Cameron Rhudy

The Artful Lawyer: Remembering to Use My Creative Muscles

Editor's Note: Ms. JD is currently seeking pre-law and law school students, as well as legal professionals, to serve as its 2015 Writers in Residence! To apply for the Writers in Residence Program, please read this post and submit all of the necessary information and materials to wir@ms-jd.org by Saturday, November 1, 2014! 

As I mentioned last month, I am starting my own law practice.  After almost five years practicing health law as a legislative attorney, I have decided to pursue my interest in small business transactional law to provide legal services to creative and social enterprises. Not only is changing practice areas an incredible challenge, but part of my goal is to also incorporate some of the new economy/sharing law principles that I am learning as a Sustainable Economies Law Fellow to my practice. In other words, I want to make legal services more affordable and accessible to my community and promote cooperatives, collaboration, and community.

I have to admit that this pursuit puts so many things on my to-do list that some days I don’t even know where to start. I feel like I am fresh out of law school again as I navigate the foundations of starting a practice that as a government attorney I never had the need to tackle, such as creating a fee agreement, shopping for malpractice insurance, and putting together a website. And on top of all of that I am swimming in a pool of new subject areas, including cooperative by-laws, intellectual property, and nonprofit tax exemptions.

I am, in my own way, trying to do my part to reshape the legal profession, but attempting to do so as a solo practitioner is difficult. At a time when it would be convenient to mirror examples of how other attorneys run their practices, I have to remind myself to stop and analyze whether those models fit within my vision for my practice. I am not helping to reshape the legal profession if I just mirror the business-as-usual model. So I have to pick what I believe fits for me, and the rest is like navigating somewhat uncharted territory.

“Creative Confidence”

As I work through the challenges of creating the law practice I envision, a book that I have been reading by Tom Kelley and David Kelley entitled Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All has been a timely reminder that I should apply creative confidence to starting my law practice.  Right from the start, the authors tackle what they call the “creativity myth,” which is the idea that creativity is only associated with those we consider artistic. As the authors explain, creative confidence is the opposite of the creativity myth, and that it starts with the belief that everyone is creative and that “creativity comes into play wherever you have the opportunity to generate new ideas, solutions, and approaches.”

The book is separated into chapters with titles like Flip, Dare, Spark, and Leap and provides real world examples from their work at IDEO and the d.school at Stanford of how creative confidence applied to all types of fields, such as engineering medical devices, technology, and even the law can result in advances in customer products, services, or outcomes.

The Take Aways

While some of concepts discussed in the book are not new to me (e.g. overcoming the fear of failure is necessary to achieve innovation), there were some running themes that resonated. First, the need to “empathize with your end user” and that “you come up with more innovative ideas when you better understand the needs and context of the people you are creating solutions for.” The most moving example in the book is about the creation of the Embrace Infant Warmer by a group of d.school students who were challenged to research and design a low-cost infant incubator for use in the developing world.  It wasn’t until one of the students took a trip to a Nepal hospital that it was understood that the design needed to be parent focused rather than their initial assumptions that the design would be hospital/clinician focused.

In a transactional law practice, it would seem like this would be a no-brainer and that perhaps a client interview would quickly get to the heart of any particular client’s needs and circumstances. But as the examples in the book drive home, and as I know from my own personal experience, asking the right questions is a skill that can always be improved upon. Sometimes you have to reframe a question to get the answers you are looking for. And at other times, just observing your target market out in the world provides more information about a person’s circumstances than any particular question might bring out.

For me, I know that I need to better understand my target market in order to provide my clients with legal services that are tailored to their needs.  For example, at what price are legal services affordable anyway? If I tell people I work with cooperatives, does my target market understand what that means? What prevents small businesses from seeking legal advice at the start-up stage; is it just money or is there something else at play?  Until I empathize more with my prospective clients, I will not understand how to best structure my practice and the services I provide. 

The second theme that stuck with me is “[c]an you use constraints as a source of creative license, as permission to think differently?” The idea here is that sometimes having limitations on time, resources, or materials can spark creativity.  The book discusses the development of Pulse News by two d.school students during an approximately 10-week long course that exemplifies this concept. During the course the two students created the iPad application, and in a two-week period of testing with potential users, people went from saying the application was “crap” to asking if it was preloaded on the iPad.  In this case, the short time frame prevented the students for taking too much time planning and instead immediately put them in the doing mode, allowing them to make quick changes in response to user feedback.

The practice of law is full of regulations and rules, and navigating those obstacles for our clients is precisely what they pay us to do.  And as attorneys, most of us are risk adverse, so when we hit a roadblock often our instinct is to simply tell a client that they can’t do something. But rather than telling our clients they can’t do something (although sometimes that will be the case no matter how hard we try), we serve our clients better if we use those constraints to come up with creative alternatives.

In my case, I am attempting to navigate some legal areas that are less concrete and settled anyway. But rather than look at those constraints as just obstacles to begrudgingly work around, I need to view them as opportunities to be creative.  I can instead use those constraints to accomplish my clients’ goals in creative and new ways and perhaps create more support for doing things a little differently. 

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