Critical thinking

Modern organisations rely on all types of thinking, from analytical to creative. However, major decisions need to be based on critical thinking – and that’s the in-house lawyer’s domain.

This article considers the characteristics of critical thinking, how it differs from other types of thinking and how it can benefit you both professionally and personally.

Critical thinking: what it is and why it matters to in-house lawyers

Critical thinking is the umbrella name for a vital set of skills you’ll need as an in-house lawyer. Not only does it allow you to make impartial judgements on situations, it also helps you provide quality legal and business advice to your internal clients.

Isn’t all thinking critical thinking?

No. Critical thinking is distinct from a range of other types of thinking such as:

  • Analytical thinking, which considers a range of factors and arrives at a conclusion about the current state of a given situation;
  • Lateral thinking, which is focused on the ‘movement value’ of statements and ideas. In other words, the consideration of alternative ideas that are not immediately obvious; and
  • Creative thinking, in which we look at existing problems from a fresh, original perspective that hasn’t previously been explored.

Of these, analytical thinking is the closest to critical thinking. However, critical thinking takes things a step further. As well as forming a full picture of the current state of an issue, critical thinking helps us evaluate probabilities and the effects of a variety of options. Which means it helps you, as an in-house lawyer, advise decision-makers from a well-considered, evidence-based legal perspective.

Applying critical thinking as an in-house lawyer

To help you fine-tune your expertise as a critical thinker, it may help to consciously work through these five stages when formulating your advice.

1. Analyse all the information available to you
There’ll probably be a lot of information (including statistical, textual and verbal inputs) that comes your way when you’re being asked for an expert legal opinion. If so, break it down into smaller, manageable portions, analyse each part separately and build your understanding of the bigger picture piece by piece.

2. Evaluate the evidence
This involves assessing the strength of each piece of information, including other people’s professional opinions, and giving each one a weighting. Establishing the validity, relevance and reliability of all the evidence you have will help you make reasoned judgments.

3. Keep an eye out for bias and assumptions
People providing you with information may have structured it according to their priorities or overlaid it with commentaries informed by their own viewpoints or natural bias. You may need to question other people’s underlying assumptions. Be aware too of any biases or assumptions of your own. Critical thinking is about forming an accurate, comprehensive, impartial understanding.

4. Think about the situation from all angles
It’s important to consider any big decision from a multitude of angles. For example, if you work for a major business, it’s possible that the marketing, sales, finance, production and HR departments will all be affected – and therefore have a view. Your job will be to incorporate all these views into an argument that’s legally valid, persuasive and - most importantly – commercially sound.

5. Finalise your advice
Ultimately, your responsibility is to provide final decision-makers with advice that has the organisation’s best interests at heart. This means weighing up the pros and cons of every potential decision, thinking ahead to potential outcomes of each one and deciding which decision you would recommend. By this stage, your critical thinking will have helped ensure your choice was reasoned, evidence-based and well-informed.

Great critical thinkers throughout history

Critical thinking is nothing new, so if you’re an advocate for a reasoned conclusion you’re in good company.

Socrates, for example, put critical thinking at the heart of his Socratic method of questioning. He encouraged his students to question assumptions and think critically about their beliefs.

Aristotle also applied critical thinking by emphasising reason and evidence to determine knowledge. Aristotle’s contributions to logic, metaphysics, ethics and biology are huge.

Another philosopher famous for espousing critical thinking was René Descartes. Widely considered the founder of modern philosophy, Descartes was a strong believer in doubting assumptions and arriving at knowledge through reason.

And no list of critical thinkers can exclude Albert Einstein, the physicist responsible for much of our understanding of the universe. Einstein insisted that reason and evidence must form the basis of scientific knowledge.

Personal benefits of critical thinking

There’s little doubt that developing your critical thinking skills will help you as an in-house legal adviser. However, the benefits can also extend to your team leadership role – and even into your personal life. This is because, as well as improving your decision-making, critical thinking helps you:

  • Solve problems, by breaking them down into small parts and identifying their root causes;
  • Understand complex problems, by examining them from a wide range of viewpoints and personal angles;
  • Think creatively, by setting parameters around a problem, then allowing you to think ‘outside the box’ and explore innovative solutions;
  • Communicate with clarity and authority – once you’ve had the chance to think critically about an issue, you are in a position to communicate your conclusions and ideas clearly and logically;
  • Spot and remove biases, leading to more objective decision-making; and ultimately
  • Further your career – critical thinking is highly valued by employers in professional services, industry and local and national government.

Closing commentary

Across most major organisations are experts in analytical thinking, lateral thinking and creative thinking. What sets the in-house lawyers aside is their capacity to think critically – to analyse information, weigh up evidence, eliminate bias and consider the implications of a range of options. In-house lawyers can make a name for themselves by developing their skills as critical thinkers and, in so doing, become a major player in key organisational decisions.