Learning from lawyers

denny crane

I recently had the intriguing experience of requiring the services of a lawyer. I say intriguing not because of the legal matter (which was a bit of basic conveyancing) but because my firsthand experience confirmed the commonly held view that lawyers speak a different language from the rest of us.

My lawyer not only crafted the documents I needed in advanced legalese, she structured them in an impressively unsystematic way. Cross references abounded: this general condition would refer to that specific condition would refer to this schedule would refer to that accompanying document. I felt like Alice, trapped in a rabbit hole with no escape.[1]

Is there a lesson in this?

A lawyer’s job is to navigate the tricky waters of the law on behalf of her client. She uses her knowledge and experience to represent his best interests at all times. But a lawyer is also a service provider, and as such must manage her relationship with her client, providing clear communication and defining the scope of her involvement. These technical and management obligations coexist as they do for any professional.

While I suppose my legal interests were well protected, I was not well serviced. Thanks to her use of jargon and an impenetrable document structure, my lawyer did not empower me to contribute to the legal process. I never even felt like I had a handle on my own documents. I wondered how, despite these shortcomings, the legal profession (or at least my limited experience of it) can occupy such an unshakeable position of authority?

Hot on the heels of this question was a stint of self-reflection. In contrast to my legal experience, I like to think the architecture profession by and large addresses the minimum requirements of client service as a matter of course. And one of our core skills is the ability to resolve complex briefing requirements into simple solutions. Yet our authority is under constant siege.


Is there a correlation here?

I suspect the answer is yes, and it starts with the issue of complexity and simplicity. I think my lawyer was not unable but unwilling to distill my complex brief into a simple document.

In the hands of my lawyer, words, sentences and paragraphs all grew longer and more convoluted. She wielded opacity like a tactical nuke, and not by accident. You see, my humble legal document was in fact performing two jobs: first was the job I was paying for, which was to protect my interests. Second was its hidden job, unspoken but powerfully implied, which was to protect the entire legal profession.

For lawyers, legal jargon is in fact a highly effective armour. As it’s a language that only they speak, they have rendered themselves guardians of the legal process. And since it’s a language they collectively, systematically and continuously use, they have created a positive, self-generating cycle. Each time one lawyer writes a sentence as long as a paragraph, another lawyer must step in to interpret it. Every single action perpetuates more need for legal services, not less.

And the true stroke of genius? The legal profession insists all this is in the interests of its clients. It has created such strong demand for its services, the buying public is willing, even begging to pay it for them.

But wait, there’s more. You might not believe it, but this is not the only way lawyers protect themselves. Here’s a brief list of some of the other ways they do it:

  • A barrister cannot be sued for more than two million dollars.
  • Documents used in litigation cannot breach copyright.
  • Barristers cannot be sued for defamation for anything they say in court.
  • And best of all, a barrister is immune from litigation in court. That is to say, a lawyer’s client can not sue her for negligence while she is representing him in the courtroom, even if she were to start swearing at the judge in Klingon and arguing for the other side.


Architects, by nature, are not so cunning.

On every one of our projects, we balance and clarify complex design briefs. I often tell our clients that this is one of the most important services we offer, and think proudly of it as akin to the untangling of a giant knot of ropes. Randy Deutsch even suggests that  the “problem-solving power of integrative thinking” is one of the architecture profession’s most formidable skills.[2]

But by making clarity in the built environment our business, we open ourselves up to competition. I’m not suggesting we change who we are, but we do need to do more to help ourselves.

Have you ever heard of a cheaper version of a lawyer? There are conveyancers and legal assistants, but there is no confusing them with the real McCoy. In architecture meanwhile, we have any number of competitors: draftspeople, project managers, design and build companies, building designers, even volume builders. We may not think they’re playing in our league, but the buying public can’t tell the difference. To our own detriment, we have never attempted to mark and then defend our territory.

What can we learn from the lawyers?

The legal profession is in a unique position to affect the legal landscape in which it practices. Many of the aforementioned protections were initiated via case law, that is a judge has decided in favour of a lawyer during a trial. Since around 90 – 95% of judges are promoted from the bar, this means the profession benefits from protection bestowed by itself.

We may not have such an enviable reach, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have other options available to us. We are, after all, the preeminent experts on the built environment. What do we know or do that we can use to help ourselves?

  • Legislating minimum design standards to match New South Wales’ SEPP 65 would be a great place to start. Holding onto the requirement that multi-residential projects be designed by an architect is essential.
  • Advertising propaganda is not the ethical dilemma it once was. Though atrociously misguided, the recent Ask an Architect billboard campaign was pithy and well-executed. This should be expanded and redirected to support the architecture profession as a whole.
  • As I’ve discussed previously, we need to thrust ourselves into the centre of any public discussion of the built environment. We should be the experts called upon by Jon Faine, Tony Jones and every other journalist in Australia broadcasting a piece on any subject from housing affordability to environmental sustainability, real estate or urban planning.
  • The Office of the Victorian Government Architect needs to be reinforced and immunised from the vagaries of the political cycle. It also needs to be funded and given great big pointy teeth, so that its design review panel can make a meaningful and widespread difference. A levy on new developments would be an easy and transparent way to achieve this.
  • We need to become less queasy about popular media. The Block and The House that 100k Built may be antithetical to good architecture, but we’re better off embracing than ignoring them. I’d wager good money that they’re watched by a large chunk of the 95% of new house builders who don’t use an architect.
  • We need to consider producing our own popular media. I don’t mean edgy documentaries, I mean good reality television or popular dramas that air in prime time on Channel 7. MasterChef doesn’t diminish the cult of chef celebrities, it enhances them; Boston Legal and Suits idolise the legal profession; why not architects?

I have heard it said that architects are the guardians of the built environment. I like this sentiment very much, but we need to consolidate this philosophy. Our dwindling influence on the building industry is evidence that good design, even great design, is not enough. We must urgently use every weapon at our disposal – political, regulatory, marketing – to ensure our place at the table is secure.


  1. Some years ago, friends of mine sold their company to a US-based multinational. American legal jargon in fact puts its Australian equivalent to shame. What should have been a 40 page contract of sale grew until it filled an entire lever arch folder (plus appendices). One particularly important clause comprised a single sentence that ran unpunctuated for an entire A4 page.
  2. Randy Deutsch; How We Can Make Collaboration Work: How Architects Can Decentralise Rather than Be Marginalised; in Design Intelligence; January / February 2014. An excerpt can be viewed here.

Image sources:

  1. Denny Crane. Photo sourced from The Incredible Tide.
  2. Maximilian Armour. Photo sourced from Wikipedia Commons.
  3. Untangling by Jeff Wall, 1994. Photo sourced from the National Gallery of Victoria.

21 thoughts on “Learning from lawyers

Add yours

  1. Great post today – sentiments shared!

    Bronwen Jones FRAIA

    DipArts (Fashion) | BApp Sc (Env Des) | BArch (hons)

    Principal Architect

    ACT Architect Registration No. 2203


    M: 0428 024 099

    E: raum@live.com.au

  2. A couple of things:

    – Lawyers use very specific, discipline specific technical language. In a sense I’m glad of this, planning for example is far more vague and leaves itself open to the whims of whichever planner you get stuck with. For example I recently discovered that even by following the ResCode Standards you don’t necessarily meet the Objectives, and the individual planner gets to decide that. Though I do agree that lawyers write things in an unreasonably impenetrable way, even lawyers don’t read the Apple Terms & Conditions when downloading a new iTunes for example.

    – Architects also use specific, discipline specific technical language, perhaps we just don’t notice it anymore, but I distinctly remember reading SMLXL (well bits of it, I mostly looked at the pictures) while I was still in high school and not really getting most of it.

    – There appears to be a general trend toward greater specialisation in many fields. For example, in a way the advent of the project manager as a distinct role is simply an acknowledgement of the role certain architects used to perform. We all know architects who are great project managers and others who are great designers, within a firm there are usually people who specialise, they may simply all be called architects.

    – Good design often appears inevitable, it looks as though it must have just sprung into being because it is such a good response to the site/brief, whereas it actually requires a lot of hard work to not only design but to deliver it. Hard work takes time and time is money, and we charge clients directly. One of the major advantages of design/build is that it rolls all the fees into one bundle, that’s at least part of the reason they earn so much. I actually don’t think design/build is a bad model, it would just be better led by an architect who is interested in the long term, big picture result.

    – If we’re interested in improving the built environment more generally, we should upgrade the building designer/”architectural” draughtsperson qualification to a degree in which they actually study design (as opposed to layout), history and theory. Perhaps get rid of the diploma and roll it all into the architecture undergrad degree. Draughtspeople as such are becoming irrelevant in the age of BIM, so everyone should be a properly trained designer. Make two separate registration categories under the control of the same body that have distinct responsibilities, i.e, larger and/or more complex buildings should be designed/coordinated/managed by architects.

    – If architects want respect they need to be deserving of it. The ARBV should be able to de-register architects for being bad designers. We do of course offer other valuable services apart from those which are visible on the outside, but the public expects us to be better. Bad designers bring the architecture profession into disrepute.

    – Universities need to stop letting poor designers graduate from architecture, re-direct them to something else if they can’t grasp the basic concept that buildings have purpose and meaning, however subtle.

    – I’m not convinced we should be the experts called by Jon Faine, Tony Jones or Waleed Ali to discuss planning or real estate, that’s what planners and real estate agents are for (though why the hell do they get paid so much money??)

    – Denny Crane is a legend.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Anna. A lot of good points in there. A few responses:

      • Architects have been / are definitely guilty of our own impenetrable language. There have been more than a few architecture books I never managed to get through. That said, I think many more contemporary texts, particularly Australian journals, are much more accessible.
      • I’m particularly interested in your idea of expanding the definition of architect to include less highly trained versions. That said, I remember speaking to a friend some time ago about vets, and asking whether there was a similar hierarchy, say one level that could work on your regular household pets, and another that could work on everything from mosquitoes to elephants. My friend’s answer was no, every vet is given the educational foundation to do everything. They then choose to specialise in practice. As you point out, architects are the same: we receive a level educational basis, then choose our direction in practice. I’m not sure if I feel comfortable about creating a hierarchy even before we all graduate. Will it help or hurt us?
      • I’m also interested in your idea of poor design being a basis for de-registration. This would be a major departure for the ARBV, considering the entrance exams don’t even look at design! I certainly think the AIA should take a stance on things like gender equity, volunteer staff etc.
      • I 100% agree about curbing the universities’ preparedness to graduate poor students. Having taught Masters level design for the past four years, I’ve been amazed at both the poor standard of some students at the start of semester, and the faculty’s unwillingness to fail students at the end of it. This needs to change.
      • Why not be the experts Faine, Jones and Ali call? Like it or not, our work overlaps with that of real estate agents and town planners. Our involvement would shift the focus to quality design outcomes.
  3. Interesting article, and mostly agree. We do need to de-mystify architecture in the eyes of the general public… to throw off the cape. Ultimately, we offer a service. The commercial world sees some value in this service.. they use pre-tax dollars. In small residential work (after-tax dollars) people think that hiring an architect to design your house is like getting an artist to paint your walls. We try to change this client by client… but that will take a long time. I don’t think it’s good enough to put an architect on The Block… it needs to be the right architect. The media will often just resort to stereotypes and cliche’s. You are right… we need our own methods and our own media. Wait… isn’t there an institute that’s supposed to do that for us? Ask an Architect is an attempt but its just scratching the surface. I think we can be more creative than billboards and websites… I’ll keep thinking…;). Michael – MSG Architecture – http://www.msgarchitecture.com.au

    1. “Like getting an artist to paint your walls” Nice analogy, Michael.

      By the way, I’m definitely not suggesting we put an architect on The Block. I’m thinking more along the lines of good shows like Boston Legal (lawyers), Suits (lawyers), Californication (writers, and actually an architect), Elementary (detectives), The West Wing (politicians). Architects lead lives just as interesting than all of the above, why not make a show about them?

  4. Architects’ dwindling influence is in also large part due to the fact we are born into architecture, it surrounds all of us, it may not be great but it is familiar. This gives us the impression we understand it and can have influential opinions about it. This is not the case in medicine, or in the law; two professions with similar commitments in education and internship. It is only when architects pierce the comfort zone of the majority do they begin to gain respect, authority, and financial reimbursement equal to their task. Brunellesci complained of the same lack of respect and patronage over 600 years ago. No technical language, union, or legislation will affect the familiarity we all feel with the built environment – even in the face of this relationship leading to ugly, damp, cheaply constructed, examples of uneducated inexperienced self expression.

    1. I never knew Brunelleschi complained of issues of patronage, very interesting. Was this something widespread, or was he just having a whinge because his contemporaries were receiving more commissions than he was?

      I agree with your sentiments about familiarity. I’m certain the general public don’t value the of architects in part because of their (misplaced) feeling that having lived in buildings all their lives, they know how to design one. On a more personal level, in our practice we also find that whenever we prepare fee proposals for potential projects, our most powerful competitors are not other architects, but our potential clients’ decision to either do the job themselves or not at all.

    2. I like the ‘born into’ concept. Particularly with residential architecture… we are always going to be encountering a lifetime of preconceptions related to that persons idea of ‘home’. It’s really hard to put aside years of training and practice to bring yourself back to the fundamentals of comfort, personality, habit and memory.

  5. Interesting post, Warwick! I can only offer comments on the TV side – architect characters do exist in popular shows, but tend to be inaccurate (Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother) or end kind of terribly (Hey Dad). Nina’s mum on Offspring was an architectural model maker, but it never featured in storylines unfortunately.
    Did you ever see Top Design Australia, hosted by Jamie Durie? My uni friend Rob Davidov was on it, unsurprisingly he won almost every single episode and the whole contest (architect vs random amateurs at design tasks, what were they thinking?), but they edited it so he sounded really cocky.
    Also, remember when the RAIA gave acknowledgement to Peter Colquhoun for bringing architecture onto Better Homes and Gardens at the National Awards, but the audience sniggered at him? That was rough. It feels like the snobbery of the architecture community is its own worst enemy.
    On the positive side, Peter Maddison’s Grand Designs was really well received by my design-appreciating accountant cousins. Kevin McCloud has done wonders for our industry!

    I would love to see architect presenters on travel shows, doing short segments on interesting buildings in each city. Archiwalk tours are really popular with all kinds of people, as are the Open House events, so I think it would work. I’d also love to see architects on Q&A, and Masterchef, and Survivor etc .
    They’d have to be charismatic and really really ridiculously goodlooking, to win over the public, like Dr Chris Brown, or Poh. (I’d do it, but you know, busy…) 🙂
    Anyway. Hope you are well!

    1. Great suggestions. I particularly like the idea of architectural segments on travel shows. That would totally work within the existing genre.

      I do have a concern with the Grand Designs model. Since they focus on the story of each project, they concentrate entirely on the client and rarely the architect. In many cases, I feel like the show reinforces all the wonderful things people can do without architects. It works against not for us I reckon.

      1. I seem to remember a lot of episodes of Grand Designs where everything goes wrong and the clients always end up spending gobs more money and wasting more time and living through hell than if they had engaged a professional in the first place? At least that’s what I got out of it!

    2. I meant to mention, Wendy, do you remember years ago when were at some sort of SONA thing in Sydney… We were staying in a hostel in Kings Cross. I recall vividly having a discussion one night about a TV sitcom about architects. Fifteen years on and still no-one has done it!

      Also for your list, other architects on television / in film: Natasha McElhone (Duchovny’s wife) is an architect. Great show. Adam Sandler is an architect in (the surprisingly depressing) Click. I’m pretty sure Keanu Reeves is one too in one of his romance films. Maybe I should write a directory with them all, or a Wilipedia entry.

      1. um… sorry… don’t remember! Were we talking about writing a sitcom ourselves, or that one was in the works?
        What I recall most vividly from Sydney is when Florian kept hassling us to go to the casino and then when we finally got there he slaps a bunch of money on a number in roulette and wins!! It was crazy!!

      1. Well found, Michael. It reminds me a bit of the CPA adverts that keep cropping up here (http://youtu.be/qWoR35r3v4o). Atmospheric, aspirational, focussed on outreach. I particularly like how the CPA campaign aims to broaden the horizon of possibilities for its graduates. They’re essentially trying to reposition themselves within the market, saying they’re much more than just accountants.

        Out of interest, the CPA YouTube channel has 2,200 subscribers. The AIA channel has 97.

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