Why Thinking Like a Lawyer Is Bad for Your Career

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Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series of columns by career coach and consultant Michael Melcher. Send questions or suggestions for future articles by clicking here and putting “Careers Inbox” in the subject line. Or simply discuss the topic in the comments below.

The legal field 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 they therefore don’t act in ways that take advantage of those possibilities. At the extreme, lawyers become the keeper of their own cells, walled off from new ideas and energies. The reason? It has a lot to do with issue-spotting.

When we spot issues—when we “think like a lawyer”—we take things apart, compare possibilities against evidence, anticipate cracks in arguments and contemplate risks. Lawyers who work for the ExxonMobil do this, and so do lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union. The practice cuts across immigration law, tax law and any other kind of law. It’s a default method of legal analysis.

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 business is 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 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 lawyers”) rather than specific applicability (“what would work for me”).
• Defer action in situations of uncertainty.
• Be skeptical about possibilities.
• Avoid taking risks.

What works for legal 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.) We imagine 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 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 go into the details. You can try innovative ways of evaluating your progress or assessing your true interests. (See this post from the New York Times’ Shifting Careers blog.)

But, 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 than assessing things through detached analysis. Not thinking like a lawyer asks you to give your hopes some room to grow.

Next week: “What If Law is Not for You?”

Last week:5 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Career Coach

Two weeks ago:5 Tips to Planning Your Career to Beat the Recession

Michael Melcher, a New York-based career coach, is the author of The Creative Lawyer: A Practical Guide to Authentic Professional Satisfaction (ABA, 2007). He has a JD/MBA from Stanford and is currently a partner at Next Step Partners, a leadership development and executive coaching firm with offices in New York and San Francisco. He writes the blog The Creative Lawyer.

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