As so often happens, Marianna Fradman has started an interesting discussion on LinkedIn. This time her post is on The Paralegal Society’s discussion board. Her post consists of a single question and a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking,’ But What Is It?.” Her question is, “How do paralegals define this skill?” In a later comment she also asks, “Does it mean that ALL paralegals have to possess this skill? How to measure it?” Here are my initial thoughts on the first two questions:
The ability to solve problems and “connect the dots” is a good way of describing the concept of critical thinking, but critical thinking involves a particular approach to problem solving. I like the way that approach is set out in this quote (I can’t remember the source for sure, but I think it’s from S. Contrell’s work:
Critical thinking means “weighing up the arguments and evidence for and against”. It involves:
• Considering an issue carefully and more than once
• Evaluating the evidence put forward in support of the belief or viewpoint
• Considering where the belief or viewpoint leads – what conclusions would follow; are these suitable and rational; and if not, should the belief or viewpoint be reconsidered? Critical thinking goes hand in hand with analytical thinking.
Critical thinking is essential for every good paralegal. It is what separates a paralegal from other support staff in a law office and makes them a member of the legal team. It is the second principle of my first book, The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient, and Professional:”
The second principle has to do with the way the paralegal approaches any and all aspects of paralegal practice. It is a proactive rather than reactive approach. It seeks to understand and manage even those aspects of practice that the paralegal cannot control. This principle involves taking a rational empowered approach.
While the specifics were different in each of the chapters, in each chapter of this book we identified the areas of concern, analyzed each aspect of that concern, set priorities that addressed those concerns, sought a greater understanding of the area of concern, investigated solutions and barriers to those solution, and established procedures for implementing solutions and removing or overcoming barriers to those solutions. We did so in a direct, rational and professional way. We did so in a way that honored our own need to be efficient, effective and empowered, and honored the interrelationships and responsibilities of the first principle.
Critical thinking can be learned, but only through practice. You can’t just read about it and expect to become proficient at it. Legal professionals have some help in this regard since the methodology of legal reasoning, statutory interpretation, and case analysis all incorporate a critical thinking approach to solving problems. Therefore, we practice critical thinking each time we do one of these tasks. As we do more the task, we become more practiced in the skill. Perhaps more than anything else in our Paralegal Studies Program, the demand that our students engage in critical thinking exercises separates the program and our students from those described in the article:
According to research detailed in those books, students rarely study on their own for more than an hour a day, and most don’t write in-depth papers that require sustained analysis.
For their part, students seem to think they are ready for the office. But their future bosses tend to disagree. A Harris Interactive survey of 2,001 U.S. college students and 1,000 hiring managers last fall found that 69% of students felt they were “very or completely prepared” for problem-solving tasks in the workplace, while fewer than half of the employers agreed.
Judy Nagengast, CEO of Continental Inc., an Anderson, Ind., staffing firm, says she has come across young graduates who “can memorize and they can regurgitate” but who struggle to turn book learning into problem solving at work.
Students successful in our program can perform well beyond memorization and regurgitation, because they are required to practice critical thinking on a regular basis. This leads to a bit of a paradox: Although they are more prepared for the office than students who can only memorize and regurgitate, they are apt to see themselves less prepared because they know what the expectations are!