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Embracing the Beginner’s Mindset

The beginner’s mindset is an idea originally presented in a classic Zen book ‘’Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’’ by a Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki (1904–1971). The core of the concept is that one should always keep an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying any subject, even on an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

Legal Design Zen (by Anna Salmi)

When you follow the work of the best designers up close, you can sense that their working methods are vigorously based on Suzuki’s concept. For a designer — among the characteristics mentioned above — embracing the beginner’s mindset most importantly stands for empathising with end-users.

Understanding the people they are designing for is a top priority:

  • What situation are they in?

  • Why would they need this product?

  • What is their emotional reaction to it?

Collecting information from the actual customers and implementing their feedback to prototypes (and doing it all over again until the desired product hits a sweet spot) is crucial in every human-centric design project.

Designers observing the problem from users’ point of view live by the mantra: ‘’The answer lies within others.’’ On the other hand, lawyers are products of a system where they are encouraged to live by the opposite: ‘’the answer lies within me’’.


The Expert’s Mindset

Law has always been esoteric (understood or liked by only a small number of people), and only legitimate professionals — called lawyers — have had the opportunity to understand it fully. This also means that acting contrary to the advice of a lawyer is invariably considered a foolish act. Indeed, end users of legal products are often forced to trust the lawyer’s word — their expertise — without really knowing if the lawyer has genuinely done a good job.

Where designers adopt the beginner’s mindset, lawyers stay didactic, paternalistic, and top-down. Generally speaking, lawyers can be described as individuals armed with a so-called expert’s mindset, and there is a danger that comes with it.

First of all, this mindset creates a completely different dynamic of client interaction. When we tend to block the information that disagrees with our previous experiences and learnings, we are incapable of learning things that really matter to end-users. Most lawyers don’t even want new information; they just want information that validates their preconceptions about the case at hand.

The cliché saying ‘’I hear you, but I’m not listening’’ is frighteningly often right in legal projects.

Second, lawyers — and even law students — who are just starting their careers are already under enormous pressure to always appear as experts who already have the ‘’right’’ answers, especially when it comes to client work. The working culture does not encourage experimentation or tolerate failure, as any mistakes could be catastrophic for the client.

A designer can admit to the client that they have never worked on a similar subject, but there is a huge threshold for a lawyer to do the same. This also sets the bar high for the so-called stupid questions (or questions that lawyers consider irrelevant) that could be of immense benefit in terms of the final product’s functionality, practicality, and feasibility.

For example, you don’t hear lawyers asking how their customers like the language used in the drafted contract or how they find the document’s visual appearance. However, the thing is that answers to these kinds of questions alone can bring enormous added value to the binding effect of the document.

Our legal design projects have shown that when end-users find the legal document easy to understand and visually pleasing, it is truly beneficial to all parties involved.


Tips for Adopting the Beginner’s Mindset as a Lawyer

Legal Design Zen (by Anna Salmi)

Realise the influence of your mentor or a system that guides your thoughts

We have all learned things we kow from someone and somewhere. To open your mind to new information, you need to realise the influence of the factors around you — or the factors that made you. People adopt working methods based on what they have been exposed to without knowing if it is the optimal way to do things. Therefore, challenge what you’ve learned so far, and from whom you’ve learned it.

Let go of your preconceptions (repetition without repetition)

Approaching the challenges from a whole new perspective can powerfully improve your thinking and decision-making. Stop working backwards (start with questions, not answers) and start considering ambiguity as an opportunity.

Even though you are working with similar subjects and/or customers day in and day out, make sure that you find ways for coming up with different variations. This ‘’repetition without repetition’’ method forces your internalised learning patterns to become more flexible, allowing you to cope with unpredictable difficulties.

Learn from designers

If you belong to the majority of lawyers, you may not have yet sat down with a designer and talked about your working methods. As stated above, it is easy to think of the designer and lawyer mindset as oil and water. However, once this communication barrier has been destroyed, you will witness how diametrically your mindsets are opposed in synergy — like yin and yang. Learning from designers will help you to understand your customer’s needs in a way that certainly stands out from other lawyers. And if you cannot find a designer in your hands, start with YouTube, for example.

Combine divergent and convergent thinking (by collaborating)

Divergent thinking generates creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions in a non-linear and free-flowing manner. It is the process of coming up with totally new ideas and possibilities by throwing out all sorts of suggestions (even unfeasible ones) for solving the problem at hand.

Lawyers, however, have a natural preference for convergent thinking. Convergent thinking means, in general, that problem-solving is mainly associated with analysis, judgment, and decision-making. It is a process where the “correct” answers to questions are always based on the evidence that has been sorted, evaluated, and rigorously analysed.

While convergent thinking is a must when it comes to legal work, adopting divergent thinking into your work might be the eye-opener you have been looking for. Lawyers are known for their capability of making choices, divergent thinking will help you to actually create choices. Remember, however, that new ideas rarely arise from working alone. Therefore, as stated above; collaborate with designers.

Ask (better) questions

Learning starts with questions (and questioning). Asking questions and genuinely listening to your customer will naturally improve your emotional intelligence, which in turn makes you a better questioner.

“I try to remind my group each week that we are all idiots and know nothing, but we have the good fortune of knowing it.” — Nassim Taleb, Fooled by Randomness

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