Why Thinking Like a Lawyer Is Bad For Your Career

By Michael Melcher
Partner, Next Step Partners

When you apply thinking like a lawyer to your career, there’s a good chance you’ll conclude that future possibilities or unfamiliar behaviors probably won’t work. So you probably won’t try, or try hard enough.

Keepers of their own cells?

The legal field, like most fields, doesn’t constrain people’s potential. But it tends to constrain their way of thinking about potential. Lawyers sometimes don’t see the possibilities before them and therefore don’t act in ways that take advantage of those possibilities.

At the extreme, lawyers become the keepers of their own cells, walled off from new ideas and energies. The reason? It has a lot to do with issue-spotting. This problem is not limited to lawyers. It afflicts nearly every profession in which hard-headed analysis is valued above other skills.

Thinking like a lawyer: The downside.

When we “think like a lawyer” we approach issues and problems by taking them apart, comparing possibilities against evidence, anticipating cracks in arguments, and contemplating risks. Lawyers who work for ExxonMobil do this, and so do lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s a default method of legal analysis. Other professions have their own versions of thinking like a lawyer—those are the jobs in which people spend a lot of time identifying problems associated with particular paths.

A lawyer who correctly spots issues can get people out of jail, or put other people in. Good issue-spotting ensures that mergers work, that businesses are compliant, and that pesky relatives can’t mess with the estate. But thinking like a lawyer doesn’t work so well when you apply it to your own career.

When you apply thinking like a lawyer to your own career—whether your objective is to build your business, develop a new specialty, or contemplate alternative paths—there’s a good chance that you will:

  • Analyze rather than explore
  • Focus on flaws and potential problems
  • Look for clear precedent
  • Require solutions of general applicability (“what would work for everyone”) rather than specific applicability (“what would work for me”)
  • Defer action in situations of uncertainty
  • Be skeptical about possibilities
  • Avoid taking risks

Why lawyer analysis doesn’t work for personal growth.

What works for job-related analysis doesn’t work for personal growth. That’s because the processes of attaining career fulfillment and growing as a professional are not all that susceptible to logic.

When it comes to careers, it’s only through action that we acquire relevant information. It’s the doing that builds skills and provides reliable data. It’s the exploration that leads to certainty. (For a compelling description of this process, read Herminia Ibarra’s modern classic, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.) We imagine that we can think our way to insight, but insight is something that frequently shows up only after action has been taken.

The bottom line is that when you apply thinking like a lawyer to your career, there’s a good chance you’ll conclude that future possibilities or unfamiliar behaviors probably won’t work. So you probably won’t try, or try hard enough. You will be mostly content that you are doing the logical, prudent thing, but in fact you will be foreclosing possibilities before they have a chance to develop.

If you don’t want to be overly stuck in thinking like a lawyer, what should you do instead? Well, fourteen chapters in my book, The Creative Lawyer, delve into the details. (And by the way, these lessons are not just for lawyers. Do a mental “search and replace” for the occupation of your choice and you’ll find that most of the lessons still apply.)

Where to from here?

Basically, not thinking like a lawyer in your career comes down to considering that the path from here to there is a zigzag, not a straight line, and that you are better off exploring and experimenting rather than assessing situations through detached analysis.

Not thinking like a lawyer asks you to give your hopes some room to grow.



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