By Kevin O'Keefe

Curiosity would serve lawyers well

Working with lawyers everyday, it’s safe to say most lawyers are not of the curious nature. They’re not willing to make mistakes to see what works and what doesn’t. Their fear of failure and embarrassment prevents them from growing by reaching outside their comfort zones.

Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen has a wonderful post this morning on curiosity.

The courage to make mistakes is related in some measure to curiosity, exploration, and the ability to speak honestly about a topic and about ourselves. For it is fear of mistakes, of being wrong, and the possibility of ridicule that stops us from showing our natural curiosity. The openness to show your natural curiosity in front of others requires one to be vulnerable.

Lawyers are indeed trapped in what Reynolds says is the need for certainty.

In today’s world of cable news sound bites, entrenched positions, and unyielding opinions, revealing our uncertainty or changing our point of view as we discover more and delve more deeply in the material is often seen as weakness. Certainty is seen as strength. Yet admitting you don’t know our that you’re not yet sure, or that you need more information or more time and so on takes more courage than faking certainty or going along with conventional wisdom because it is safe.

Having 5 kids who went through the “why do people do that…, how does that happen…, can we try this…” stage, I totally agree with Reynolds that we’re born curious. What happened?

The problem for a lot of us — teacher and student — is school, especially large institutional schools. Our methods of instruction — or perhaps it is just the system itself — do a poor job of nurturing students’ natural curiosity. This is nothing new. Einstein said many years ago that “it is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry….”

We reward certainty, not curiosity. Once trained to be certain, it’s difficult to break the mold and be curious.

We are obsessed with giving prizes to students who memorize the most facts and bits of information (and in the shortest amount of time). Why don’t we give prizes for the students who demonstrate their unabashed curiosity and demonstrable pursuit of discovery? A driving child-like curiosity and sense of wonder is an undeniable sign of intelligence. The curious can eventually overcome their ignorance, but the chronically incurious—and yet self-assured—are stuck with their ignorance for a lifetime.

Reynolds says I’m on the right path in demonstrating my own curiosity when it comes to the use of the Internet to learn and engage. I do it all the time during blog strategy consultations and in speaking to groups of lawyers.

I often tell a group of a hundred or two if I can get 5 of you to think of the Internet differently and try a few things that feel uncomfortable that I’ve succeeded. Not to serve my ego, but because I’m trying to help lawyers.

The ineffective teachers are the ones who have lost their curiosity and sense of wonder for their subject or even for their job. You can’t fake curiosity and wonder. The best teachers are the ones who show their own desire to learn more about their subject and who are not afraid to show mistakes or admit that they don’t know it all. The best teachers guide, coach, inspire, and feed that natural flame of curiosity that lives within every child. The courage to teach, then, is the courage to expose yourself as you demonstrate your curiosity and wonder for your subject. This kind of passion is infectious (and memorable)……..The best teachers (or trainers, coaches, etc.) are those who light the sparks and inspire students to pursue a lifetime of exploration and discovery. “School” says the rewards are cash, status, and security. But wouldn’t it be great if our lessons instilled the notion in students something which they already knew when younger but may have forgotten: “Curiosity has its own reason for existing,” as Einstein said. Curiosity has its own rewards.

I’m not suggesting that lawyers get out and make mistakes on client matters. I am suggesting when it comes to some matters, a little curiosity and a willingness to be vulnerable would serve a lawyer well.

As I grew as a trial lawyer, I tried things in the courtroom that at first scared the hell out of me. Part of my philosophy was that the judge was so bored a lawyer doing new things would be entertaining and the judge would not stop me.

I wasn’t making it up as I went alone. I read or had seen other good trial lawyers deploy the tactics. But at first, I said “That’s them, they’re better than me, they can get away with that.” But I got outside my comfort zone – part of me was curious whether I could actually pull it off.

I had not a clue what technology or the Internet was all about in the mid 90’s when I started my own law firm. But my desire to help people and my curiosity to see if the Internet could be used to enhance my reputation and grow my team’s reputation by word of mouth served me well.

We tried a lot of stuff online out of a small law office in rural Wisconsin. All without a guide or a “how to” book. Our philosophy was to behave ethically, try new things to help people, and understand at all times that no one was shooting at us — we couldn’t get hurt that bad.

I’m not expecting law schools to change the way they’re teaching and what they’re rewarding anytime soon. The rewards of partnership, high salary, and stature are going to continue to guide the behavior of most lawyers.

But if you’re looking to achieve what you really want out of life and to serve as a role model for your kids, a little curiosity and a willingness to make a few mistakes along the way will serve you well.

The worst that will happen is that you’ll embarrass yourself a little. But more likely than embarrassing yourself, others will look at you as one who is willing to try new things to achieve more. And that’s not a bad a reputation to have as a lawyer.

Kevin O'Keefe
About the Author

Trial lawyer turned legal tech entrepreneur, I am the founder and CEO of LexBlog, a legal blog community of over 30,000 blog publishers, worldwide. LexBlog’s publishing platform is used on a subscription basis by over 18,000 legal professionals, including the largest law firm in each India, China and the United States.

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