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Law Practice Magazine


Improve Your Team’s Critical Thinking Skills with Style

Anne Elizabeth Collier


  • What is the connection between problem-solving styles and critical thinking in the legal field?
  • Establish a culture where questioning assumptions is encouraged.
  • Time, focus and being present are essential conditions for critical thinking. Coach yourself and associates to develop these practices as healthy work habits. 
Improve Your Team’s Critical Thinking Skills with Style

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It’s a common complaint that associates are not thinking critically. Their work is superficial. They miss the real issue. Many partners complain about these problems, or, in anticipation, they resign themselves to doing associate-level work to meet client needs. They wonder: What’s preventing associates from putting their thinking caps on?

It’s not clear whether the dearth in critical thinking has in fact worsened since Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and older Millennials were associates. The problem could be that firms’ human resources are stretched more thinly or that associates are burned out. The problem could be that the pandemic and now hybrid work has retarded old-school learning in the trenches. Whatever the cause of perceived challenges, you can develop associates’ critical thinking skills.

What's Style Got to do with It?

Critical thinking is the intentional thinking in which the person systematically imposes criteria upon the thinking. New information and considered focus result in the person’s thinking evolving as the person reevaluates the criteria and standards imposed. The person engages in metacognition, i.e., the examination of one’s own thinking, which involves the very intentional and objective scrutinization of assumptions, perspectives and bias. The skills necessary to think critically include the ability to distinguish, analyze, judge and detect bias, to name a few.

Problem-solving style, as defined by the renowned late Dr. Michael J. Kirton in his Adaption-Innovation Theory, provides a framework for understanding, and thus, upgrading critical thinking skills. “Adaption” is an approach that is first accepting of the existing construct or way of doing things and using it to develop a solution. “Innovation” describes an approach that first may seek to alter the construct or way of doing things to develop a solution. People prefer adaptation or innovation to varying degrees, with no better preference. Most fall in the middle of the roughly 100-point scale measuring the degree of preference for adaption or innovation. Armed with an understanding of their own style, lawyers augment their capacity to examine their own thinking, assumptions, and approaches. They recognize that different approaches exist, and in fact, pause to seek them out.

In addition to understanding style, other conditions improve critical thinking, some of which can be nurtured. Let’s first recognize that critical thinking necessitates being fully present. Otherwise, the person can’t think. Ideally, the person generates for themself initiative, engagement and focus and possesses a strong desire to think critically, wrestle with a problem and win. The person is energized by learning and sees feedback as valuable. Intense curiosity is a plus. 

Seven Steps for Improving Critical Thinking, Now

Whether you are cultivating your own or an associates’ critical thinking, these best practices will increase the capacity to solve problems. When working with associates, consider yourself their executive coach, asking targeted, open-ended questions that require critical thinking. 

  1. Deal with distractions. Time, focus and being present are essential conditions for critical thinking. Coach yourself and associates to develop these practices as healthy work habits. Do not attempt to multitask.
  2. Improve objective thinking with inquiry. Logical reasoning is the cornerstone of critical thinking. It requires the thinker to distinguish between facts and opinions, set aside emotion and uncover assumptions and biases. All of this requires the self-awareness and confidence to question thought patterns and heighten thoughtful inquiry.
  3. Know your problem-solving style. Knowing your natural approach to solving problems will help you to see and be open to alternatives. Consider who thinks differently and might be a resource to help you solve problems and broaden your capacity.
  4. Identify and challenge assumptions through the lens of problem-solving style. Ask yourself and colleagues: “What have you unknowingly assumed can’t be changed, must happen or be included in the approach to resolving the problem?” Next, itemize and discuss whether the assumptions are accurate, inviting opposing views. Do your colleagues agree? If so, why? If not, why not?
  5. Consider your approach to idea generation. People who are more adaptive generate fewer ideas that are sound and ready to implement within the structure in place. People who are more innovative generate many more solutions, many of which require a change in the structure, which may or may not be possible. Need a solution to a problem that is replete with constraints? Ask a more adaptive colleague. Looking for something different or need a solution where the problem itself or the goal are ill-defined? Ask a more innovative colleague. Remember that most problems are complex, meaning you need both adaptive and innovative ideas. Just thinking this way will improve your critical thinking and capacity to solve problems.
  6. Recognize diverse implementation approaches. The most adaptive thinkers plan most every detail before implementing a solution. The most innovative thinkers engage in emergent planning. There is a place for both approaches and everything in between on most matters. Recognize and leverage these style differences for the benefit of the range of problems clients present.
  7. Invite diversity of thought. There are many reasons people are uncomfortable challenging assumptions. Concerns can be that questions come across as inappropriate challenges to a highly respected or intimidating colleague. To prevent this stifled culture from developing, invite questions, curiosity, and challenges as a necessary component of providing exceptional service. Further, a lawyer who recognizes when problems lend themselves to certain approaches can maximize value to the client and workplace satisfaction.

Utilizing these seven steps will promote a culture in which colleagues are enthusiastic about practicing law and serving clients. The bonus? Developing associates through mentoring becomes part of providing service.