By Eimear McCann.
We aren’t often asked to imagine in law. Our training focuses largely on perusing large amounts of information, extracting the salient and discarding the futile. From academia upwards, lawyers are trained to be accurate, exact and seldom encouraged to fail, even if it might be underpinned by creative thinking or experimentation.
The culture within legal often fosters insecurity, which drives lawyers to work longer hours, push harder and, all too often, abandon their own sense of wellbeing. Law students, particularly in the US, set out into the world of work, burdened by exorbitant student fees, which ultimately will dictate their training choices. Remuneration will supersede idealism, and the false hierarchy will perpetuate.
A recent report from the International Bar Association, which surveyed over 3,000 people across 186 legal organisations, confirmed that lawyer wellbeing is a cause for global concern. Perhaps most alarming was the statistic that 10% of lawyers under the age of 30 alluded to suicidal ideation, as a direct result of their work.
If we start to delve into fabric of diversity, the stats do little to foster positivity. The gender pay divide is well documented, with a stark absence of women within firms’ top ranks.
In the UK, Baroness Hale became the first female President of the Supreme Court just four years ago, in 2017; the Law Society appointed its first person of colour to the role of President in 2021 … and the list goes on.
Instead though, imagine this; I am a lawyer, but I also think of myself as a storyteller, designer, collaborator and an innovator. Let’s further imagine that I am part of a co-operative whose aim is to solve problems. My expertise and knowledge form part of a diverse tapestry of talent, encompassing engineers, artists and beyond. I brainstorm more than I write, I experiment and ideate. I think of myself as part of a creative collective. I am not afraid to admit that I don’t know. I am used to failing and trying again. I am lucky enough to work whenever and wherever I wish. The maximisation of profit is not my main focus. We don’t focus on the narrow, but we take a holistic view. We have fun. We work hard. We communicate in clear, simple language. We keep all written documents short and visual. We use art as a way to explore ideas, with each other, and with clients. We are not restricted by targets, metrics or by constructs which are discordant with pragmatism and the best interests of our client (& partner). We regularly spend time in-house with our clients. Our clients see us as equals. We also spend time in other industries, learning and evolving. We embrace cross-pollination. Hierarchy is not a consideration. Creativity, innovation and diversity are all-pervasive. Law students join us daily for brainstorm sessions and feed into our ideas tank.
The same students study at an academy, where they can design and build their own study map. We know that everyone learns in different ways, so students can choose their preferred medium. At all times, students are encouraged to trial new software and tech tools. They provide feedback on new tech. They are looking always to the future, not the past. Students learn about the fundamentals of law, but they quickly migrate to expanded teachings on design thinking, resilience and creative thinking. The teaching is tailored to the student and not the other way round. They work with the collective to get a true sense of what their work life will be like. Students are also encouraged to join businesses in other sectors to understand where legal sits in the real world context. As part of their learning, they are offered exchange passes, spending a month (or more) working for another sector, with students/interns from other businesses joining the academy to encourage diverse thinking and expertise. Diversity and inclusion underpin every aspect of the academy. Students leave feeling curious and excited about the future. Student fees are subsidised by the businesses who work with the collective. Training placements are guaranteed; students will never exceed the number of placements on offer.
Imagine too that “legal tech” is just tech. Imagine that lawyers and developers work together and build bespoke solutions. Lawyers do not feel alienated. They do not feel robbed of their autonomy. They feel immersed in the creative process of developing a tool that they know they will actually use.
Lawyers don’t feel overwhelmed by choice and jargon. They feel comfortable, perfectly educated and at ease with new and emerging applications. The cohesion of study, practice and future proofing finds its home in technology. Legal Tech companies are a thing of the past; instead, these companies are an integral part of the collective. Students can learn to code if they wish, but they have enough knowledge to make that decision autonomously. Tech providers do not need to back track or re-route their roadmaps. They know exactly where they are going, because they are immersed in the very world they should inhabit.
Are you still with me? Can you imagine that this could truly be the future of law? This all sounds very conceptual and completely incongruous with our reality, doesn’t it? Ultimately, the only thing which separates this legal utopia from the reality is the power of our imagination and how we use this to make change.
Legal is a massive industry, chaotic and forever evolving. It is an industry built upon maximising profit. It is also built on narratives that are adhesive and stifling. How many times have you heard people say that lawyers are slow to change? How often have you fallen backwards into resigned acceptance of the billable hour, the entrenched relationships that impede progress and the “risk averse” platitudes? There are too many labels and a reticence to discard and move on; however, momentum is growing behind the desire to reimagine law. I don’t just mean a few tweaks here and there, but a proper reimagining.
There is therefore a tension between the status quo and those who quietly, or even silently, are campaigning (or hoping) for change. Out of this frustration though, there is opportunity and scope for reinvention.
If we really stop to think, isn’t our imagination what really what makes us human; that ability to revisit the past, anticipate the future and to enter other peoples’ worlds? Our collective imagination is arguably one of the few bound- aries that sets us apart as a species. Without it, we cannot function. Think of it this way – every, single material thing created by humans was first imagined. Simple, but powerful.
Looking at a different analogy, we know that play is central to brain development. Unstructured free play encourages children to take more risks, to be more resilient and adventurous. Removing that freedom from children promotes risk aversion and reduces empathy levels. To quote Sir Ken Robinson, “If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardisation and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does”.
If we really want to encourage our future lawyers to be more entrepreneurial, adventurous and happier, we have to give them freedom. Equally, if we want to really begin to implode a culture that impacts so severely on mental wellbeing, that quashes diversity; then, we need to remove some of those structures and beliefs which impede that freedom in practice.
So, how on earth do we do that? I believe we do need to start small, but we need to start with intention. We need to create safe spaces for people to voice opinions, ideas and stories. Imagination is often viewed through a lens of suspicion in the legal world, perhaps because it is intangible, impossible to quantify and incredibly powerful. That sentiment needs to shift and we can really only do that by telling our stories, not just of the past but also stories that encapsulate our vision for the future.
Imagine if, this time, legal forged ahead of other sectors and, slowly, gradually, became known as the industry that completely turned itself around. Imagine if, in ten years’ time, the utopia described above (pitfalls and failures included) was perhaps not the norm, but at the very least, an occurrence. Clusters of academies and collectives popping up all over the globe. My vision will be different from yours and will not appeal to everyone; in fact, it may only appeal to a handful, but that’s fine.
Imagination is, in a sense, about filling gaps in our knowledge, but it also enables us to empathise with others and to construct hypothetical future scenarios that do not yet exist. There are many aspects to our imagination; the intellectual, the emotional and the effectuative constitute 3 relevant segments of the documented 8 modes of imagination. In this instance though, it is our strategic imagination which we most need to explore, the vision of “what could be” and the ability to recognise and evaluate opportunities by turning them into mental scenarios.
If we start to move from “what if” to the “what next”, just imagine where legal could be if any of this actually came into being.
About the Author
A former lawyer, Eimear is Head of Strategy at Summize, a contract creation and review platform. She is also a writer and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Law, Manchester.