By Greg Roth

Northwestern Law School has an “Innovation Lab”

Sometimes, people ask me “do creative problem-solving (ie creativity, design thinking, lean startup, agile/scrum, etc etc)  apply to every field”? The answer, of course, is yes, but I sometimes struggle giving an answer specific enough to that particular field to win a heart and mind.

Good news for those of you in the legal field — Northwestern University has a program designed to teach future attorneys and legal scholars how to switch brains. The program, simply called “Innovation Lab”, appeals to students in all programs in the Law School — JD, JD-MBA, MSL and LLM. It take s team-based approach to working on actual problems ripe for review and redesign in the legal field, incorporating some of the methodology from entrepreneurship programs.

“With a focus on the legal, business, technical, and design skills involved in the innovation process, it’s unlike most entrepreneurship courses. First of all, it includes software development and intro-to-coding components — which is to say, it’s about much more than how to represent a start-up.”

Seems like a pretty tall order. I remember having improv classes with attorneys (also: married an attorney!), and those classmates frequently had trouble breaking their linear, logic-based thinking patterns. Probably why so many of them took those classes.

Regardless of industry, “innovation” as it’s normally intended is a mindset and thought pattern that can be taught, understood, and practiced for improvement.

“When you teach someone who is practicing or studying law how to make things more efficient with software and technology, they are going to identify opportunities that a traditional programmer or engineer would never have occasion to see. That happens all the time when you teach people who have a domain expertise that isn’t in software. It’s really inspiring.”

The class instructor, Neal Sales-Griffin who is the CEO of CodeNow, but not an attorney it seems, does offer some good insight into the different mindsets, what we normally think of as left-brain/right-brain (an unfortunate myth that we have to live with, but let’s save that for another time). The basic difference is having the answer all ready as opposed to being prepared to discover the answer:

“”There is a bit of attention to detail with law students that may be premature, because entrepreneurs are messy,” he says. “We don’t always do everything right, we don’t always follow the rules, so I have to rejigger that baked-in conservative approach to tackling a project. Legal minds like to have all the right answers going in, and that is something we completely flip on its head in our class.

Training would-be lawyers not to be precise, detail-oriented or risk averse can pose its own problems — after all, these are skills that law students will need in other classes, if not in their future careers — and Sales-Griffin says that striking the right balance is key. “We have to teach these students when to activate the different skills they have. When do you activate your precision, and when do you deactivate it and focus on being messy? You have to switch from artist to litigator, and that can be done, but it’s a matter of good decision-making in different scenarios””

As a final thought, this is what “openness” and “curiosity” refer to when we talk about creativity and innovation. It’s nothing more than your attitude at the starting line or when you are presented with an idea: are you dismissing things out of hand or willing to engage in some dialogue to better understand intention and possibility? To put it another way, do you want to feel right now or be right later?