Critical Thinking: What it is, Why it Matters, and How to Improve it

If you were to do a quick Google search on what the key skills for a paralegal are, what do you think you would find? If you think about the tasks you perform on a day-to-day basis, what are the skills and tools that you have which enable you to perform those projects well? In an admittedly dated article from Forbes.com, the number one skill listed for those seeking to get hired in 2013 was critical thinking (Casserly). Likewise, in a more recent publication from the same site, that same skill was at the top of the list for people looking to succeed in 2020 (Beckford).

Given the above data, we should be asking ourselves what exactly critical thinking is – and how we can improve at it – as it seems to be such an important skill. In this article, I will seek to provide a commonsense definition of critical thinking, examine sources of motivation for developing such a skill, and provide ways to actively improve it.

Critical Thinking Defined

While there is no shortage of possible definitions for critical thinking, I agree with David Hitchcock that in essence, critical thinking is, “careful thinking directed to a goal (Hitchcock).” While some may object and say that this definition doesn’t solve anything because we still need to define what is meant by “careful thinking”, I think that this slightly misses the mark due to how intuitive such a concept is. We do not need to spell out the exact definition of such a term due to how easily we can grasp it.

Think of someone you view as reasonable, prudent, or intellectually sharp. Maybe it is the lawyer you work with. Maybe it’s you! What kind of qualities do they have? More often than not, the person we imagine will have some of the following dispositions:

  • Objective
  • Patient
  • Focused
  • Knowledgeable

With these qualities in mind, we can then imagine how a person would act if they were given a problem to solve. They would likely take time to examine all the relevant facts of the matter, consult with others, research, and then come to a solution. Notice the pattern emerging? Critical thinking has to do with how we engage with the information we have, or more specifically, the reasons we hold for believing something.

critical thinking

So What?

Maybe the above points on critical thinking as an important endeavor do not persuade you. You already have a great job that you do well at, so why is it important to cultivate such a skill? In this section, I will present some key motivators as to why we should work on such a skill in the context of our career.

1. Become a Better Problem Solver

Problems are a standard part of life, and by extension, a normal part of your career. Whether you missed a deadline or made a mistake on a draft, running into some sort of issue in a profession focused on so many technicalities can have major drawbacks. However, if you develop your ability to think critically, these drawbacks can be mitigated.

For example, say you missed some information on an agreement you were drafting which the client noticed, which in turn made the attorney on file look bad. Now you have a meeting with them to explain what happened. If you have not thought carefully about how you will present your reasons for making such a mistake and how those kinds of mistakes can be lessened in the future, you are going to only make matters worse. However, if you have weighed the evidence and examined where things went wrong in the drafting process, you will have insights into how to present strategies for reducing those kinds of errors, and have greater insight into yourself as well. Given that, “attorneys want facts and evidence in everything they do (Pearson)”, you will be in a much better position to convey such facts if you are a critical thinker.

Read How to Be A Problem-Solving Paralegal.

2. Become a Better Person

While this is more of an internal motivator than an external one, it is probably one of the most important. Critical thinking helps make you a better individual inside and outside of your work. If you consistently have a view of trying to weigh the evidence and examine your reasons for believing that evidence, you will be less focused on being right, and more on being correct.

On a more personal level, being someone who thinks carefully has many benefits for your relationships as well. If you are a careful thinker, you will not be as likely to dismiss ideas contrary to your own simply because they are different. Instead of making someone you care about feel insecure or invalidated, you have a greater chance of making them feel heard. Why? Because you care about weighing the pros and cons of a dispute or argument, which entails listening to the other person presenting their side.

3. Become More Efficient

Maybe you are at a position in your career that does not involve as much problem solving as it does administration or simpler duties. Is that reason to not be a critical thinker? On the contrary, learning to examine why you believe something means that you will learn to examine why you do something a certain way. Sure, your tasks at work may seem trite to you or repetitive sometimes, but if one learns critical thinking and begins to carefully examine the “So what?” and the ‘Why?” questions involved, you are sure to stumble on a new (and better) way.

With this lens in view, you can begin to ask yourself how you can make your current system better and more efficient. As an additional plus, bringing this kind of task improvement mindset to your performance review will work wonders in your favor.

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Improving Our Intellect

Now that we have surveyed some common and important motivators as to why we should become critical thinkers, let us now turn to practical steps we can take to improve such a skill.

Think About Your Thinking

One of the first steps (and arguably the most important) to becoming a better thinker is simply being cognizant of your beliefs/decisions and why you believe those things. In a world filled with 30-second clips, Twitter quips, soundbytes, and likes, it is easy to get caught in a vicious circle of accepting things that sound good to us at first glance without actually taking stock of the evidence.

We can become more aware of our thoughts simply by asking ourselves incisive questions:

  1. Why do I find this view/belief/idea plausible? Are those reasons (if there are any) good?
  2. What would someone who is on the opposite side (or at least on a different side) of the issue say?

Critical thinking involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Stephen Covey, someone who sought to thoroughly apply the principles of critical thinking to both business and personal relationships, relates; that we must always “Seek First to Understand . . . Then Be Understood.”

Learn How Not to Think

Another very helpful point in becoming more intellectually responsible is to take stock of ways you should not think or what kinds of logical steps/inferences are actually improper. For the purpose of this article, It would be imprudent to try and cover all kinds of formal fallacies, but I think a great way to step up your mental game is by looking over a list of informal fallacies. To quickly sum up, informal fallacies are improper steps in reasoning for various grounds, mostly due to the premises of an argument (the reasons we have for concluding something) not actually supporting what they aim to be. A good example of a common informal fallacy is an ad hominem fallacy, or attacking the person.

When we commit this fallacy, we attack a person in some fashion in order to make our point. But this does not always mean that we are correct. For example:

  1. My boss was rude to me this morning
  2. If my boss is rude to me in the morning, my boss is not a good lawyer
  3. Therefore, my boss is not a good lawyer.

Can you see the flaw? Just because the attorney you work with is unfair or unkind does not mean (or necessitate) that she is a bad lawyer. There are a host of other factors that make someone a good or bad lawyer, not just their personality and manners.

This second tip goes hand in hand with being cognizant of our thinking patterns and idiosyncrasies, as does our third point: becoming more informed.

critical thinking

Read, Read, Read, and Read

When it comes to our reasons for holding onto an idea or believing it in the first place, we usually look to assimilate these beliefs or retain them through a lens called our background knowledge. Simply put, background knowledge is the culmination of knowledge that we have gained from experience and evidence which forms a rubric to judge new ideas coming to us.

It is vitally important that as people that do not know everything, much less a lot of things, we make sure we have the right amount of knowledge–and the right kind–in our background before we make a decision to retain or reject an idea. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you are having a meeting with your department and for some odd reason a colleague brings up the idea that limitation periods should be ignored. Now, if you are not sure what a limitation period is or what the consequences are for missing one, you would likely have to do some quick research to decide whether or not that is a good idea. However, if you already have the background knowledge that missing limitation periods have massively negative consequences, you will not need to do that research at all.

One quick note. Notice how having background knowledge can remove some of the heavy-lifting of needing to check, double-check, and then check (again!) all the facts. That’s a good thing. But, notice too that this can go haywire quite quickly. If we do not have the critical thinking, i.e., good reasons, for holding our background knowledge we can make poor, snap judgments.

Pursuant to our example above, let’s further note that you thought limitation dates were actually referring to getting rid of “Get off Early Fridays” so of course you naturally thought that removing such a thing would have disastrous consequences. However, when the time comes for you to make a decision with that current definition of limitation dates that actually involves the courts, you are in for a rude awakening.

This is why being informed and reading as much as you can to stay current in your role is so important. If we do not constantly build our knowledge and check that knowledge through multiple sources, we can make decisions that are very ill-informed.

Conclusion

To wrap up, I quickly reviewed possible definitions of critical thinking and settled on the idea of thinking carefully about something. We further fleshed this definition out by looking at the kinds of dispositions one would have if one were a critical thinker. They would likely be objective, patient, knowledgeable, and so on.

Further, we also looked at some major motivators for becoming a better critical thinker, such as becoming a better person, a better problem solver, and a more efficient member of your team.

Finally, we surveyed three possible ways to improve your thinking skills. One, learn to think about how you think. Two, learn how to not think, or how to recognize mistakes in reasoning. Three, becoming as informed as possible in order to make better judgments.

If we take this approach of becoming people that think well and think hard, we will be duly rewarded in our workplaces that are teeming with new decisions to make and new things to learn. Becoming more critically minded helps us swim and tread through the vast waters of information, rather than being tossed to and fro at their mercy.

References

Beckford, Avil. “The Skills You Need to Succeed in 2020.” Forbes, 6 August 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2018/08/06/the-skills-you-need-to-succeed-in-2020/?sh=3d2da3f3288a. Accessed 10 June 2022.

Casserly, Meghan. “The 10 Skills That Will Get You Hired in 2013.” Forbes, 10 December 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2012/12/10/the-10-skills-that-will-get-you-a-job-in-2013/?sh=49e49513633d. Accessed 10 June 2022.

Hitchcock, David. “Critical Thinking (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 21 July 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-thinking/. Accessed 10 June 2022.

Pearson, Ann. “How To Be A Problem-Solving Paralegal.” Paralegal Bootcamp, 20 January 2022, https://paralegal-bootcamp.com/how-to-be-a-problem-solving-paralegal/. Accessed 9 June 2022.

Meet the Author – Brett Surbey

Brett is a Corporate Paralegal at KMSC Law LLP in Alberta, Canada. Brett occupies his time reading, writing, being a nerd, and spending time with his wife and two children.

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