Why Legal Problems are Like Jigsaw Puzzles (and how to solve them)

I don’t especially like jigsaw puzzles.  In particular, I dislike the chaos that exists until I have organised the pieces into their component parts by separating out the colours, shapes (corners and edges first) and likely locations.

However, I do like problem solving in legal terms, and that’s probably good because it’s what I spend most of the day doing.

Sometimes there are problems which, when viewed at first, look a lot like the jigsaw puzzle just after you tip it out of the box.  Too many pieces, too much going on, and no real plan to start.  Today we’re going to consider legal problem solving in the same way.

Turn the Pieces Over

Of course this is the first step.  Before we can really start to get at the problem, we need to find out what the pieces are.

Sure – we’ll pick out some obvious ones like the corners and put them aside, but in reality we don’t yet know for sure what we’re up against.

Similarly, your first meeting with a client on a new matter is about finding out what the pieces are.  It doesn’t do to get stuck on one particular area and try to sort that out just yet, because you need to get all the pieces done before you can have a good idea what you should be doing.

Look At the Box

Now that the pieces are done, it’s time to actually take a proper look at the picture on the box.  What is it that we are supposed to turn the pieces into at the end of this whole thing?

Likewise it’s imperative for any legal problem that we keep the end goal in mind.

Frequently this will be something we can figure out from asking the client, but not always.  What is the REAL goal?  Money?  Revenge?  A deal?  Saving face?

Knowing what the picture on the box looks like is really the only way we can go towards putting the pieces in the right places.  Otherwise the picture we end up trying to make could end up very different from the one that was hoped for.

Corners and the Edges – Create the Frame

We need to frame up our legal problem and consider its scope.  We need to know how big the problem is, and how much space and time we’re going to need to tackle it.

Break Down the Picture

Assuming we have a vaguely solvable puzzle, the chances are that there are a number of discrete areas on which we can focus and start to organise the pieces that we have into their relevant bits.  Sky, ground, animals, trees (or whatever takes your fancy) – these identifiers allow us to start sorting out which pieces fit there.  It’s at this point that things start to become clearer.

If the puzzle is big enough, you might also have people working on different parts of it.  Sure there might be some interaction (hey that’s not ocean blue, that’s sky blue – can I please have it?) – but people can plug away at discrete pieces of the puzzle without necessarily impeding progress at this stage.

Finish It Off

Once the discrete pieces are done, the various elements put together as best they can be, it’s time to join them all together and create the finished picture.

This might be putting the advice together, completion of the deal, or the day of a hearing in the Court.

Check for Missing Pieces

This is a critical part of any puzzle – you need to step back and make sure there isn’t a missing piece, or your entire effort could be for naught.

A final glance at the picture can often reveal gaps that need to be attended to.  An area not considered, or lacking cohesion, or a piece out of place.

Don’t neglect the final check in the hurry to present the finished picture to the world.

What’s Your Game?

How do you approach complex problems?  Does it resemble my puzzle, or do you have another way that works for you?

So next time you’re feeling a little overwhelmed at the size of a job just remember – it’s just a puzzle.

Happy Lawyering!

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