Many attorneys (and in-house legal departments) don’t think of themselves as creative. However, companies are increasingly putting a high value on innovation and creativity. Given this shift, it makes sense for attorneys to adapt and focus on this area as a means to better serve their clients and foster their own professional growth. Over the past several years I’ve been thinking about how attorneys can better enhance their creative thinking skills.

In business we hear constantly about the need for more innovation and creativity. Businesses rely on creativity to advance their mission, develop new products, and find ways to outperform their competitors in the marketplace. Indeed, many companies have identified “creativity” as one of their core values. In today’s business environment innovation has become an essential element to succeed, and sometimes survive. As we all know the business environment has been under significant pressure lately as a result of the financial meltdown, the downturn in the economy, growing global competition, the changing political environment and legislative reforms (i.e., health care reform), etc.  Nowadays not only must the R&D and marketing departments in corporate America deliver innovative results, but all functions, including legal, are expected to produce them. Even though companies say they expect creative results and often elevate “creativity” to a core value there is, in my experience, a significant lack of training on how to do it. This appears to be particularly true in the legal field.

So where does this leave the attorneys who don’t see themselves as creative and have been trained to think logically, focusing on rules and procedures? In examining this issue, my goal was to raise individuals’ and the department’s standards around creativity. It’s been an evolution for me in addressing this question. My process included:

  1. Challenging the belief system about attorneys and (their perceived lack of) creativity
  2. Holding open-forum discussions about creativity and how to access it
  3. Creating opportunities or projects that require an attorney to use a more creative approach
  4. Seeking outside expert help

First, attorneys need to believe that they are (or can be) creative. I have had numerous conversations with attorneys with whom I work, and when I have asked them about creativity, they typically respond that they are not creative. One told me that, “Attorneys are not creative; you are the only one who is.” Some attorneys have claimed that creativity isn’t consistent with an attorney’s role. In conversations with them, I have challenged those beliefs. I look for examples when they have, in fact, been creative or demonstrated creativity and then use those examples in order to convince them that they are indeed creative individuals. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. Believing you are creative is the first step in enhancing your creativity skills. I have seen some attorneys generate some very creative ideas once they began seeing themselves that way.

To reinforce the one-on-one conversations, I also held open forum discussions to talk about creativity. Such discussions are helpful in that individuals share their own processes for coming up with creative ideas and solutions. Some get their ideas when they are exercising, having in-depth discussions with others, or reading information that inspires them. Also asking the right questions helps in getting the right answers.

In a group setting, we discuss how creativity comes in many forms, big ideas or innovations and simple changes in process for better efficiency. Just by asking that seemingly very simple question, “How can this be done better?” generates new ideas. As an output of these discussions, we developed a “creative team” within the legal department to come up with and collect ideas we will use in our department. The focus of the team has been primarily on developing new ideas for our training programs and materials. Ideas can be fleeting, especially if not acted upon immediately, so it’s important to record them for future use.

Recently I engaged an outside speaker to conduct a creative thinking program within the legal department. When I announced the program to my department, I was met with the usual skepticism. One attorney said to me, “I could do without this.” The woman who conducted the program, Patricia Harmon, had just published a book called, “The Mind of an Innovator, A Guide to Seeing Possibilities Where None Existed Before.But while I found the title intriguing, I found that I wasn’t yet prepared for her creative thinking techniques. Dr. Harmon’s approach wasn’t about creating ideas by being inspired but rather through systematic exercises and processes. She used random thoughts and words and applied them to business problems. It didn’t seem logical at first to the attorneys, but we were surprised by how well it worked. Since then we have begun applying some of these techniques to help us develop new ideas.

Attorneys are trained to be logical, to follow procedure, to advise their clients on risks and to uphold the rules. They aren’t trained in creativity and some aren’t comfortable with it. However, in the today’s business environment, it’s important that attorneys enhance their creative thinking skills. It may be a key element to an attorney‘s success, and the success of his or her clients. We must be able to quickly adapt and utilize creativity in an ever-changing business environment and culture.