Creativity in the Law: How this Lawyer Found her Niche, and Why Robots will Never Be Lawyers

Creativity in the Law

How This Lawyer Found Her Niche, and Why Robots will NEVER be Lawyers

Recently, I posted this picture of an elephant that I drew to my personal and professional Facebook pages with the caption, "Yes, I drew the NLO logo. Yes, I'm an artist. AND a lawyer. AND a property manager. AND an animal welfare educator. Justie Nicol, Esq.‪#‎notyouraveragelawyer‬ ‪#‎nofilter‬." The post got a huge response, and it still surprises me.  

For many years, I have struggled with the idea that you are what you do.  Society seems to expect that, frankly.  I recently attended a sales strategy training from the Fort Collins Small Business Development Center, and was surprised about the amount of time dedicated to separating your role from your identity.  This is a critical skill set for a salesman working on commission who has to learn how to live with constant reject of their cold calls and sales pitches.  Prospects aren't saying no to you as a person, just to what you're selling. Needless to say, the training resonated with me on a personal note.  For years, I have blatantly refused to accept the premise that we should be defined by our profession, by how many kids we have, or where we went to school, and this seminar just solidified it.

I think it struck me at the District Attorney's Office most recently when I looked around during a particular theater-shooting-trial-prep day, and realized I was wearing brown, plaid pants and a partially-leather shirt, but was surrounded by a sea of black, grey, and MAAAAYBE pinstripe suits with ties and white shirts all waiting in the security line.  Wear an argyle sock?! THE SCANDAL!  I think I realized then, when I looked around, "these are not my people. This is not where I belong." If I have to choose to conform or leave, I'd rather leave. And when I did leave, my direct supervisor pulled me into her office and told me that I'd take a lot of life away from the office when I left.  She was genuinely sad about it, I think. 
Yes, I sketched this.
Sorry, it's blurry, it predates digital cameras.
And, yeah, I copied it from Norman Rockwell.
But I'm not selling it.  
From personal experience at a young age, I was and am so much more than a lawyer, or a geek, or a bookworm.  I was that awkward teenager destined to be valedictorian in her small high school, who also played three sports all four years and lettered (including baseball with the boys), rodeoed in the summer, sketched nudes for AP Art that were stolen from her locker, and brought rattlesnakes to school for show and tell. You can't categorize me!  Even as a kid, though, I had a little part of my brain that was detached looking around and thinking, "I fit in nowhere, but yet everywhere all at once."  I knew how to fake it--whatever "it" was--based on the people around me.  This is a good skill to have as a lawyer, but that's just it, don't you see--it's a SKILL. It's not who I am.  

I recently accepted the fact that I am also an introvert with some extrovert characteristics.  I can be loud. I can be the center of attention.  I put on my "lawyer face" when I walk into court, and I OWN this room!  But, if you know me outside of the courtroom, that's not who I am.  The first time I had to make legal calls from home was to deal with my grandmother's estate planning after her death. My mom (and client) overheard me on the phone, and was shocked.  She knew I was smart.  She knew I had a big vocabulary.  She knew I was a law school graduate.  She had been around me my WHOLE LIFE.  Yet, she had never heard me slip into "lawyer speak" as she called it.  It's a role I play, mom... That's all. But I am damned good at it.

Recently, there have been stories popping up about robots replacing lawyers in my Twitter newsfeed (never thought I'd like Twitter, but I love it).  I'm here to tell you that technology will change the legal profession, but it will in no way replace us.  The head of IBM's general counsel's office, Robert C. Weber wrote about how Watson-like technology will bring about the dawn of the "digital associate."  Now, you also have websites like Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer to help the average non-lawyer do their own legal work (you know what they say about a lawyer who represents himself, right?!).  

But, what you may not realize is that lawyers have actually been STUDIED in this context. Specifically, the New York Times blogged about this trend towards automation of many types of jobs, including the legal industry.  What the NYT noted, however, is that only about 13% of the tasks that attorneys do can be replaced by a robot.
As it turns out, being a lawyer involves performing a range of tasks, from reading and analyzing documents, to counseling, appearing in court and persuading juries. Indeed, reading documents accounts for a relatively modest portion of a lawyer’s activities.The researchers noted that many of the tasks that lawyers perform fall well within what Polanyi defined as human behavior that cannot be easily codified. “When a task is less structured, as many tasks are,” the researchers wrote, “it will often be impossible to anticipate all possible contingencies.”
I want to point out one thing there... "many of the tasks that lawyers perform fall... within... human behavior that cannot be easily codified."  Is this not my entire life!? I am so happy to have found a profession that is "cannot be easily codified"!  I CANNOT BE CODIFIED! (Well, lawyers can't, but also me on an individual level... role vs. identity, and all that). 

Other news sources have come to the same conclusion as the NYT.  
  • Bloomberg says, "...lawyers need not fear these advances. Far from being a threat to jobs, technology will allow the legal profession to blossom in a new world of creative work...The stem of the Latin word for lawyer, advocatus, reminds us that for millennia, lawyers have been advocates, mediators, and aids. Earning the trust of clients, negotiating a deal, assessing the myriad aspects of business that go beyond data – even the most sophisticated machine cannot replicate these skills."
  • The Law Society of the UK says, "We do so much more than dispensing black-letter law. An artificial intelligence system is designed to stimulate human thinking but not creative or independent thought. Both of these qualities are essential for the legal profession and the discharge of our professional legal obligations of upholding the rule of law and the proper administration of justice."
  • LegalIT says, "...even the most fervent technology advocates are not predicting near-term automation of courtroom advocacy."
So, my advice: don't believe CNN and others with their fancy headlines: Here Come the Robot Lawyers, the lawyers of the future may be less J.D. than R2D2.  CNN I love the Star Wars reference, but no way.  Lawyers are here to stay, and AI is not going to result in a Matrix-like legal profession any time soon!!! Although I have dibs on Trinity's character, just in case it does.

I also follow a number of legal marketing groups since starting my own business, Nicol Law Offices, LLC.  I have recently come across  They posted an article about a year ago about marketing including how lawyers often want to know what their competitors are doing.  I found it hard to believe that lawyers would pay marketing companies to do very expensive and time consuming research about their competitors.  AND as the author notes, those law firms (cough *lawyers* cough), were wanting this information NOT so they could buck the trend and set themselves apart, but only so that they could follow in their competitors footsteps.  They wanted to steal what works, yes, but also do so with minimal risk and no skin off their backs.  The article goes on to state that lawyers are usually not creative, and many of us are lumped into that category: 
Saying that lawyers aren’t creative is like saying that the sky is blue. It’s not controversial, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.Just as it’s inaccurate to describe a sunrise sky radiating pink, purple, red, yellow and orange as blue, all lawyers should not be lumped into some indistinguishable uncreative heap. Sure, excellent lawyers are valued for sharp analytical skills, logical thinking and attention to detail. But the best lawyers are those who are also able to craft creative solutions. That’s because it takes creativity to solve a problem.
As a geek, an artist, and an attorney, I LOVE BEING CREATIVE.  So, this is me... Justie Nicol, posting a very personal post about what it means to me to be a lawyer, a nonconformist, and a creative entrepreneur.  I am not defined by my profession.  Rather, I use my creativity to set myself apart as a lawyer. Sign me up! 

Despite my long history of rebelliousness and awkwardness, though, I often still find myself asking folks that I have just met for the first time, "What is it that you do?"  I am going to make a conscious effort to stop that annoying habit... and when people ask me that very question, I'll respond with something like: 

I hike, and bike, and ski, and love living life outdoors. I can draw, and read, and sleep with the best of them. I specialize in all things animal, and I live for the moment.  I keep weird company--because let's be honest, I'm a freak--and I like it that way.  I'm quirky, confident, and kind.  And I'm #notyouraveragelawyer.
How's that for alliteration?!? Yea, I think I'll keep the hashtag.