Problem-solving activities strengthen legal departments

Lawyers must prioritize organized, creative thinking processes.

My sixth-grader and several of her classmates recently joined an organization I’d never heard of until this year—the Future Problem Solving Program (FPSP). As I watched her team compete this June at the international problem-solving conference, I found myself wishing that “problem-solving” education had been an option when my legal colleagues and I were kids—or at least when we were law students.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Last year, Northwestern University Law School offered a session for first-year and LLM students titled “Lawyer as Problem Solver.” And this year Harvard Law School took the unique step of making its new “Problem Solving Workshop” mandatory for all first-year law students.

At the secondary school level, the Future Problem Solving Program is designed to stimulate critical and creative thinking skills and encourage students to develop a vision for the future. Students are given a topic such as “emergency planning” to research and analyze. At competitions, students are given a scenario—this year’s international scenario involved a cyber attack—in which they are required to find and develop:

1.    All possible problems

2.    The most important underlying problem

3.    Solutions to solve the underlying problem

4.    Criteria by which to judge the solutions

5.    The best solution

6.    An action plan for implementing the best solution

How beneficial it would be for lawyers, both inside and outside counsel, to adopt this six-step framework in our dealings with clients. Too often, lawyers are perceived as roadblocks to getting something done, and legal teams are less than affectionately referred to as the “just say no” department. Lawyers need to be able to overcome obstacles and find creative ways to “get to yes” within the bounds of the law.

To do this, we need to be adept not only at identifying potential problems, but also at coming up with creative and workable solutions, as well as metrics for judging our solutions’ value. We need to be able to prioritize both the problems and the solutions, and implement action plans for putting those solutions firmly into place.

Billed as the first-of-its-kind to be introduced into a law school curriculum, the Problem Solving Workshop at Harvard is designed to bridge the gap between academic study and practical lawyering. Law students in this course confront client problems, framed from the clients’ and attorneys’ points of view. According to the course description, they do this “in the way practicing lawyers do every day, from the very beginning, before the facts are all known, before the client’s goals are clarified, before the full range of options is explored, and before a course of conduct is chosen.” During the course, students learn how to interview clients, write effective e-mails and even deal with the media.

The FPSP program and the Harvard workshop have much in common, including the expectation that students solve problems collaboratively and creatively, and under very tight deadlines. The participants find themselves becoming better team players, writers, creative thinkers and presenters—all roles that today’s practicing lawyers should hone.

Problem solving is an art form. Done well, it enables us to walk in the shoes of our clients and business managers, and to let them know that for every problem, we have or will be able to develop workable solutions. While I may wistfully regret that future problem-solving activities and courses weren’t available when I was in school, I now intend to make sure they specifically become a focus of my legal department’s training.

Janice Block is executive vice president, general counsel and chief compliance officer for Kaplan Higher Education.

Janice Block

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