September 27, 2022

Digest, isolate, extract, and find out whodunnit


Despite law being the only class in college I failed, the value of thinking like a lawyer isn’t completely lost on me.

Attorneys are experts at cognitive skills like noticing patterns, identifying assumptions, deconstructing language, comparing situations, making distinctions, questioning everything and solving problems.

And this way of thinking is useful in business. Even for us right brained weirdos.

Here’s an example my lawyer friend explained to me.

One of the most highly prized skills of a good attorney is called ratio decidendi. It’s the ability to read hundreds of pages of a case and isolate the sole abstract principle of law that underlines and underlays the court’s decision.

It’s the big aha moment. The hunch to whodunnit. The lawyer essentially says, here’s what’s most important about this case from a legal perspective, and what effect it might have on society going forward.

It’s the binding part of the decision which must be followed by other judges in similar cases.

But finding ratio decidendi is not a mechanical process, my friend tells me, it’s an art. One you gradually acquire through practice and study. And even if you’re not a lawyer, this skill is useful.

People who can digest a high quantity of material and isolate and extract the larger principles will always have a job in any economy.

I’m having a flashback of working at my first gig at an innovation studio. We practiced ratio decidendi on a regular basis, even though we didn’t use that term. Our clients were large corporations looking for inventive ways to reach new customers through digital media.

My team would usually only have a few weeks, or sometimes a few days, to pore through vast amounts of company information, market research and industry data to come up with our innovation strategy.

I remember one client was a legacy skincare brand that had led the market since the fifties, but was losing ground to the competition. The company founder was an eccentric billionaire who wrote a memoir about his career, and our client gave us an autographed copy for our research.

Now, while I’m sure he was a delightful man who built an amazing empire, his book was quite possibly the most tedious and horrifically written sack of garbage ever published. I read the book twice in one week. Learned more about the luxury skincare industry and plant extracts than anyone ever should.

Thankfully, the founder told one story about how he graduated from medical school, and his mission was to listen to women and give them what they want.

It was the simplest and smallest insight. Listen to women and give them what they want.

And I remember circling that passage in the book, running over to show it to our creative director and saying:

I think this is it. This is the abstract principle that will be the foundation of our marketing campaign. We’re going to build an innovative digital platform to help the company publicly listen to women about their skincare needs, and generate a ton of brand equity for the organization.

My boss loved the idea. Our designers busted their assess for the next week executing beautiful work against that insight.

And when the client finally came in to hear our pitch, guess what happened?

They hated it. Didn’t even smile once during the presentation. Their marketing team said our strategy was simplistic, misogynistic and offensive to the legacy of their late company founder. We sweat through our clothes for two straight hours that day. And the client ultimately decided not to pay us for the balance of their invoice, since they were so disappointed in our work.

Guess there’s no accounting for taste, huh?

Oh well, you can’t win every case. Sometimes the jury is just stacked against you.

But the cognitive process is still meaningful. The practice of digesting a high quantity of material quickly to inform creative work still matters.

The value of finding the ratio decidendi, isolating the sole abstract principle that underlines and underlays the material, still makes you a better thinker and smarter businessperson.

It might not get you into law school, but then again, we already have enough lawyers.

Where do you find your best insights?