Why Creativity is Important to Good Lawyering

Law is rarely considered a creative profession. Most of us think of creatives as being poets and artists, not rule-following lawyers. But creativity simply means you have the ability to think of new ideas, and that is something a good lawyer does every day. Whether you are interpreting a case in a novel way, trying to grow the pie in a negotiation, or reframing a bad fact, you need to hone your creativity. The good news is even if you do not consider yourself creative, there are ways you can cultivate creativity.

Start by Turning Off Your Inner Critic

To increase the flow of new ideas, you will need to abandon some of your legal training, at least temporarily. Lawyers are taught to be critical and judgmental, but you need to abandon your judging mind when trying to be creative. Instead, you must welcome freewheeling, spontaneous thought. Dr. Betty S. Flowers, the former Director of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Dallas, developed a paradigm for good writing in which the first step is to let the “madman” run wild. Bryan Garner, notable legal writing teacher, recommends relying on your inner madman in legal writing, too. In order to write persuasively, you must be creative, which requires letting the madman be in charge for a time.

The concept is that the madman generates ideas, however crazy they may be. To find the good ideas, the madman needs freedom to play with whatever comes to mind — good ideas, bad ideas, mediocre ideas. So let the ideas flow, jot them all down, and do not worry about whether they will ultimately be useful.

To let the madman out, you can designate specific times. For example, when devising headings for a brief, you might draft five versions of the same heading, not being concerned with perfection. But do not be surprised if your madman does not respect the appointment you set with him. He may tap you on the shoulder just as you are leaving the office or when you are walking your dog (more on why below). To capture all the possibilities, consider keeping a notebook or a recording device handy. The key to the madman phase is to leave your critical inhibitions aside. You can tap into your lawyerly critic later.

Give Your Brain a Real Break

Our brains have two dominant modes of attention:

  1. The task positive network
  2. The task negative network

The task positive network is in charge when you are actively focusing on a task, while the task negative network is in charge when you are daydreaming. Your greatest creative moments will often originate when your brain is in daydreaming mode. That’s because new connections are formed when you let your mind wander. For optimal creativity, you need to vacillate between focused-attention mode and mind-wandering mode. Take walks, listen to music, sleep on it, or exercise. All of those daydreaming activities will help you devise better ideas.

Practice Creativity Often

Like any skill, generating creative ideas takes practice. Yet most adults are a bit rusty, largely because we have highly developed inner critics. Not to worry, there are plenty of exercises that can help you flex your creative muscles. If you begin exercising creativity regularly, you are very likely to find that new and better ideas seep into your law practice. Here are some exercises to try.

  • The circles challenge. This one comes from Bob McKim, a Professor Emeritus at Stanford, and gained popularity from Tim Brown’s TED talk on creativity. Print a piece of paper with 30 circles on it using this template. Then take three minutes and turn as many of the circles as possible into objects of some form. The goal is quantity, not quality. Just turn the circles into anything that comes to mind. Let your ideas flow without worrying about how good they are.
  • Write a six-word story. Urban legend says that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a six-word story and wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Whether the Hemingway story is true or not, writing a story in six words is bound to get the creative juices flowing. And it can be fit within your busy schedule.
  • Doodle. To develop ideas, we usually turn to language, but using something more visual can spark more creative thought. Sunni Brown, the author of The Doodle Revolution, offers some specific doodle techniques. Particularly relevant for lawyers may be the “process map,” a visual depiction of events. Sometimes visual representations can spark ideas that words alone cannot.

As you practice, push yourself. The people at Upworthy, the website that reframes news stories to help them go viral, writes twenty-five headlines for each piece of content. The idea is that if you have to draft twenty-five different headlines, you are going to dig deep and come up with something creative and excellent. It is easy to think you have struck gold with your first decent idea, but force yourself to continue. Do not stop when you have one or two respectable ideas.

Pushing yourself to come up with more can help in law, too. Develop twenty-five or more taglines or pitches could be what sets you apart from your competition. Draft multiple headings for briefs or motions. Busy judges and clerks are known to pay special attention to tables of contents, so pushing the creative limits with your headings may be worth the effort. So, too, with introductions or opening statements. You have only a few sentences to capture your audiences, developing a few different sentences can force you to push your creative limits.

The best lawyers are creative. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a brief that determining the “best” available technology for controlling air pollution is like asking people to pick the “best” car: “Mario Andretti may select a Ferrari; a college student a Volkswagen beetle; a family of six a mini-van. The choices would turn on how the decisionmaker weighed competing priorities such as cost, mileage, safety, cargo space, speed, handling, and so on.”

You will not come up with a brief like that without regularly exercising your creative muscles.

Featured image: “Creative writing, light bulb and many pencils on the table” from Shutterstock.

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