, an empowering book that emphasizes actionable tools for designing a life at any age.

About Dave Evans

After years as a successful tech exec at Apple and Electronic Arts, Dave Evans came to realize that his real mission in life was to help others find theirs. Today he teaches Life Design at Stanford University and is the co-author of Designing Your Life. Evans’ lectures are transformative for both college students and executives, inspiring them to view life not as a problem that needs to be solved, but as a creative adventure.

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