Increase Your Range in Times of Change
This piece is also appearing in the Richland County Bar News. As always, much appreciation to that organization.
I am trying to make the case that both habits (routines, practices) and curiosity (an interest in learning new things and different ways of solving problems) are essential skills for lawyers. Let me approach it a different way.
What is the Value of Experience?
A lot of us have a fair amount of experience (measured in years of practice, cases tried, etc.), and as a result consider ourselves to be skilled.
But what is the true value of experience? When does experience matter? When does experience translate into skill? Why does experience result in skill? Consider the importance of rules, repetition, and feedback in developing experience and skills.
(As usual, nothing I write about is original. This exercise is culled from an excellent book called Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein).
One condition for developing a skill is a “playing field” where experience can take place. This is intuitive for anyone who’s played sports or pursued hobbies. And what defines the “field”? The rules. The law practice provides rule-based frameworks: civil, criminal, appellate procedure, evidence, professional responsibility. etc.
When you know the rules of the game and the boundaries for conduct, you’ve got an environment to develop useful skills. And, as you’ve no doubt noticed, some among us find it difficult to take action without knowing exactly what the rules allow or proscribe.
Armed with rules, and given a chance to put them into practice, lawyers get various opportunities to hone their craft. If you do something repeatedly- like argue hearsay and its exceptions, or shepherd a Section 1031 exchange to its conclusion- you’ll build skill. That is the definition of a habit, right? If you try cases or conduct hearings of more or less the same type, you learn to do things well (depose and qualify experts, conduct discovery, get a document into evidence) in part because repetition makes you better.
That repetition actually leads to skill presumes that the repetition is correctly performed. (Recall the old sports adage “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.”). Which leads to ….
It seems apodictic (shout-out to Judge Ralph King Anderson, Jr.) that feedback rewards appropriate repetition, and turns experience into skill. The law practice offers a lot of immediate and clear feedback, in a jury verdict, an appellate decision, or a transaction closing. Of course, you can also build skills from failures (negative feedback), as long as you’re willing to learn the right lessons from those setbacks.
And you solve problems for clients with the skills you’ve developed.
The Advent of Wicked Problems
Particular experience creates and builds skills in solving “kind” problems. “Kind” problems are the ones where “staying in your lane” makes sense: the terrain is familiar, you know what works, and you know what to do.
But ask yourself about the usefulness of those skills (tools, if you like) when the landscape changes, such as when you encounter unfamiliar challenges (e.g. hiring and retaining associates), increased competition, new business models, complicated technologies, and a changing economy. How do you respond when your lane gets paved over, when you are the only one travelling it, or when you can’t discern a lane at all?
Flipping the analysis above around, how useful are your skills when:
- the rules of the game are unclear or incomplete;.
- there may not be repetitive patterns or patterns that are obvious, or
- you don’t get feedback, or you receive inaccurate feedback?
These are “wicked” problems. Much of the anxiety that lawyers and law firms face is because more problems we see are “wicked” in nature: containing more ambiguity, and offering fewer clear answers or paths forward.
Take Stock of Your Skills
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”- Abraham Maslow.
When is relying upon your skills and experience not enough? Are there instances where relying only on what you know and have encountered can actually harm you? As Epstein puts it, sometimes “dropping your tools” (in favor of adapting or adopting a flexible mindset) is not only helpful, but crucial. That hammer you’ve been using might not be the right tool for every job. Those of you who’ve encountered a scorched-earth litigator in a mediation (or in a law firm budget meeting for that matter) may have a sense of what I am getting at.
If maybe your current challenges tend toward wicked rather than kind, then can you consider the possibility that your skills might need a little augmentation? Have you stopped to consider your skills, especially those that have become so habitual that you aren’t even aware of them? Can you identify the way those skills can continue to serve you, combined with the skills of those around you? Have you considered how your skills might be applied in other areas (that is the textbook definition of innovation, by the way)? Are you willing to consider ideas and potential solutions that don’t fit neatly into your “lane”?
Are you curious to know more about the answers to these questions?
Conclusion: Yes AND
I am not suggesting that your skills aren’t valuable or relevant. I am telling you they are not sufficient, especially as the problems of the law practice get increasingly more complex.