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by Julia DiPrete | October 25, 2022


In our last blog post about design thinking, we promised that we would teach you how to apply it to career decisions and achieve amazing results. We intend to keep that promise.

However, we might have to make more of a case for design thinking before proclaiming its effectiveness in career planning. We want to address some possible critiques up front.

A Brief Recap of Design Thinking

Design thinking is a problem-solving model designed to foster innovation and outside-the-box thinking. Design thinking is about fully understanding a given problem and using creative brainstorming to solve it. It has five “spaces”: 

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

There is a pervasive element of thoughtfulness to design thinking, more so than most of us are used to engaging in; as a result, design thinking can also result in varying levels of discomfort. Design thinking is not intended to be linear but rather iterative, or in other words, pass through cycles of trial and error. It means playing out various potential solutions, identifying weaknesses or problems, and then being willing and able to go backwards and start the cycle again with tweaks or new ideas. 

Why Lawyers Might Struggle With Design Thinking 

The iterative process goes against the essentially linear path that we must follow to become lawyers, and breaking out of that linear way of thinking is really tough after decades of practicing that habit. 

First, think about how most of us earned our ESQ. If you’re anything like the author, your life was almost entirely linear up to becoming a lawyer. From a young age, you worked hard and developed some set of extracurricular skills or activities that would get you into a competitive college. For whatever reason, you decided that law school was your next step, which meant getting either sufficient grades, a sufficiently high LSAT score, or some combination of impressive things to get into law school. And if you’re a lawyer now, it means you buckled down enough to finish law school, pass a bar exam, and get a job. In other words, alinear path. 

To be sure, our lives differ, and our paths have deviated in myriad ways. At the same time, our current education system as a whole, and particularly law school and the legal industry, are notoriously intolerant of wild deviations. (See, for instance, our society’s diehard allegiance to the value of a Bachelor’s degree, preferably from a liberal arts college, instead of embracing the value of vocational education. But we digress.) In effect, virtually all of us reached lawyerhood on structurally similar paths, because there was no other way to get here. 

The line doesn’t stop at education. Law students are, by and large, presented with a standard list of professional options as their next steps post-law school: law firms (of all shapes and sizes, sure, but law firms nonetheless); government agencies; public interest jobs; and academia for a select few. Law students, largely unfamiliar with the professional world, thus limit themselves to that list and proceed accordingly. 

Helping Lawyers Break Free From Linear Thinking

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), many lawyers discover that they’re not very happy on their chosen path. Some of them are so completely bogged down by linear inertia that they never do anything about it, which is a bummer. But others, recognizing unhappiness, realize that they need to make a career change of some kind. 

All too often, that’s when the lightbulb starts to flicker—because we were never taught how to think outside the box, and so we make a list of possible career moves that closely resembles the list we were given in law school, and we hope that one of those paths will be a better fit. 

There are SO many ways to be happy in your careers, if you can only learn to find them… which is where design thinking comes in. 

The Goal is to Develop a Growth Mindset 

The first essential step in design-thinking your career is to get yourself into a growth mindset. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it basically means that you need to stop thinking that your abilities, intelligence, and opportunities are limited, and start believing that you can develop further. It’s about seeing possibilities instead of limitations. 

One of the most common issues we encounter when we reach a moment of career unhappiness is that we limit ourselves. We’re stuck in our preconceived notions of what our careers can be (thanks in part to those lists), and we let our fears dictate how we consider our options—we fixate on the risks and uncertainties of new paths and dismiss possibilities as a result. 

Many of us also have a tendency to fixate on the things that make us miserable at work as the impetus for a change. A job search thus becomes more about fixing that misery, rather than finding a career that actually fulfills us. And a job search that starts from a negative, limited place is unlikely to produce satisfying results.

These tendencies are what’s known as a “fixed mindset,” and make no mistake—it can be really difficult to get out of a fixed mindset. But if we let ourselves stay in that fixed mindset, we can’t open ourselves up to consider possibilities and opportunities, and that’s a death sentence to finding professional fulfillment. 

If you want some concrete guidance on developing a growth mindset, here are a couple of resources to get you started from Psychology Today and Future Learn.

What Design Thinking Looks Like in Career Planning 

In our third and final post on design thinking, we will explain how to use the five design thinking spaces to conduct a job search.