Is it a waste of time or the next frontier?

I am an accidental T-Shaped lawyer. See Post 043 (the intelligent design of future skilled legal professionals). I bring divergent perspectives to my practice because I trained as an engineer and an attorney. See Post 080 (discussing dual background). Both disciplines are knowledge work. And they embrace fundamentally different approaches.

Engineer: If it looks different, keep stepping back until it resembles something else. [Pattern Analysis]

Lawyer: If it looks the same, keep stepping forward until it no longer resembles something else. [Critical Analysis]

Is there a paradox wherein these perspectives can be combined? When we embrace them both, are they strong complements that produce more than the sum of their parts because we can import solution approaches typically applied in one domain to the other? Can we create more solutions because of the combinatorial options? The diagram above is a model of how creating the right intersection of complementary skills could produce 1+1>2 outcomes.

I think and build models using pictures because of my engineering training. I am always trying to understand the simplified model that describes 80% of the system phenomena. See Pareto principle. This approach can frustrate many lawyers because they are selected for, trained, and rewarded to focus on the divergent 20%. Critical thinking is an immensely valuable skill that requires focusing on the minute differences and turning those into persuasive arguments, typically using words.

When we engage some colleagues with pictures that suggest there is a generalized pattern to our work, they regard the pictures as foreign and reflexively focus on the 20% that deviates and advocate for why what they do is special. These models might be applicable to other practices, but the breadth/complexity/nuance of what they do makes generalized models inappropriate. Indeed, some portion of our work defies classification and process. But we must pursue generalized approaches to evolve how we do legal work. The good news is most legal work is a subspecies of knowledge work and that gives us existing tools with which to work.

Joe Borstein introduced me to the work of Cal Newport, the Georgetown computer scientist who has popularized the concept of deep work. Perhaps this vignette resonates for you?

Imagine that you walk into a car factory and encounter a chaotic scene.

Half-built vehicles are scattered across the floor. Workers wander frenetically, grabbing each other as they pass, shouting out random requests.

“Do you know where the wrenches are?”

“When you get a chance, come show me how to install a steering wheel.”

“What happened to those lug nuts I gave you yesterday, did you use those?”

Some of the workers strain under the weight of materials piled high in their arms. Others lounge in the corner.

Vague but emphatic posters on the wall encourage everyone to “hustle” and the shop managers stand on ladders yelling out slogans, trying to inspire intrinsic motivation.

If you saw this, you’d be astounded. Surely this factory wouldn’t be in business for long. The company down the street that knows about computer-controlled assembly lines and Kaizen and inventory supply chain logistics will eat it for lunch.

And yet, in knowledge work, a lot of organizations run more or less like the chaotic car factory. If you replace the half-built cars with shared Google Docs, and the shouted requests with emails and Zoom, it’s the same haphazard dynamics.

Which leads to the interesting question underlying our current state of disrupted affairs: how long until the “smarter company down the street” — with its more disciplined, thoughtful, demanding processes — becomes a reality in the knowledge sector, forcing rapid change in how we work?

Cal Newport, “The Chaotic Factory,” Study Hacks, May 1, 2020.

My work requires me to think about how to build a better knowledge factory for legal work. Legal professionals chafe at industrial analogies. I suspect it activates identity threat because most of us have never seen a modern industrial operation built or run, up close. Our idea of factory work is a line of workers doing one repetitive task. This is often the final form of scaled production. But how you reach this endpoint is important. It involves prototyping and iteration that starts off looking like the chaotic experience described above.

Designing and operating a process that can consistently produce a high-quality output is the work of a master. Engineering teaches us to remove complexity from every place it is not absolutely required and to use off-the-shelf components whenever we can. See MIT 2.008-Fundamentals of Manufacturing Processes (building blocks of process design and control). These first principles instill discipline in technical professionals who have access to resources that can take standard and non-standard inputs and create outputs with infinite variation.

I wish I could gift the texture of this insight to more of our legal professional colleagues. Engineers choose to constrain themselves to deliver creative impact with efficiency. I believe we must consider applying some constraints to our legal work knowledge factories so our operators can spend more time combining useful elements into valuable outputs and less time making their own screws.

The constraints often involve some basic changes:

  • naming knowledge assets using a convention;
  • decorating them with standard classification markers to aid discovery and reporting;
  • putting them in the same place; and
  • making that place a shared space.

When you go to make something in the shop and most of the screws are hidden, and the screws you do find have no size markings, then turning your own screws from metal stock is rational. It requires someone to look at the whole system, see people keep turning the same custom screws, and intervene to give them a better way they perceive as valuable. This is the path to scale. And this is what Legal Operations can offer us.

Jae Um, Ed Sohn, and I talked about scale in a conversation with the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) community focused on the future of legal work. Ed accurately noted there is no magic process map that solves for everything. But some of us have started developing frameworks that describe our knowledge work to guide investments that will make our people more effective and give them more enjoyable jobs.

Some people worry that introducing machine assistance to knowledge work will make the jobs go away. Jobs will change. Historically, many legal professionals’ roles created value by positioning them as information gatekeepers. The future is information plenty. Ed noted Jevon’s Paradox in the CLOC conversation, and it highlights a likely outcome. Demand for our services may increase as we get more effective through machine assisted delivery. Machines correlate; they do not understand. Machines collect and organize; they do not create. Machines take orders; they do not synthesize. This is the realm of humans and we are likely to retain these exclusive privileges for the foreseeable future. And my work is about serving people, by helping them remake their processes, that we can support with tools that make them more effective.

Landing these outcomes is about bringing people along. Our team appreciates the power of a well-designed process to empower knowledge workers to be more productive and feel more competent, creative, and fulfilled. We embrace knowledge workers’ scarcest resource is their attention and we must master language, emotion, and narrative. This is why we rely on a Storyteller (Senior Attorney) and a Cultural Systems Engineer (Senior Program Manager) to advance our work. See Post 143. They are innovators and early adopters who help start the virtuous change cycle.

There is no magic to our approach. We run experiments. We get things wrong and we learn. And we try to get better at meeting our people where they are to reduce their change costs. Success looks like giving our people a workspace with less noise, building blocks that are easier to re-use, and insights that make them even more successful. If human attention is our scarcest resource, then designing knowledge work to make our people most effective is a strategic investment. Because who wants their most talented people spending their days making screws?

Below are two process models from my day job. I hope more legal professionals will embrace these tools as shared thinking and understanding frameworks that can elevate our practice. We need shared understanding because the world is getting more interconnected, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. When we have a shared understanding of the shape of our work we can focus our limited resources on leverage points that create impact. We cannot solve complexity with more complexity. Our evolution requires embracing simplicity that makes our knowledge work.

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