The Culture of Law (10): Don’t Show Me The Money

It’s not the legal profession’s fault that you can make good money at it. The problem is when we use that as an excuse for personal powerlessness.

Personal powerlessness is when we buy into Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat as a cultural and personal norm that can’t be challenged. We think that way because our brains are running on established cultural neural pathways. There are other options out there, but pursuing them will cost our brains their cherished peace of mind.

We don’t need a research survey to tell us there are other ways to measure value than money, but consider this one anyway:

“Money and prestige aren’t key to career satisfaction, according to findings from a multiyear survey of University of Michigan law grads. Instead, work satisfaction is more closely related to the law grads’ perceptions of the social value of their work and the quality of their relations with co-workers and superiors.”

If you’re willing to try something other than money and prestige, how about…

A Utah lawyer starts a flourishing non-profit law firm, where clients pay based on income.

Or this New York Times story about lawyers who have chosen less remunerative law careers:

“Of the many rewards associated with becoming a lawyer — wealth, status, stimulating work — day-to-day happiness has never been high on the list. Perhaps, a new study suggests, that is because lawyers and law students are focusing on the wrong rewards.

“Researchers who surveyed 6,200 lawyers about their jobs and health found that the factors most frequently associated with success in the legal field, such as high income or a partner-track job at a prestigious firm, had almost zero correlation with happiness and well-being.

“However, lawyers in public-service jobs who made the least money, like public defenders or Legal Aid attorneys, were most likely to report being happy.

“Lawyers in public service jobs also drank less alcohol than their higher-income peers. And, despite the large gap in affluence, the two groups reported about equal overall satisfaction with their lives.”

Some lawyers went straight to these alternatives out of law school, others got there by exiting private practice. That path isn’t for everybody, but if you’re looking for a different option than show me the money, why not? While you’re thinking about it, consider this BigLaw partner’s case against being too enamored with the prospect of making money in the law:

“Becoming a lawyer is a great way to improve your standard of living if you come from a family of poors who thinks rich people “worked for every penny they had.” But if you are a lawyer, your income is pretty much restricted to how many hours you can work in a day. That’s no way to live.”

(“A family of poors”? Hmmm. Never heard that one before.)

Lawyers who opt for greater satisfaction for less pay are bucking a cultural norm that measures value in terms of money, which is in turn a function of hours worked — another cultural value standard. They’ve probably had their epiphanies and are on the Jerry Maguire path, and yes, as we saw last time, they will suffer for it.

And so will those close to them, as we’ll see next time.

The Culture of Law (7): Cultural Evolution: Sweating the Small Stuff

Our Future of Law series earlier this year looked at internal and external trends creating pressure for change in the legal profession. But really… the law has been around for millennia; changes move through it glacially. Can’t we just let things work themselves out in due time?

Sure, of course. Culture is formed in the brain; it evolves there as well. Cultural evolution brings change slowly, eventually, and inevitably. There’s just one problem:   evolution of any kind doesn’t work from a blueprint and doesn’t sweat the small stuff, so you never know where it’s going.

This is from The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, McGill University:

“The evolved architecture of the brain is haphazard and disjointed, and incorporates multiple systems, each of which has a mind of its own (so to speak). Evolution doesn’t design things and it doesn’t build systems– it settles on systems that, historically, conveyed a survival benefit (and if a better way comes along, it will adopt that).  There is no overarching grand planner engineering the systems so that they work harmoniously together. The brain is more like a big, old house with piecemeal renovations done on every floor, and less like new construction.”

As a result, Gary Hatfield, Dept of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania, writing in the introduction to Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture, warns that cultural evolution’s adaptive walk might take us places contrary to our own best interests:

“Cultural evolution can yield significant change in behavior in the absence of biological evolution… Such changes need not be biologically adaptive; as a result, fads, fashions, or random variation, attitudes and behaviors may spread through a population that either have no effect on survival or that actually reduce the fitness of the members of a population.”

(Hmmm, did someone just say “billable hour”? Just couldn’t resist….)

If we’d prefer something other than an unpredictable evolutionary walk to potential self-destruction, we need to get proactive. Again from Dr. Levitin:

“A key to understanding the organized mind is to recognize that on its own, it doesn’t organize things the way you might want it to. It comes preconfigured, and although it has enormous flexibility , it is built on a system that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to deal with different  kinds and different amounts of information that we have today.

“It’s helpful to understand that our modes of thinking and decision-making evolved over the tens of thousands of years that humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Our genes haven’t fully caught up with the demands of modern civilization, but fortunately human knowledge has — we now better understand how to overcome evolutionary limitations.

“This is the story of how humans have coped with information and organization from the beginning of civilization. It’s also the story of how the most successful members of society — from successful artists, athletes, and warriors, to business executives and highly credentialed professionals– have learned to maximize their creativity, and efficiency, by organizing their lives so that they spend less time on the mundane, and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things of life.”

Let’s see…

  • The most successful members of society,
  • [including] highly credentialed professionals [such as lawyers],
  • maximizing creativity and efficiency,
  • spending less time on the mundane,
  • and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things of life….

That’s the rationale for making the effort to overcome the limitations of evolutionary cultural change.

Anybody up for it?

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.