Monday, February 27, 2012

Why My Fifth Grader is Smart Enough to Work at Google (and Why Lawyers Should Think "Outside the Blender" and Not Just "Outside the Box")

By Kandy Williams

As I was sitting in the airport waiting to catch a flight, I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal that caught my attention.  The article was titled “How to Ace a Google Interview.”  The article, based on the book titled “Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?” written by William Poundstone, described the latest craze in tricky interview questions posed by Google and other cutting edge companies.  These questions went way beyond the predictable interview questions such “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “What are best and worst traits?”  According to the article, one of the questions purportedly posed by Google went as follows:

You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?

After running through a few implausible scenarios in my head, I decided I was stumped.  For fun, I posed the interview question to my fifth grader who was sitting next to me.  Barely skipping a beat, he responded, “Jump out.”  I turned back to the article and read that my son’s answer was the deemed the best answer by Google interviewers.  I had been outsmarted by a fifth grader. 

At first, I wondered if Ashton Kutcher and Jeff Foxworthy had teamed together for a new show called “Punk’d by a Fifth Grader” and made me their first victim.  Dismissing that notion, I turned back to the article.  The gist of the article was that companies today are not looking for the smartest candidates but rather are looking to hire creative thinkers who will be the best fit.  The key to the blender hypo was density, a mathematical concept I had not thought about since . . . well, probably fifth grade.  I thought about kids today and wondered if they just think more creatively than kids of previous decades.  Or is it possible that all kids have creativity in them but that some of it gets lost along the path to adulthood or in my case the path to a J.D.  I decided the answer was “yes” to both.

Law school teaches attorneys to think in linear fashion, yet today’s world is not so linear.  The fifth graders in my son’s class are savvy enough to use an iPhone and create a PowerPoint presentation.  If today’s fifth graders can think outside the box, then shouldn’t we?  After all, the business of being a lawyer has changed dramatically in the last twenty years.  Today’s lawyers are no longer locked away in law libraries reading dusty tomes and taking copious, handwritten notes. Nor are lawyers today dictating letters or briefs into some anachronistic dictation machine.  Thanks to dictation apps like Dragon Dictation, you can now dictate on your smart phone or iPad and even email the contents.  Lawyers today have keyboard skills (whether via desktop, laptop, Blackberry, or iPhone) that rival any legal secretary from the 1950s, along with the ability to “print to pdf” with ease.  I have seen many lawyers carry iPads to court with them in the event they need to research a case during a hearing or trial.  In case you were wondering, yes, there is an even an app for that.  In fact, thanks to the likes of WestlawNext, Lexis Advance, FastCase, and others, there are actually several. 

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center, eighty-eight percent of the attorneys surveyed use a smartphone, with forty-six percent of those using a Blackberry, thirty-five percent using an iPhone, and seventeen percent using an Android.  Fifteen percent of attorneys surveyed used a tablet such as an iPad.   Apparently, the leap from legal pad to iPad is not so great a jump after all. 

Despite all these advances made by the legal world, why is it often the case law firms are still behind the curve when it comes to cutting edge technology?  As one partner from a big firm with whom I worked on a recent matter acknowledged, “It is always embarrassing when a client has greater technology than we do.”  Now that is an understatement.  And yet, like the frog sitting complacently in a pot of water as the temperature is turned up gradually to boiling, we cling to outdated concepts while the rest of the world changes around us.  Rather than being proactive, lawyers and law firms continue to be reactive. They are always playing catch up to the latest greatest craze.  If any of the businesses with whom I work had that kind of reactive mindset, they would not be in business for long. 

Lawyers offer up several explanations as to why they cannot upgrade their technology, such as cost, security . . . the list is endless.  The reality is that sometimes as lawyers we get so bogged down in juggling the practice of law with the day-to-day demands of life that we do not see the forest for the trees.  We think we do not have the time to build a better mousetrap so instead we are content to simply reinvent the wheel.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson so aptly stated, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  When the book “The 4-Hour Work Week” by Timothy Ferriss drew a cult following in the business world a few years ago, I recall some attorneys I know saying they would settle for a forty-hour work week.   

Rather than embracing technology with ease, some lawyers I know have to be taken down kicking and screaming.  For example, most lawyers are linked up to LinkedIn but not many have ventured further down the cyber highway to Facebook or Twitter.  And some law firms are paperless, while other law firms are like dinosaurs killing the rainforest one printed merger agreement at a time.  There are even large law firms that have used the same billing software for almost a decade or that have attorneys email time entries to their secretary to enter into the system.  And while there are time entry apps to allow for billing from your smart phone outside the office, very few firms I know use them.  As attorneys, we need to be leading the charge on using technology to our advantage.  Instead of a “Call to Arms,” consider this a “Call to Apps.”  With that being said, there is a fine line as to how closely professionals should embrace technology.  I know attorneys who text their clients or, worse, send firm-wide emails with text-like abbreviations.  A professional texting clients does not seem, well, professional . . . especially when you consider the client is paying hundreds of dollars an hour.  FWIW, unless a client is your BFF, I would pass on the texting.  LOL.   

As evidence of how important technology has become to the practice of law, the newly inducted President of the Orange County Bar, Dimetria Jackson, has made technology and social networking for lawyers part of her mission.  The OCBA is exploring creating an OCBA app and has launched a President’s page on Facebook.  (See Interview with Dimetria Jackson).  We should all applaud these efforts to bring attorneys to the forefront of advances in technology.  In fact, attorneys today should strive to think not just outside the box, but outside the blender.  Or else we are doomed to be outsmarted by fifth graders.  No one wants that.

Kandy Williams is affiliated with Montage Legal Group and is the owner of Williams Law Firm.  Kandy can be reached at

1 comment:

  1. Great article. Though I have a different take on texting. If your client texts you first, then it's okay to do so. I have had occasions where clients were waiting to meet me at court or I was waiting for them. A quick text for eta was all that was necessary and avoided a longer, unnecessary conversation. Also, some of our clients are tech-savvy, especially those in their 20s and 30s. They prefer texting and email and I'm happy to oblige (even when my 65-year-old client does it). I do agree that the abrevs R btr left for tweens and teens, though I'm pretty forgiving since texts are really supposed to be substance over form.