The kind of knowledge work we’ve talked about so far looks into the past. It is precedent-driven, focused on preserving assets that document known knowns.
As crucial as that habit is for knowledge-driven firms like yours, it ignores the other core competency that any expert must develop: the creation of new knowledge.
New Knowledge When It’s Not Demanded
Jill Albrecht Weimer is Senior Legal Counsel at PayPal. She was previously a partner at Littler, a large firm focused on labor and employment law. Although the context of her legal work changed, she saw a thread running throughout her career.
“As a lawyer at Littler, I paid attention to client’s competition and trends in their businesses; at PayPal, I do the same for one client, but with even more context.”
As she explained to me, Jill does the work to become the expert she says she is.
She consciously fills in knowledge gaps and goes beyond the transaction to see the big picture. Jill has succeeded in all three aspects of Luppino’s taxonomy—she can find the answer, craft a solution, and provide counsel—because she creates new knowledge.
In fact (and importantly), Jill doesn’t wait for a question from her client or a transaction’s demands to do her knowledge creation work. She looks for patterns and crafts insights because it’s a crucial habit, not an urgent need. “Listen,” she told me bluntly, “I won’t tell you about all the Law Insider rabbit holes I’ve gone down in my jobs.”
Jill embodies the struggle of Professor Luppino’s True Counselor ideal. She does work when she doesn’t “have to” because she bears the advisor’s burden for her clients. This gives her the credibility to encourage positive change in her role.
The Changing Nature of Legal Leadership
To get you thinking practically, imagine your work more as a consultant or change manager than as a legal technician.
What a huge shift. It’s easy to reduce our work to information tasks because that’s how we monetize, but it’s not necessarily what we do or sell. In a world where Knowledge is Too Big to Know, the True Counselor can’t justify her rates or value on the creation and movement of documents. Clients don’t understand that value and it is increasingly easy to replace.
Instead, the modern advocate pushes her client toward innovation. That requires the ability to create something completely new. How can you do that when your function is ostensibly to uncover known knowns?
As a lawyer, you can create new knowledge when you begin with bricks in mind.
Stacking and Creating
In the midst of the Great Depression, the Danish toy company LEGO created the ultimate interoperable part: the LEGO brick.
Interoperability refers to a system or tool’s ability to work with other systems or tools. We use the term in relation to military hardware, computer software, and toy bricks.
No single LEGO brick makes a toy; it is the child’s ability to connect bricks to build something new that makes it a great creative outlet. This is an apt metaphor for the creative work you do as a modern expert.
Law librarian Robin Schard shared this metaphor to describe her students’ research work. The goal, she explained, is not to copy-paste or to craft from whole cloth, but to incorporate known knowns into a process for creating something new. It is synthesis, not simply analysis.
That’s because, just like LEGO rockets and cars and full-size Deathstars, ideas can be built out of existing pieces of knowledge. Technology engineers and chess players refer to this activity as “stacking.” They think about how to connect sets of knowledge, finding that easier than starting from scratch. It also happens to lead to more complete knowledge.
In his book Dream Teams, author Shane Snow explained that any good team needs two characteristics: diverse perspectives and diverse heuristics.
Perspectives have to do with your vantage point, coming from your specific background and experience. Heuristics, on the other hand, are the mental tools and shortcuts we all use to process information from our perspectives. When you don’t have diversity both in points of view and mental models, you are limiting your ability to create new knowledge.
As a practitioner, you have both a perspective and heuristics. When you rely only on your own perspective and heuristics, you run the risk of missing out on valuable insights for your clients.
In that sense, LEGO bricks are actually a terrible metaphor. LEGO is not truly interoperable, making it hard for other toy companies to create pieces that work well with the official LEGO bricks. A child’s creativity is then limited to whatever came in the LEGO box.
In the same way, you shouldn’t limit your ability to build ideas. You have assets inside your firm, generated largely from the gray matter between your ears. Collecting that knowledge is an important habit, but not enough.
Instead, as Robin Schard pointed out, you can use the existing work of others—practitioners, courts, scholars—to stack ideas for the benefit of clients. Your contracts and counsel can be the best pieces of many minds, assembled by you in a creative and adaptive way.
As we’ll cover in the next chapter, that habit can create opportunities in all of your firm’s activities.
Why Move to Innovation?
Before we talk about the opportunity of becoming a creative and insightful True Counselor, let’s think about the risk of doing otherwise.
Paypal’s Jill Albrecht Weimer is a good example of a lawyer who works outside her comfort zone, always stretching her expert muscles whether required by the transaction or not. She uses tools like Law Insider to incorporate best practices, stacking bricks of known knowns, but she also builds something new as she sees the bigger picture.
But why do that? Couldn’t a lawyer systematize her work so completely that she can achieve perfect efficiency? Why not, as Harvard’s Serafim pointed out, stay fixed in that efficiency stage of development?
Maybe you could argue that machines making widgets can become ever-focused on efficiency and routinization, but knowledge workers are human beings. When we stop using our creativity, research says we risk the brains that pay our rent.
Brains Without Creativity
In a study cited by the Harvard Business Review, researchers wanted to know whether doctors consistently get worse at their jobs over time. They found that whether a doctor’s cognitive and practice abilities suffered as they aged depended largely on the type of practice they had.
For example, surgeons have consistently shown degradation over time, but hospitalist doctors—those who treat admitted patients following an ER visit—didn’t show those losses of skill. Because their practices are diverse and challenging, requiring frequent creativity, hospitalist doctors who maintained a high caseload didn’t get worse over time.
What’s fascinating about this data is that some of the hospitalist doctors did get worse over time. They got so much worse that it skewed the data to look as if the average hospitalist doctor lost effectiveness, but the group was in fact rather small.
It was the doctors whose focus shifted to administrative and managerial tasks. When these doctors were promoted, their practices became side distractions that they tried hard to routinize. They removed creativity from the equation and it was reflected in their skill. Although they imagined standardizing and efficiency would lead to better results for patients, the opposite seemed true. When your role does not require creativity, your brain capacity actually shrinks, putting your clients, and your practice at risk.
The question, then, is how you can create new knowledge in your firm? How do you turn innovation into a business model?
In the next chapter, we’ll give you an example of one Law Insider who uses both efficiency and new knowledge to better serve his clients. He embodies all three of Professor Luppino’s competencies, sometimes saying “no,” occasionally mapping out solutions, and often acting as a True Counselor.
Before we do that, let’s recap some of the principles from this chapter:
- To become a True Counselor, you must expand your view beyond the transaction, building a habit of lifelong learning;
- To create new knowledge, use the “bricks” of known knowns, but stack them in a way that is unique and creative;
- If you avoid this creative work, your brain will degrade and your clients will suffer.
We, lawyers, are not machines. The logic of scientific management—the driving philosophy behind how we teach and practice law—is outdated. To preserve our brains for the benefit of clients, we need to modernize our method.
Let me tell you how one transactions lawyer has done just that…
Read the next article in the series:
The Modern Knowledge Firm
All articles in the series:
The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner
- The Cheapening of Knowledge
- Your Latest Transaction
- The Legal Knowledge Business
- Knowledge Management
- Making Experts Out of Employees
- What Clients Want
- The Advisor's Burden
- The Modern Knowledge Firm