Approaching change: Using analogical thinking in the legal profession

Guest post by Adam Marsland, head of Lean Six Sigma at Pinsent Masons Vario

Marsland: Learning lessons from Toyota

Law firms are constantly evolving and that rate of change has certainly ramped up considerably over the last five years. New entrants to the legal market have created increased competition, as has the scale of innovation and technological solutions now available.

Clients are now measuring output based on standardisation and efficiency, rather than allotted and accumulated time, while there are the hiring and talent retention issues which many in the legal profession have seen, particularly post-Covid.

With such change and a broad range of issues facing firms and legal teams, a greater emphasis has been placed on the psychology of change and how leaders go about solving problems.

Problem solving is a diverse topic, with a broad range of disciplines, theories and daily practices dedicated to improving the quality and range of potential solutions. This can be a complex maze for people to navigate.

Usually, the natural first step is for someone to think back to a time they solved a similar problem, and re-run the solution, or tweak it if the outcome previously wasn’t perfect. We consider this to be a vanilla form of analogical thinking and therein lies the gateway. Problem solving does not have to be complex, but it does often require a number of diverse approaches.

There are a range of simple techniques that can force the individual to consider alternative approaches and engage different forms of thinking. Even taking a step back and considering a broader approach to active thinking, also known as metacognition, is vital.

This does not have to be complex or difficult. Usually, simply possessing the awareness and understanding of one’s thought process is enough to consider alternate approaches. More experienced practitioners can assess their thought process and reframe the way they view problems.

Analogical thinking, where the use of analogies helps to establish links with similar problems in different sectors, and take direct comparisons, can produce some readily available solutions.

A famous example of direct analogical thinking comes from Intel. In the 1990s, Intel conceded the lower end of the computing market, allowing rivals to provide low-cost microprocessors for entry level PCs.

Intel’s leadership team looked at a parallel analogy from the steel industry, where US Steel ceded the lower end of the market to much smaller competitors. Over time, these smaller competitors continued to disrupt, gaining a greater market share by moving into higher-end products.

In Intel’s case, the Celeron processor proved a success and allowed Intel to regain a foothold in the lower-end processing market.

The distance between analogies therefore promotes the abstraction and lineage of potential solutions. By viewing a comparable example from a similar industry, the range of potential solutions will be naturally limited.

That is not to say these solutions will be ineffective, as seen by the Celeron processor. But looking at sectors and areas which are more removed from your own can potentially open a broader array of solutions. This actively engages right-brain thinking, or the parts of our mind that promote creativity.

In my daily practice working for a multinational law firm, we have used analogical thinking as part of our problem-solving arsenal. By the very nature of the industry, lawyers tend to favour left-brain rationality: such as logical outcomes, detail orientation and analytical thinking. In this setting, lawyers often use near-sighted analogical examples to provide solutions when faced with a problem.

However, as the legal industry approaches a highly transformative state, this form of continuous improvement may not be able to meet oncoming challenges.

For example, to tackle the problem of how to produce thousands of legal documents quickly, and accurately, we used blended analogical thinking from the Toyota production system.

In practice, this took the elimination of eight wastes to encourage a consistently high-quality output. Furthermore, this also opened up additional analogical opportunities such as Jidoka, ensuring that our operators and technology stopped as soon as a defect was spotted.

Using this analogical example from the automotive industry provided a new mechanism to approach the delivery of work, allowing the strength of legal opinion to be brought forward.

Analogical thinking therefore promotes not just a base of ready-made solutions, but also more abstract cases of transformation. Helpfully, you can see real-world case studies and learning from other professions provides (to use an analogy,) a breath of fresh air to problem-solving.

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