6 problem-solving strategies for legal professionals

Legal professionals are known for being problem solvers. Indeed, just about every engagement involves some type of problem a client needs to have solved. Typically, we handle these issues with ease. Our education and training have taught us to apply established rules to a given set of facts in order to reach the desired solution.

Whether it’s a legal issue, personality issues in the workplace, technology challenges, or slow-paying clients, every law firm has issues to deal with that fall outside our area of expertise. Here are some of the top strategies we’ve identified.

#1 Identify the real problem

This is an especially useful tactic for solving problems that impact multiple people. By way of example, let’s say your team continually misses deadlines. To figure out why this is happening, ask each team member to write down what he/she believes is the cause of that problem.

Then, as a group, discuss each cause, asking the question what caused that cause? By doing this, you can often trace the problem to its core and work on finding a reasonable solution.

#2 Split the problem into smaller pieces

This strategy, sometimes referred to as “decomposition,” is often employed by computer programmers. The key here is to identify the small problems that are contributing to a larger problem. Using our prior example, you might find that the reason your team keeps missing deadlines is that: (1) your computer systems are antiquated; (2) team members aren’t using a master calendar to set deadlines; and (3) the lead partner takes too long to get her edits back to the associates.

Each of these sub-problems is unique and manageable on their own, but together they are creating a major problem. By solving each piece, the ultimate problem will undoubtedly resolve.

#3 Get some sleep

This may sound simplistic, but sleep is a key ingredient for solving difficult problems. It’s hard to find a legal professional who doesn’t feel overworked and under-appreciated from time to time. The harder the grind, the bigger our problems seem to become. It’s no wonder – a lack of sleep can impair concentration, increase mood swings, and decrease physical performance.

Therefore, before you decide to give the managing partner a piece of your mind, it’s probably a good idea to get a full night’s rest. You might be surprised how much your problems can decrease with the right amount of sleep.

#4 Try to make the problem worse

Making a problem worse in order to solve it may sound counterintuitive, but this is a great way to test your theories about the underlying cause. Can you replicate the problem by deliberately prompting the circumstances you think are causing it?

To illustrate this strategy, let’s say you suspect that answering emails throughout the day is decreasing your productivity. For one week, you might set up your email program to alert you every time an email comes in – and then commit to answering each one right away. If at the end of that week you find your productivity has decreased, then you might consider turning off all email alerts and setting a narrow window of time during which you’ll respond to emails each day.

#5 Zoom out

Oftentimes, we attempt to solve problems by focusing on the minutia. Instead, it can be more helpful to look at the bigger picture. Returning to the issue of missed deadlines, it may be true that several small, individual problems are contributing to the dilemma. The bigger issue, however, could be that the firm has no real consequences for team members who fail to meet deadlines. If you fix that global problem, the smaller issues will likely cease to have any impact.

#6 Employ SMART goals

Finally, a great way to problem-solve in the legal setting is to set goals that will help eradicate the issue. Some experts suggest that the goals should be “SMART”; i.e., specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

To solve the missed deadline problem, for example, a team might set a goal of finalizing projects one day before the actual due date. The goal is specific (one day before), measurable (the project is either finished or it is not), attainable (it leaves plenty of time for completion), realistic (a difference of one day is achievable), and timely (the goal is met when the project is done). If the goal is achieved, the overarching issue of missed deadlines will disappear.

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With a bit of thoughtful attention to realistic solutions, your team should be able to work through just about anything. What problem-solving strategies does your firm employ when working through issues?

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About the Author

Jennifer Anderson practiced business litigation in California from 1999 to 2016. When she’s not writing from her floating cabin on the Columbia River, she can be found hiking or kayaking around the Pacific Northwest.

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