When I describe CAL’s work to other millennial lawyers, they often tell me “I’m just not that creative.” But these self-identified uncreatives spend their days solving complex problems in sophisticated, nuanced ways. Is this intelligence, but not creativity? What is creativity anyway, and are we born with it, or not?
As an old millenial (xennial by some accounts), I probably had a more unstructured early life than many of my younger colleagues, but still came into my career in the information age. I spent hours running in the woods, solving problems out of my own mind, without instruction or information. By college, however, the internet had largely replaced the library as an information source, and by the time I made it through law school, the ready availability of an overwhelming amount of data had transformed nearly every aspect of my life.
What is the impact of this inundation of information on our ability to reason inductively (devising solutions in the absence of information)? And for lawyers, who emphasize the ability to reason deductively, are we letting our inductive reasoning muscles atrophy? Neuroscientists have found that even a few months studying for the LSAT changes your brain structure, so imagine what three years of law school does. Yikes.
Creativity as a Muscle
Neuroscientist Anna Abraham says that creativity has two elements: (1) “it reflects our capacity to generate ideas that are original, unusual or novel in some way’ and (2) “these ideas also need to be satisfying, appropriate or suited to the context in question.” As lawyers, we’re pretty good at number two, and often see little need for number one. After all, we’re trying to apply the law as written to the facts presented, right? In some areas of law, this might cut it. But where the law is insufficient in some way or needs evolution, we need to be able to draft claims creatively, identify novel legal theories and use the law as one element of longer-term, broader strategies (think social movement lawyering and current challenges with human rights litigation).
But exposure to the Socratic Method and a highly competitive law school environment is crippling to the creativity of many young lawyers (check out this fascinating study on the impact of fear-based narratives on law students). I certainly felt less creative leaving law school than when I entered, and became highly--perhaps excessively--detail-oriented. I found myself largely without hobbies. I read the news and stayed abreast of developments in my area of law, but I didn’t make room for art, music, or any other activity that required me to come up with solutions to problems that were not based in external research. Even as a parent (my first child was born shortly after sitting for the bar), I was glued to those horrible mommy blogs and parenting advice sites that give you suggestions for every possible issue that could arise while caring for a baby. Unlike pre-internet parents, today’s parents are inundated with studies, advice from millions of anonymous parents, and an infinite number of cautionary tales about the consequences of parenting missteps.
In law as in parenting, this inundation of information generates anxiety and arguably suppresses creative thinking. But can we recover our capacity for creative thought? Neuroscientist Roger Beaty and others suggest that creativity is a function of interconnectivity between different regions of the brain. We are probably able to influence the interconnectivity between regions of brain through both use and disuse, and Beaty’s work shows higher levels of creativity among those who engage in creative hobbies than those who do not.
Through exercising the regions of the brain associated with inductive reasoning, art, music, etc., could we build our creative muscles? While it may be hard to become more intelligent, anecdotally, we all know someone who became a better artist or musician through practice, or developed the ability to improvise once certain technical skills are established. This seems to work for other forms of creativity as well. In that spirit, the folks at IDEO and Stanford’s d.school have created this list of activities to spur creative thinking in your work. There are lots of similar lists out there, and you can find what works for you. For some folks, it might be as simple as doodling or taking a walk and letting your mind wander. For others, it may take disciplined engagement in creative activities over a period of time before you start to see results. The idea is to see if you can rewire your brain to increase connectivity between different regions. Is it possible? The neuroscientists haven’t completed the studies to say for sure, but experts think so, and from our experience in our own legal design lab, so do we.
Creativity as Space
Nobody is surprised to hear that it’s hard to be creative when you’re constantly putting out fires. Filing deadlines, office drama and demanding bosses are all serious creativity killers. And I don’t know about you, but when people tell me I need to make time to relax more, I smile politely and make a voodoo doll of them in my head.
That said, those people are probably right. Much of my fascination with creativity and neuroscience comes from a couple of years ago when I got a bad concussion. Rather than going to a hospital (I was too busy), I just pushed on through. About a week later, after presenting at a symposium, attending a conference and migrating our nonprofit accounting system, I lost the ability to understand conversations with more than one other person at a time. The headaches were crippling and everything was SO LOUD.
I went to the doctor who told me to stop doing everything until the headaches stopped. No screens, no reading, no loud noises, and no hard thinking. I started my two weeks of sensory deprivation lying on a carpeted floor, passing the time by stretching and coloring in an adult coloring book. I later moved to painting, and painted silly things on my kids’ dressers. Not having created any art in a long time, this was weirdly challenging, but also liberating.
Since that experience, I’ve thought a lot about head injuries (by the way football should be banned), neuroscience and creative thinking. My brain didn’t fully recover (I still can’t listen to live music and struggle with daily headaches), but I do have a greater appreciation for the importance of space: giving my brain time to process things in its own way, freedom to wander, and permission to make mistakes. I have discovered the way “sleeping on it” is a real and effective strategy to get through a hard problem, and how sometimes inspiration lies just at the edge of conscious thought.
This idea is certainly embraced in Silicon Valley, where Google workers have access to myriad recreational activities that they are free to engage in during the work day. This opening of space pulls them out of their deductive reasoning centers and activates other areas of their brains, creating the possibility of multi-region interactions, thus spurring creativity.
You may be thinking that lawyers operate in a world with many more constraints than tech workers. We have ethical standards, responsibilities to real live humans, and our mistakes don’t just break code--they can really hurt our clients and others. This is all true. But if we can be patient enough to create space to wander, we may find solutions that better serve our clients and the world. In the end, we decide what action to take and are not beholden to “great” ideas that are irresponsible or unethical. But sometimes we need to have those ideas to find out what ethical, responsible, effective ideas may lay on the other side.
Creativity as Confidence
This article started by positing that lots of lawyers consider themselves uncreative. Is it because they haven’t exercised this muscle? Or because they are too busy? Yes, probably, but it is also most certainly because they struggle with creative confidence.
Creative confidence is just what it sounds like: the belief that you can be innovative or have a novel idea. It’s not your actual ability to do so--just thinking that you can. Two leading innovators wrote a book on this topic, where they argue that we’re all creative. In fact, successful creatives don’t “succeed more often than other people—they just do more, period. They take more shots at the goal. That is the surprising, compelling mathematics of innovation: if you want more success, you have to be prepared to shrug off more failure.”
We claim we are “not creative” because identifying as creative sets us up for failure. Failure makes us think of losing a case, being belittled by a judge, or being cold called in property class about implied reciprocal servitudes. We retreat into the safety of details, embracing perfectionism and getting into debates with our colleagues on citation style. Safe. Clean. Easy.
Come on millennial lawyers. Let’s get out of tiny town. That means we need to see what doesn’t work and own it. Then we need to try something else, or try it again, or try it differently. It doesn’t mean our briefs can be sloppy or that we should walk into a courtroom unprepared. Rather it means that our detail-orientation and fixation on the win must have its place, but can’t consume us. If we want to push the law to provide more justice for more people, as many of us hope to do, we need to first find our courage.
Courage to fail. To look stupid. To speak up when we have less experience or training than someone else in the room. And we will look stupid, and fail, and be judged by those around us. And then we will learn, and grow, and be better people and lawyers as a result.
Because here’s the thing: you do have the capacity for creativity. You’re probably exercising it in various areas of your life already. You are even doing some of the things discussed above, even without buzzwords like “innovation” and “design thinking.” By identifying these activities as creative, and believing that you have the capacity to innovate, you’re already halfway there.
Charity Ryerson is a co-founder and Legal Director for Corporate Accountability Lab.