Jessica Silbey

How do lawyers think differently from STEM professionals when approaching problems and risk?

Although I hesitate to generalize, historically the training of lawyers and STEM professionals aimed to cultivate different kinds of thinking about the domains of their expertise, and thus the scope of problems those professionals are capable of solving. Lawyers are trained to teach themselves new areas of law by reading statutes, regulations, and cases. Because of our broader understanding of the institutions that adjudicate legal disputes, such as arbitrations, mediations, courts, administrative agencies, we feel comfortable predicting the application of the law by other lawyers and the way a legal dispute will proceed through resolution.  We are comfortable as generalists within the law, to an extent, and are trained to be quick, competent studies when we encounter something new. We also encounter many industries, actors, and organizations within a general practice of business consulting or dispute resolution, and thus have the experience of wide and detailed exposure to these essential elements of society.  Yet whether that experience translates into particularly useful knowledge beyond law is a contested question among our clients, I think.

STEM professionals circumscribe their expertise more narrowly, I believe.  They are trained within disciplines that respect boundaries and defer to (or defend) those boundaries as meaningfully separating roles and functions within, for example, science and engineering. Interdisciplinarity within science and engineering may be embraced through collaborations by adding parts to each other brick by brick, but laboratories and experiments that seek to answer questions or test propositions tend to rely on constrained and unitary disciplinary methods. Facts or knowledge produced in science and engineering may be perceived as less constrained by social factors (although I think that is a misperception), and they are perceived to be more durable because by definition in science and engineering facts or scientific knowledge are reproducible, predictable, and objective. There is less inclination for cross-disciplinary knowledge production, I believe, because of the contingencies involved in mixing disciplinary approaches. Disappointment persists with the famed legal analysis “it depends,” because the lack of a predictable answer flies in the face of what science and engineering strive to accomplish.

Scientists and engineers may be as careful as lawyers in the claims they make about the part of the world they are asked to describe with accuracy, the former through experimentation and reproducibility in observable phenomena and the latter through precedent-based reasoning in socio-legal contexts. But knowledge produced in the different domains remains far apart in purpose and application. I don’t believe that needs to be the case, but it is the perception I have when wrestling with the conflicts between lawyers and STEM professionals.

What incentives would foster more collaboration between the law and STEM fields, in either academic or business/entrepreneurial settings? Non-lawyers too often experience law as mysterious because of its perception as an elite and inaccessible language and space. Translating legal understanding into everyday language as a regular course of business would go a long way to break down the barriers between lawyers and their clients. Law should be understandable to those it governs. Lawyers should strive to be better translators and communicators.

Doing so will also facilitate more frequent and productive conversations early in the business process, before problems arise and in time to avert them. Just as we are encouraged to check with doctors before problems get too big, clients should be encouraged to work with lawyers from the ground up. This has the added benefit of teaching the lawyer more of the client’s business, making them better advisors. It also requires a different business model for lawyers, a retainer or co-pay system rather than an hourly fee that disincentivizes regular check-ups.

In academic settings, I regularly run into unnecessary and artificial hurdles for cross-listing courses and teaching with STEM scholars. A law school course is considered too specific and specialized for STEM students to take, while law schools won’t count the STEM courses for law credit. This doesn’t have to be the case. It makes no sense if we think law is— and should be—accessible and understandable to more people who aren’t necessarily lawyers. Lawyers seeking to be excellent and ethical in their advising of all sorts of clients should learn about those businesses and organizations before they practice. Law schools should encourage that kind of cross-disciplinary training—but too often, they don’t.

Professor Jessica Silbey teaches intellectual property and constitutional law at Northeastern University School of Law, where she co-directs Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation and Creativity (CLIC) and is faculty at NuLab for Maps, Texts and Networks. She earned her Ph.D. (in comparative literature) and J.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  Her most recent book is The Eureka Myth: Creators, Innovators and Everyday Intellectual Property  (Stanford University Press 2015).