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Thinking Analytically (or how not to count to a sextillion)

Sam harvey

With other posts on the Bristows graduate blog having provided such a comprehensive overview of the many facets of the firm, I decided to jot down my thoughts about one particular skill that has proved invaluable so far as a trainee solicitor: the ability to think analytically by breaking down a complex problem into its constituent parts in order to solve the whole.

I spent four years studying physics, which is a discipline that requires a particularly rigorous analytical ability. When I was in first year, I remember a question posed by my tutor at the time in a workshop: were there more atoms in a grain of sand, or grains of sand on a beach?

This was a problem that, despite initially sounding unsolvable, could be reasonably estimated with a few easily obtainable pieces of information and assumptions (thankfully involving zero counting whatsoever!). The size of an average atom is roughly 10-10 m (very small) and an average grain of sand could be assumed to be a cube with sides of 1 mm (10-3 m). Divide the length of a grain of sand by the size of an atom and cube the answer (to account for it being three-dimensional) and we have an answer of around 1021 (that's 1 followed by 21 zeros, or a sextillion). Then, if we imagine our beach is roughly 1 km long, 100 m wide and 10 m deep, it will have a volume of 1,000,000 m3. The volume of a grain of sand is (1 mm)3 = 10-9 m3. Again dividing one by the other, we find that our beach has roughly 1015 (or a quadrillion) grains of sand. Answer: there are more atoms in a grain of sand than grains of sand on a beach.

So why is the above useful for a training contract at Bristows? In short, it isn't. In fact, knowing that there are likely more atoms in a grain of sand than grains of sand on a beach is an entirely useless piece of trivia. However, what is useful is the method used to obtain the answer. It illustrates the point that it is far easier to tackle seemingly complex problems by breaking them down and approaching each aspect methodically.

If you not a scientist, please do not be put-off by the (obnoxiously) numerical example above. While scientific disciplines, by their nature, encourage this type of analytical approach to problem-solving, it is by no means unique to science or scientific problems. Indeed, it is a skill that is highly valued by law firms. Day-to-day, solicitors are asked by clients to find solutions to their problems. These problems are often complex, and so the ability to methodically break them down into smaller, solvable problems, then systematically apply the relevant facts and law is absolutely essential for solicitors.

Interviewers may ask questions designed to test how you think. Take your time and break the problem down: explain what information you need, what assumptions you are making and talk the interviewer through your approach to the problem. The answer is far less important than the process used to get there.
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