The Culture of Law (4): Changing Our Default Cultural Setting

“We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking
we used when we created them.”

Einstein

Let’s start this week by revisiting the premise of this series:  “The law of the future requires the law culture of the future. Culture is the context in which the future will occur. If we understand what culture is and where it comes from, we can most effectively shape both the law and its future… if we choose to do so.”

Key words:  If we choose to do so. We might not. Let’s look at what’s going on in our heads one way or the other.

As we saw last time, our brains are patterned with our cultural expectations through the creation of new brain cells (neurons) and new brain wiring (neural pathways).

When we resist cultural change, judge new developments as “bad,” insist the old ways were better, we think we’re making a reasoned assessment of the pros and cons of old vs. new, and we’re convinced our assessment is correct. Maybe so, but the neurobiological reality is that our brains are encountering a new cultural model that won’t run on their existing neurons and neural pathways. Turns out we’re not saving the citadel from the invading hordes, we’re experiencing a brain reality:  hormones secreting and electrical charges firing within our skulls.

Kinda puts the kibosh on the righteousness indignation, doesn’t it?

When we promote cultural change, our brains need to generate new neurons (a process called neurogenesis) and lay down new neural pathways (a process called neuroplasticity). Once in place, this new neurological infrastructure will support the change we want.

Until our brains are rewired to the point where they can find and maintain the internal-external brain concordance Dr. Wexler talked about (see last time), we will continuously revert to our old cultural patterning. This is why we can leave a firm to set up a solo or small firm practice, or launch ourselves on a mission to reform law education. or whatever our focus of change might be, only to wake up one day to find ourselves back in the same culture where we started. We revert and self-sabotage because our brains weren’t rewired to support the change we wanted.

We begin the process of deliberate change with an awareness of what our default cultural setting already is, as patterned into us during law school and our early practice years. I previously quoted Simon D’Arcy of Next Level Culture. Here he is again:  “You cannot change what you cannot accept. Creating a thriving team and workplace culture starts with revealing, acknowledging and embracing your default culture.”

To know where we’re going, we first need to know where we are, which means the cultural beliefs and behaviors, assumptions and expectations currently patterned in our brains. Finding out is an essential exercises in honesty, and honesty requires reflection.

We think we don’t have time for reflection. We want results.

We’ll get results if we take time for reflection.

New culture means new thoughts and behaviors. We won’t have either if our brains haven’t been rewired to accommodate them.  We won’t get anywhere unless we first understand where we are now. And we won’t gain that understanding unless we step back and reflect about it.

That is the inside-out game of cultural change.

The Culture of Law (3): Brainwashed

This is from Wikipedia, on cultural neuroscience:  “Similar to other interdisciplinary fields such as social neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, affective neuroscience, and neuroanthropology, cultural neuroscience aims to explain a given mental phenomenon in terms of a synergistic product of mental, neural and genetic events.”

Heady stuff — quite literally. In this series, we’ll look at all those factors — mental, neural, and genetics.

I know… but stay with me here….

In his landmark book, Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School Bruce E. Wexler declared that “concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.”

That  “concordance” he speaks of is the peace of mind we’ve been talking about. It’s a brain necessity: our brains work on culture all the time. They do this mostly undisturbed most of the time, but not always. There are particularly intense formative periods of our lives when our brains are particular alive to shifting their cultural points of view.

Dr. Wexler speaks of “the importance of a close fit between internal neuropsychological structures created to conform with an individual’s sensory and interpersonal environment at the time of development, and the environment in which the adult individual later finds him or herself.” (My emphasis.) Those “times of development” are the key to cultural creation.

Not surprisingly, one of those times is adolescence, which from a brain point of view lasts until age 25 – 27. New cultural possibilities abound when we come of age, and we make choices from the cultural contexts we are exposed to during that time, literally activating and de-activating genes as we do so. (Which explains why our kids aren’t like us.) Then, during our adult lives, our brains and our external lives settle into creating concordance with our adolescent cultural choices.

That’s exactly what happens to our brains when we enter the legal profession. Think about it:  many law students are under 25-27; nothing personal, but their brains aren’t all there yet. What’s especially missing are the portions that govern learning and sound judgment. (This explains why older law students experience law school differently than students right out of college — something you probably noticed if you were an older student yourself, but probably didn’t if you weren’t.) Add the stress of law school to normal adolescent brain development, and you’ve got culture formation on steroids.

Although older law students have organically mature brains, stress pulls them into a comparable state of adolescent-like brain patterning, in a process comparable to what happens during boot camp. A former Marine Corps drill sergeant told me how they “greeted” new recruits, stomping into their barracks at 3:00 a.m., shouting and cracking whips. “We had to do that,” he said, “Otherwise they weren’t going to survive boot camp, let alone the kind of combat we send them into.” Once they’d been torn down, the newly malleable recruits were built back up — thoroughly enculturated into the Marine way.

Like them, law students younger and older enter law practice (the equivalent of Wexler’s “environment in which the adult individual later finds him or herself”)  with brains primed to reinforce the cultural choices we made in that stressful context.

We lawyers were brainwashed, all of us. No kidding.

For a user-friendly analysis of adolescent brain development, see Change Your Brain Change Your Life Before 25, by Jesse Payne. Jesse is the son-in-law of celebrity psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen. His courtship of Dr. Amen’s daughter required a brain scan conducted by his famous future father-in-law.

The Culture of Law (2): It’s an Inside Job

We tend to think of culture as something external to ourselves — as something out there, set in motion and maintained by the cumulative energy of all those other people we live and work with.

Not so. Culture is not out there somewhere; it’s right here inside us — in our brains, to be precise. Culture isn’t about what everybody else is doing, it’s about our own brain cells (neurons) and the ways they’re linked together (neural pathways), plus all the hormones and electrical charges that keep the brain system running. Culture, in other words, is ultimately a personal biological and neurological reality — an inside job.

In a blog series a couple years ago, I likened law culture to another biological concept:

“Biologist Rupert Sheldrake posits the existence of ‘morphic fields.’

“A morphic field is the controlling energy field of a biological entity – either an individual or collective system. The field is made up of both organic and psychological elements. The field is invisible, but its impact is observable. For example, both genetics (organic) and individual and collective conscious and unconscious factors (psychological) invisibly affect our behavior.

“When we enter the legal profession, we enter its morphic field. Lawyers work in the field of law – get it?  There are certain expectations, dynamics, outlooks, disciplines, judgments, commonly accepted wisdom, urban legends, etc. that come with the territory of being a lawyer.

“In law school, we allowed our psyches to be affected by those things – we learned to ‘think like a lawyer.’ Our neural pathways were literally rewired, our consciousness was altered, and our physiology was affected as well, so that we were biologically and chemically different beings when we graduated than we were when we started. No kidding. This brain- and body-retraining process continued when we went to work.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was describing neurological cultural patterning. No, I’m not making this stuff up, and this series will look more deeply at how all this happens. But now, as we’re getting started, it’s useful to note several very practical implications all this has for lawyer personal wellbeing and career satisfaction. Here’s the short list:

  • As we saw last time, brain-originated culture is ultimately about promoting peace of mind — what one prominent brain researcher calls “concordance.” We have an innate biological need for an ongoing, functional match between how things work in our cultural context and our personal needs and expectations.
  • The culture of law as it existed when we entered the profession becomes our default cultural setting. Our brains, in their pursuit of concordance, continuously seek to reinforce that default culture and conform our experience to it.
  • The trouble is, as much as our brains would like the default to stay in place, the external world is always changing, which stresses our neurological peace, which in turn stresses our personal wellbeing and professional performance.
  • If we want to change our experience of the culture of law to promote concordance, we need to get to that default brain cultural setting and change it, and keep doing so as new stressors arise. To do that, we need to consciously support our brain in developing new neurons and new neural pathways. No kidding.

Coming up, we’ll look at how law culture is shaped in lawyers’ brains, and how our brains keep our default cultural setting in place unless and until we actively exert our power to change it.

The Culture of Law (1): Peace of Mind

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Dennis Gabor, Nobel Prize Winner in Physics

Since the first of the year, we’ve been talking about the future of law. We’ve seen how the practice of law is undergoing a massive paradigm shift, mostly driven by technology, entrepreneurship, and worldwide trends such as democratization and commoditization. We’ve looked at how these forces are changing law practice and lawyers, and we’ve speculated about how all this will ultimately change the law itself.

We’ve seen that the future of law isn’t out there somewhere, waiting to descend on us, but that paradigms shift if and when we embrace them, and that the new normal of the future is ours to shape and own to the extent we choose to engage with it. We can make the future happen, or we can let it happen to us. The former is challenging but rewarding; the latter is a quick trip to curmudgeon status.

I.e., we’ve seen the future, and it is us. Which is why it’s time to talk about the culture of law. The law of the future requires the law culture of the future. Culture is the context in which the future will occur. If we understand what culture is and where it comes from, we can most effectively shape both the law and its future — again, if we choose to do so.

Why would we want to? For our own peace of mind, for one thing. Quite literally. As we’ll see, culture is a brain thing. Culture takes shape in our brains, our brains then shape our minds, our minds shape our behavior, and — voilà! — culture happens. When we’re out of sync with this process, the result is disruption and dissonance in our brains. We become cognitively impaired in a profession that requires all the cognition we can give it.

Peace of mind isn’t a luxury, it’s enlightened self-interest. Cognitive wellness thrives on it. We need it to think, learn, analyze, decide, make sound judgments. We need it to be ethically competent. Successfully engaging with change instead of avoiding and resisting it brings emotional clearing and cognitive clarity, provides a still point from which to view a world apparently spinning out of control. It’s an essential trait of “supersurvivors” — something I’ll talk about in a short series later this summer.

We’ll tend to our peace of mind if we know what’s good for us, and we  usually do.

Before we go on, we need a working definition of “culture.” We’re familiar with the notion of company or firm culture. This is from Simon D’Arcy, founder of Next Level Culture:

“Think of a culture code as the DNA of an organization, carrying within it a code that defines the character and proficiency of the entire organism. Instead of physical traits, tendencies and aptitudes, it influences how people behave with each other, shaping how they work together as well as the results they produce.”

He’s speaking of organizational culture, which we find in individual firms. Expand that idea to the collective, over-arching culture of the profession within which all those individual firms operate, and now you’re at the level of culture we’re talking about in this series.

Culture on this level isn’t just for BigBox and BigLaw, and it’s not about firm outings and casual Fridays. It’s The X Factor — the difference between creating and sustaining the future we envision vs. waking up one day to just another unfulfilling status quo.

Starting next time, we’ll look at how culture is created from the inside out.