Yes, Even Lawyers Are Creative (How to Tell)

When lawyers—or really anybody—tell me that they’re not creative but they wish they were, I’m fairly sure I know what’s going on. They’re thinking that they’re not CREATIVE. Like, they’re not Joshua Bell-creative. Bell is a world-renowned violinist who, at the age of 4, was stretching rubber bands between dresser drawer pulls to play classical music.

Joshua Bell playing

He's a darn cute creative genius, that Joshua Bell. But you don't have to be a genius (or cute) to be creative. You can even be a lawyer!

Folks, that’s not creativity. That’s genius, prodigy-level creative. Honed, I might add, with a plethora of practice and commitment. It is exceptionally rare. It’s the creativity equivalent of Michael Jordan. Yet, most people don’t think that because they can’t play as well as Michael Jordan, they can’t possibly be a basketball player of some sort. But they do think if they aren’t a world-class writer/singer/painter, they’re not creative.

Yes, Even YOU  Are Creative

Of course, that’s hogwash. I want to say very plainly: Every human being in inherently creative. Yes, even the most boring tax lawyer. Creativity shows up in myriad ways. Today, I’m focusing on what many equate with creativity, which is some form of artistic expression.

Because there are so many perfectionist myths that surround creativity and art in our culture, I’m giving you a decoder ring. These are not, by any means, the only tea leaves in town to tip you off that you’re creative, but they’re a decent cheat sheet. And just because I didn’t capture every possible permutation, I beg you not to conclude you are not creative. Instead, add your own insights in the comments, too!

Clues That You’re Creative in an Artistic Way

You just might be artistically creative if:

  • You’ve been told that you’re too sensitive or too intense;
  • You’re the one who always asks, “Well, why not?” Or “I wonder what would happen if?”
  • You’re curious about a wide and eclectic range of subjects. Dwarf planets, Buddhism, medieval village life, heirloom garden plants and product design all seem interesting;
  • In high school or college, you wore buttons that said things like “Question authority.” Creatives are often the first to say out loud that the emperor has no clothes, because they see with far fewer filters;
  • You were the class clown at times. You could have been the court jester if you’d just lived 500 years ago;
  • You occasionally go on art- or craft-supply buying binges, thinking that this time, you WILL do that project. Or, you have a stash of such things that you can’t bear to part with and have paid people to move them 3 different times;
  • The idea of creating a garden makes your heart sing a little;
Writers
  • You sometimes get taken with a word or phrase, rolling it around in your head or maybe even writing it down. For example, during document reviews, I often kept notes of really interesting names like Throckmorton;
  • You have a real thing about the texture of paper, or the color of it. Pens have to be just the right kind and color, or it drives you bonkers. You buy cool-looking journals because they make you feel warm and fuzzy and right;
  • You hear a story that happened to someone and think how that would make a great idea for a novel;
  • You sometimes eavesdrop on coffee shop conversations because you just want to know what makes someone tick, or to hear a juicy detail or two from someone else’s life;
Visual
  • You mentally re-arrange visual elements all the time. For example, you can picture how different colors would look on a sofa or in curtains. Or, you mentally edit a room, moving the furniture around, tweaking colors and textures to make it better. You can strip out the visual clutter and see the potential of a space, and you get confused when others can’t see your vision. You love watching This Old House and HGTV;
  • You always know exactly what weird combination of colors will look super cool, whether it’s in clothing, rooms, or paintings;
  • You really like the idea of making your own furniture, curtains, clothes,  jewelry, house, food, or whatever, whether you actually make them or not. You watch shows, bookmark websites or clip articles about those things;
  • You’ve been known to walk around with a camera just taking pictures of interesting doorways, fall leaves, bugs, streams, odd people, or some other thing that catches your eye.
  • You spend inordinate amounts of time adjusting the fonts and color schemes of your word processor, browser, and wallpaper. Or, you are the one who knows how to add graphics to documents because you will fiddle with them until they’re perfect;
  • Your class notes were filled with caricatures of classmates or professors;
Actors and Dancers
  • If you didn’t fear being mocked and had the time, you would happily dress for a Renaissance festival or a Comic-Con convention, and possibly play the role to the hilt;
  • You think you might as well become an actor, since you’re so good at acting like you give a shit at work. Or, you think you should become a comedian, because after just 2 years in law you have enough material for a lifetime of sketches and riffs;
  • You dance in the living room where no one can see you;
  • You secretly loved the square-dancing unit in high school gym class. Or, you signed up for the ballroom dance class to fulfill a PE requirement;
  • You need to move, and you’d really prefer to feel graceful when you do. If you could twirl down the street without being mocked, you just might. Or you harbor a secret fantasy to be in Stomp or Riverdance;
Music
  • You tap out rhythms while you work, without even noticing it;
  • As a kid, you made up songs that you never sang to anyone else, or sang them to anyone who would listen.
  • There’s a soundtrack in your head all the time, if you just listen for a second, and it’s often songs you haven’t heard in ages; or
  • You see a particular instrument and would just love to pick it up, even though you’ve never had a lesson.

Notice what is NOT on this list: Achievement and performance. No stacks of completed paintings or short stories, no laundry list of musical or dramatic performances. Those things come from committing to your creative and artistic gifts, not from having them in the first place.

Many lawyers get lost on this point, because they want to see evidence of creativity before considering that they might have some. That’s backwards. The urge to create comes way before the manifestation, and that urge needs nurturing and guidance, not boot camp and production quotas.

Use this list, or other similar things you’ve noticed about yourself, as a reason to affirm that you are, in fact, creative. Then nurture your creative self, with plenty of sleep and fun. After that, you can think about honing your gifts.

By the way, that link up top about Joshua Bell? Read it. It’s a 2007 story in the Washington Post about how Bell played one morning, incognito, at a Metro stop. And there’s a recording of it, which is transcendent.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who dabbles in all kinds of art activities, and facilitates a local creativity group (if you’re local to Nashville, email for details!). She coaches lawyers to put down their billable hours measuring sticks and just experience the joy of creativity. To find out what that’s like, schedule a discounted sample coaching session by emailing jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

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12 thoughts on “Yes, Even Lawyers Are Creative (How to Tell)

  1. Ha, at my worst past law firm job, the one that kept telling me “you are different, and we can’t handle different” I had a persistent fantasy of getting two bumperstickers – Think Different and Authority Sucks – and putting them on the car I parked in the firm structure every day. Heh heh heh.

    Of course I’m chicken so I didn’t. I might start wearing my “I read banned comics” button to work, though.

  2. Looks like I score a zero on the Jennifer Alvey Visual Creativity Scale (“JAVCS”).

    Although I think I already knew that.

    I’m actually not worried that I’m not creative. I’m just not creative in an Art Deco way. I was the kid who feared art class in school.

    For competitive comparison scorekeeping purposes, I’m going to review my scores here:

    JAACS = 3
    JAWCS = 1
    JAVCS = 0
    JAADCS = 1
    JAMCS = 1

    • GAAAAAHHHHH! I beg of you, please don’t set me up as an authority on what traits means someone is creative. I’m just this chick who writes and dabbles, yanno?

      Although I actually think it’s pretty creative that you made a scale up. Never crossed my mind to do that!

  3. Well, I think I scored a 110% on this one.

    The thing that KILLS ME as a creative person is WHY others cannot see that all the emperors are naked, game is rigged, etc. Instead, they’re into it! I’m not sure if that is lack of creativity or mass insanity, but it is mindboggling. Maybe they’re all eating tainted bread, IDK.

    I mean, for pete’s sake, people, life in a law firm is like The Matrix! You are being fed an artificial realty – WAKE UP?!?!?!?

    That moment of enlightement is often the beginning of the slippery slope to awareness and out of law – when you see that the Wizard Managing Partner is a naked, demented humpbacked dwarf with a megaphone, you can’t “unsee” it again.

    • MJ says:

      “That moment of enlightement is often the beginning of the slippery slope to awareness and out of law – when you see that the Wizard Managing Partner is a naked, demented humpbacked dwarf with a megaphone, you can’t “unsee” it again.”

      I don’t think that you’re looking at the same marketing materials as I am reviewing here.

      According to what I’m seeing, if I join BigLaw as an assocaite attorney, I can expect to be in a dynamic work environment that caters exclusively to my personal professional development. I will be working on exciting cutting edge legal work with some of the best professionals available. The work sounds very important. I also get to spend half my time on various pro bono projects.

      Everyone in these photographs looks very happy, very dynamic, and very professionally developed. I think they’re really enjoying the practice of law.

      If I’m reading this correctly, I will potentially be able to make partner in six years at which time, I will have the option of a sabbatical in which I will get to experience spiritual renewal. That sounds creative.

      From these pictures, it appears that the firm is family friendly and will supply me with a spouse and some children along with my six-figure salary. Although since I already have a wife and kids, I wonder if I can swap out the new set for an extra week of vacation a year.

      • That’s how the marketing materials look after They have laced your coffee with LSD. Not saying it doesnt happen during every lateral and summer associate interview….

  4. “You’re curious about a wide and eclectic range of subjects. Dwarf planets, Buddhism, medieval village life, heirloom garden plants and product design all seem interesting;”

    Do you have any idea how aggravating it is to have an endless-loop filmstrip of the same five or six topics OTHER THAN law or the work you’re doing playing constantly in your head?

    JB

    • I’ll take the distractions of my greater interests in American music, Buddhism, cooking and whatnot over TRULY AND GENUINELY being obsessed with 1) billable hours, 2) statutory law, 3) what did the Court of Appeals do today? and 4) have I told everyone on this floor how great I am today? If not must remind them ASAP.

      If those 4 items ever take over my brain, I’m running screaming for my life (no doubt pursued by a naked demented humpbacked dwarf with a megaphone).

      • MJ says:

        “TRULY AND GENUINELY being obsessed with 1) billable hours, 2) statutory law, 3) what did the Court of Appeals do today? and 4) have I told everyone on this floor how great I am today? If not must remind them ASAP.”

        I don’t think I’ve ever seen #4 on a list before. #1-3, yes.

        So you actually went around telling people you were awesome?

        Is this an actual law activity of which I was unaware, or is it a firm-specific culture thing.

        I actually dissed myself on my own reviews the first year because I knew that I knew nothing. That was apparently the wrong approach.

      • To JP – no, I don’t go around telling people how great I am, but one partner in my group does – everyone receives at least 1 morning and 1 afternoon visit where he brags about a case, new project, famous contact etc. He’s getting older now, so sometimes you get 3 visits (he forgets he’s already stopped at your door, and comes back twice in the same hour with the same story). It is delightful (sarcasm).

  5. MJ says:

    “To JP – no, I don’t go around telling people how great I am, but one partner in my group does – everyone receives at least 1 morning and 1 afternoon visit where he brags about a case, new project, famous contact etc. He’s getting older now, so sometimes you get 3 visits (he forgets he’s already stopped at your door, and comes back twice in the same hour with the same story). It is delightful (sarcasm).”

    Awwww, he’s a creative intrafirm marketer!

    Can you get credit for the 0.4 hours somehow?

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