July/August 2003  Volume 29, Issue 5
July/August 2003 Issue
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Big Idea: Color My World
by Merrilyn Astin Tarlton
It may seem a little childish. But some would argue it's the very childishness that makes it work. And the fact that it works makes it a pretty big idea. It's a box of crayons. More specifically, it's the box of crayons conspicuously positioned on every single lawyer's desk at the Chicago law firm Levenfeld Pearlstein.

It all started at a retreat for the firm's associates and partners that focused on understanding one's colleagues. At some point in the lively conversation, someone made the comment, "Not everything is black and white and gray." As managing partner Bryan Schwartz says, "Lawyers are bad [about] that." Together, the group theorized that law school prepares a lawyer for fairly rigid thinking -- while the market demands more and more creative thinking. So they decided to use the crayon box as a symbol of out-of-the-box thinking, to remind themselves that their clients seek "multicolored solutions."

Coloring outside the lines. The box of crayons -- like a miniature briefcase full of colorful ideas -- is only one of many manifestations of fresh thinking in this firm. Another unusual custom is firmwide "Quiet Time Tuesdays." Once a month, on a Tuesday morning, everyone in the firm takes 25 minutes to reflect on their personal and professional goals. The phones get turned off, the keyboards stop tapping. Each person quietly takes a look at where they are and where they want to be in relationship to their personal plans, which they develop annually with assistance from the firm's marketing and professional development folks.

Hmmmm. I see you're smiling. A little skeptical?

When asked if his people don't think this is all a little hokey, Schwartz says, "Are you kidding? They're lawyers! Of course they do!" But the consensus, he says -- the team's way of looking at it -- is, "This is what we do here." The unique but well-thought-out rituals have served to build a special kind of pride and camaraderie in the firm. It is what is unique (or believed to be unique) about the organization that creates the glue. It may seem like fluff to more-staid lawyers, but at Levenfeld Pearlstein it's all symbolic of the values this firm prizes: creativity, innovation, motivation.

And the crayons? Their symbolism certainly seems to have ignited a little coloring outside the lines in the firm's business thinking. This is, after all, the firm that launched a very successful Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Law practice in 2001. Long considered a potential hot potato, the highly targeted and controversial practice area has proven a successful niche market for Levenfeld Pearlstein, with its corporate, real estate, litigation, estate planning and employment lawyers helping a population of neglected businesspeople integrate their personal and business lives.

When child's play is a good thing. And, as it turns out, this crayon idea isn't merely a freak of Schwartz's lively imagination. Mark D. Safty, chair of the Project Development and Finance Group at Denver's Holland & Hart, has long used crayons and big pads of newsprint paper to inspire clear and positive thinking -- when he's alone drafting a complex agreement or when he's in client and internal meetings. A little hard to imagine? Not when Safty describes it.

"If I anticipate the meeting is going to be particularly difficult, or that it is going to involve fairly complex issues, I take along my box of 64 Crayolas and a drawing pad. It tends to be a serious -- and believe it or not, not too frivolous -- icebreaker. People are disagreeing a bit and you pull out your crayons and make a diagram of a possible solution…. It's hard for people to take themselves too seriously when they have a crayon in their hand!"

If you think Safty must surely be dealing with schoolchildren, think again. He's a nationally known expert in finance and project development for billion-dollar projects across the globe.

Tell the Truth!
How would you react to a colleague who used crayons and candy to help manage meetings? Would you envy the ability to take a risk? Remind her this is a profession, not preschool? Be glad that your firm is a place where this sort of thing can happen? Tell me what you think-and how you would react: lpm-editor@abanet.org.

Safty shared another colorful trick: M&Ms. Back when he was chair of his firm's business department, he kept a large bowl of them on his desk. When dealing with a difficult person, he would take three M&Ms and place them in front of the

person. "Every time you say something negative, you'll have to eat one," he would say. "When they're all gone, you have to either say only positive things or … you'll have to leave." Tough. But it worked. As he says, "How can you be upset when someone gives you chocolate?"

The lesson for lawyers: Simple ideas, even childish ones, are often the most true. If you expand your thinking to include tools not ordinarily found in the sophisticated world of law firms, you could inspire a whole new spectrum (a rainbow, as it were) of thinking in your firm. Just imagine what you might accomplish!

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton is Editor-in-Chief of Law Practice Management and a full-time management, strategy and leadership consultant to law firms.