Elegant Legal Work

Today's post is from the President of Counsel On Call, Dennis McKinnie.

I absolutely love reading about successful people and how they got where they are, and I have noticed that the paths are never the same. I always learn something. One of my favorite reads about these varied stories of success (and sometimes failure) is Fast Company. A couple of months ago I was paging through the “most creative people” issue and ran across a very interesting quote from Ruchi Sanchvi, head of operations for Dropbox. In discussing her approach to resolving or “optimizing” logistical problems she stated, “I ask: ‘What’s the goal? What are our constraints? What is the optimal, elegant way to get to that goal within those constraints?’ I break it down in terms of a data funnel: ‘Where in the funnel are we inefficient?’”

There are so many facets of the practice of law that can benefit from a similar approach. More often than not lawyers are more concerned with doing what I euphemistically refer to as “good work” rather than actually looking at the deliverable and determining whether the methodology of getting to that deliverable actually makes sense. We have to examine the client’s business perspective and look at our role as trusted advisors answering the question, “Are we taking the optimum path?” Clients require that we not only do good work, but that we navigate the project from beginning to end in what Sanchvi describes as the most ‘elegant’ way possible. It’s a skill set that isn’t inherent in the legal profession.

But it’s a fantastic way to describe what I hope we do for our clients every day – it’s elegant. Elegant legal work.

Elegance conjures many images. A lot of mine recall those scenes from 1940s movies where everyone wore white tie to dinner. As it relates to legal work, however, probably the most relevant definition centers on conciseness, with it further defined as “a satisfying or admirable neatness, ingenious simplicity or precision.” There is hardly a better way of thinking about your work for your clients than that.

Many of our colleagues exercise those traits on a daily basis, overcoming those quicksand traps which would swallow them up ––– otherwise known as the pressure to bill more time at ever-higher hourly rates. Others, however, are stuck in the graceless grind of inefficiency and held hostage by the perilous mindset of complacency. One of my colleagues noted that our job as attorneys is to get from Point A to Point B and to do so in a straight line, or at least as straight as possible; in other words, to do so concisely and with precision. We often hear those terms used to describe great legal writing. They are not often used to describe other facets of practice. Why not?

I believe that elegance in practice is not a natural state but rather something that comes with time, hard work and a dedication to that ideal. It is not self-evident. It is ingenious, and we all know that getting to something that ranks as ingenious takes effort. You have to break the bonds chaining you to the comfortable or traditional. Sometimes violently. And sometimes unpopularly. But this is one instance in which the end is certainly justified by the means. Transform your practice by focusing on this, and you will save your client money and in many instances heartburn. And if all goes well, you will be rewarded with having delivered a great product and having done so with elegance.

During my years of practice, I oftentimes reminded myself that I had to set aside time in each of my matters to think like a lawyer. Today I’d add that I have to make time to think logically of the best solution and how to get to it directly and concisely.

Elegant legal work: a novel concept whose time has arrived.

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