December 28, 2022

For Lawyers and Law Firms, Thinking Again Can Move Them Toward Better Practices


After reading "Think Again," Mayer Brown chair Jon Van Gorp reflects on how the ability to rethink and unlearn may be the cognitive skill that matters the most in our fast-changing world.

This is part of a series of book reviews by Mayer Brown chair Jon Van Gorp, whose reading informs his perspective as a lawyer and leader of a global law firm and helps him draw insight from unexpected sources.

As lawyers, we take pride in our ability to think. Day in and day out, we solve complex problems for our clients, relying heavily on a familiar set of cognitive tools: knowledge we’ve gained, assumptions we’ve made, habits we’ve developed, instincts we trust and opinions we hold.

And yet, that may not be as smart of an approach as we think it is. If we’re too confident, complacent or perhaps lazy to challenge what we think we know, believe or assumed to be true, we’re likely missing out on opportunities to serve our clients better.

In fact, the ability to rethink and unlearn may actually be the cognitive skill that matters the most, especially in a fast changing world like ours. In his powerful book “Think Again,” organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes:

“If you can master the art of rethinking, I believe you’ll be better positioned for success at work and happiness in life. Thinking again can help you generate new solutions to old problems and revisit old solutions to new problems. It’s a path to learning more from the people around you and living with fewer regrets.”

The stories that pepper Grant’s book demonstrate the enormous value of questioning deeply held assumptions and, when necessary, taking action to change them. Consider the Wright brothers, whose prolonged and passionate debates led them to rethink the previous bird-winged aircraft prototypes and build the first successful flying machine.

And then there’s Steve Jobs, initially a huge skeptic of the idea of marrying cellphones with music devices. Yet Jobs always challenged his team to think again about everything—including his own assumptions about cellphone user behavior. Convincing Jobs to change his mind resulted in the development of the iPhone, which revolutionized the mobile phone market. Not to mention, the example neatly illustrates Grant’s assertion that while individual rethinking is crucial, so is encouraging that agility in others.

Each of us can come up with personal examples of the benefits of thinking again. A memorable one for me occurred more than 40 years ago, when I was in middle school. We were expected to sell World’s Finest chocolate bars to raise money for extra-curricular programs, with rewards going to students who sold the most. Seeing my neighborhood
blanketed by students selling candy door-to-door, I decided to try a different approach. I put a homemade sign outside our front door that read: “World’s Finest Chocolate Bars for sale here—please ring doorbell.” My mother was adamant this scheme wouldn’t work, but the doorbell rang and rang and rang.

I didn’t stop there, however. I also recruited my friend’s 6-year-old brother to join me on the door-to-door circuit dressed in his Halloween lion costume with a tray of chocolate bars hanging around his neck. When potential customers answered their door, I popped out from behind him to make my pitch. Few could say no to the cute little lion with the hopeful smile, even if they had already purchased (or refused to purchase) candy from someone else. Needless to say, very early on I learned the power—and the rewards—of thinking again.

When you think about it, as lawyers we have opportunities to do this all the time: rethinking the ways we approach client service, using process mapping to revisit and redesign how we execute transactions or considering where technology may be just as effective at completing a menial task (or more so) than we are.

Grant urges us to think again about the received wisdom—the so-called “best practices”—with respect to how we do our work and how we run our businesses. By declaring those practices the best, we are telling ourselves they are perfect, although that is seldom true. Rather, he says, our organizational goal should be to question, probe and continually improve our practices to make them even better.

To compete in today’s competitive environment, and to succeed, global law firms must always be reexamining, innovating and, most importantly, rethinking and reimagining. This includes investing in legal automation platforms that use artificial intelligence to perform some of the work we now rely on humans to do. It requires creating a workplace culture that encourages everyone, at all levels, to put forward ideas. Equally important, law firms need processes and pipelines that ensure that good ideas get elevated to leadership who can implement them—even, or particularly, if they challenge the status quo.

We have much more to learn from the people who challenge our thought processes and existing practices than from those who simply affirm them, as Grant notes. Thinking again empowers us to move beyond beliefs and assumptions that no longer serve us, or our clients, well. Individually and collectively, our willingness to trade stubborn consistency for curiosity and mental flexibility can inspire us to replace best practices with even better ones.

Reprinted with permission from the December 28 edition of The American Lawyer © 2022 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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