Professional Paradigms New and Old (5): Why change if we don’t have to?

Why change if we don’t have to?

Good question. I Googled it. The most hits were about the hazards of not changing your car’s oil, plus a few along the same lines about furnace filters or the water filter on the fridge. There was one about changing your underwear, and a few about lifestyle changes related to health issues. All of those are maintenance issues — mechanical, hygiene, health — which we would generally consider have to’s.

What about changing to keep up with the competitive pressures of the marketplace? There’s a lot of keep up with the Joneses thinking out there, but in my observation, making yourself afraid of what the competition might do rarely results in anything other than drama. No have to in that.

Recently, at a CLE workshop in South Carolina, a participant  asked, “Aren’t there some things we don’t need to change?” The question brought me up short, reminded me why we were investing a whole day talking about change:  we were there to enhance professionalism, help us do our work better, keep us ethical, and maybe even help us to be happy practicing law — or find the courage to get out. That’s why we needed to talk about things like law school inflicted brain damage, lawyer substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and suicide, and the value of personal happiness in supporting ethical behavior. Some things are broken and need to be fixed, and some things we do to keep our edge — both are necessary maintenance, part of our professional have to’s.

But there was a second part to my answer. Beyond those maintenance issues, I agree:  let’s not change if we don’t want to. I’m not sure it’s even possible. I do know that grudging change never seems to work.

I say that even though I think and write a lot about change — particularly the psychological and neurological dynamics of personal transformation. (You may have noticed.) If I were still in law practice, I would no doubt be incorporating the not-so-futuristic practice developments into my firm, and otherwise actively engaging with the huge paradigm shift happening in our profession.

But that’s not everybody’s choice, and I get that. They’re content to let those developments play out by the process of cultural evolution. If a day comes that threatens obsolescence beyond mere fear-mongering, it will become a shared maintenance issue, and we’ll take care of it together… but probably not before.

All that went into my answer to the question in South Carolina. Which made me ask myself once again what’s behind my own commitment to change. Bottom line is, I have a personal, real-time, vested interest in change because I’ve been on a steep personal transformation learning curve for nearly a decade — for all sorts of reasons I’ve written about in my books, my personal blog, and sometimes in this column. Thinking and writing about it is my way of being proactive about my own best interests.

More next time on why that’s relevant to this blog.

The Culture of Law (17):  Culture and Meaning

Iain McGilchrist has guided our consideration of brain-based culture. Let’s hear from him one last time:

“Despite the brittle optimism constantly proclaimed by advertising, and not infrequently by government spokesmen, the defining mood of the modern era is one of disappointment. That is not just my opinion; it’s as near a fact as such things can be. People are measurably less happy today than they were fifty years ago, when we first started measuring, despite staggering improvements in material well-being. There is much to feel proud of, of course, advances in conquering disease being just one example, and we live longer — but prompting the question, for what?” From The Divided Brain And The Search For Meaning

“For what?” is a question about meaning. According to McGilchrist, how we answer depends which side of the brain prevails. If the left side, we will focus on being reasonable and rational, on working out utilitarian solutions. If the right, we’ll broaden the discussion to the pursuit of meaning, which has much to do with our own happiness.

Of course, we could avoid the cultural debate altogether, and let cultural evolution take care of it, meanwhile continuing to embrace without examination the cultural norms that make law culture “recognizable as such to both members and non-members” — including behaviors they label alternately as “admirable” and “distasteful.

We could be sedated into thoughtlessness and soullessness by the “staggering improvements in material well-being” our professional offers us in our show me the money moments. Or we could take a contrarian monetary outlook, and embrace the don’t show me the money alternative.

We could argue and debate, and feel righteous about the positions we take, even though what we’re actually doing is defending our neuro-cultural status quo for the sake of our own neurological peace of mind.  Or we could argue “on the other hand” and advocate hacking (in either its outlaw or gentrified character) the law into something more suited to our preferred cultural imperative.

In other words, we could act like lawyers, working one side of the table, then the other. Nothing wrong with lawyers acting like lawyers, especially in matters of the law. But on the topic of law culture, we might want to broaden our inquiry, and entertain the “for what?” question from the fullness of what it means for us to be human, lawyers or not. To make that choice is to end detachment and instead engage ourselves with the meta-issues of our profession. As McGilchrist declares in his wrap up:

“Meaning emerges from engagement with the world
not from abstract contemplation of it.”

The stakes of engagement are higher, and the effort required of us more demanding, than the stakes and effort of detachment. Ultimately what’s at issue is not merely the future context in which law will be practiced by those in the profession — including the entrepreneurial newcomers — or how the profession will be regarded by the public it serves, but the happiness of us all.

We will find meaning in the law for ourselves by creating it through the neuro-cultural collective agreements we wish the other members of the culture to reciprocate. And once those agreements have found their places in our neural pathways, they will go on shaping our culture and us with it, creating meaning in our lives which we will demonstrate through our behavior as lawyers until we become “recognizable  as such to both members and non-members” in our newly re-created profession.

Cultural evolution can’t and won’t give us our future of choice. We can only give that to ourselves by deliberate, focused action which may at times clash with the traditions of our cultural genetic coding.

Engaging with shaping the culture of law will lead us into the search for meaning… if we dare.

Those who dare will make brave choices and commitments, and they and those closest to them will invariably suffer as we and our law culture are neurologically re-shaped. All the while, we will continue to  try cases, negotiate and close transactions, and do all the other things our profession requires all day (and all night) long, but ultimately, we won’t do better for ourselves or others than to create meaning in our law culture, beginning with the meaning we create inside our own skins and skulls.

Those who dare will shape law culture for themselves, their colleagues, and ultimately the world that needs the law to be a living, dynamic, in-spirited agency of human happiness.

Not a bad notion to keep in mind as the holidays are upon us.

The Culture of Law (16):  Hacking the Law (Redux)

If we’re either unwilling to either let Iain McGilchrist’s culture predictions come to pass without a tussle or wait for whatever unpredictable developments cultural evolution might serve up, we need to get proactive. We might try hacking the law and its culture.

“Hacking” has become the new shorthand for initiative, self- improvement, DIY, entrepreneurialism. Take a moment and Google “hacking for better ______.” Fill in the blank however you like:  home, health, money, relationships, law, religion… and you’ll be amazed (at least, I was) at the hits you’ll get. I mean, What Would Jesus Hack in The Economist?! Or how about this Harvard “Hackathon,” staged to solve a problem that has long perplexed (and probably depressed) scholars:

“Legal scholars can spend years or decades researching a topic, then publish an article in the most prominent law reviews and academic journals, only to find the work never reaches public consciousness. In the past the only way to remedy that situation was to get a mainstream news outlet to write about your research…. Now there’s a second option—get computer programmers to build an app based on your work.”

The radical fringe element of the hacking world is still out there:  you find it in the online “hacktivist” collective Anonymous; it’s probably also responsible for the “Die Hipster Scum!” t-shirt I saw the other day. But mostly, hacking has gone mainstream. In fact, it’s been gentrified — so says a brilliant analysis recently featured in online Aeon MagazineHow Yuppies Hacked the Original Hacker Ethos, by radical financial thinker Brett Scott. The whole article is worth a read, but here’s a taste:

“Unlike the open uprising of the liberation leader, the hacker impulse expresses itself via a constellation of minor acts of insurrection, often undertaken by individuals, creatively disguised to deprive authorities of the opportunity to retaliate.

“It’s a trickster spirit, subversive and hard to pin down.

“Gentrification is the process by which nebulous threats are pacified and alchemised into money. A raw form – a rough neighbourhood, indigenous ritual or edgy behaviour such as parkour (or free running) – gets stripped of its otherness and repackaged to suit mainstream sensibilities.

“We are currently witnessing the gentrification of hacker culture. The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class.

“Silicon Valley has come to host, on the one hand, a large number of highly educated tech-savvy people who loosely perceive themselves as rebels set against existing modes of doing business.

“Thus the emergent tech industry’s definition of ‘hacking’ as quirky-but-edgy innovation by optimistic entrepreneurs with a love of getting things done. Nothing sinister about it: it’s just on-the-fly problem-solving for profit.

We need to confront an irony here. Gentrification is a pacification process that takes the wild and puts it in frames. I believe that hacking is the reverse of that, taking the ordered rules of systems and making them fluid and wild again. The gentrification of hacking is… well, perhaps a perfect hack.”

True, the gentrified version of hacking takes the subversive, outlaw edge off, which gives change agents a voice in even the stodgiest forums — including the law. But sometimes we need that edge, and would miss it if it were to vanish altogether.

The Aeon article ends with “Go home, yuppies.”

“Die, Hipster Scum.”

Same dif.

For a fascinating anthropological study of Anonymous, check out Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistle-Blower, Spy:  The Many Faces of Anonymous. And, just for the fun of it, compare the cultural dynamics you see there to a vastly different kind of culture in another anthropological study, When God Talks Back:  Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. Trust me, put those two side by side, and you’ll never think about culture the same ever again.

And speaking of the gentrification of a radical culture, there may not be a more extreme example (hackers aside) than the gentrification of the annual ultra-bizarre cultural experiment know as Burning Man.

We looked at the subversive hacker culture e as an agent of change in the law a couple times in the Future of Law series earlier this year, along with related topics such as the democratization of the law and open source/access. Both the Future and Culture of Law series will be collected in a new book, The Law It Is A-Changin’, to be out in early 2016.

The Culture of Law (15):  An Antidote for a Left-Brain Dominated World

The last of Iain McGilchrist’s predictions:

“We would expect there to be a resentment of, and a deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe and wonder.

“It would become hard to discern value or meaning in life at all; a sense of novelty and boredom before life would be likely to lead to a craving for novelty and stimulation.

“There would be a … downgrading of non-verbal, non-explicit communication. Concomitant with this would be a rise in explicitness, backed up by ever increasing legislation.…

“Visual art would lack a sense of depth, and distorted or bizarre perspectives would become the norm.

“Music would be reduced to little more than rhythm.

“Technical language, or the language of bureaucratic systems, devoid of any richness of meaning, and suggesting a mechanistic world, would increasingly be applied across the board, and might even seem unremarkable when applied to descriptions of the human world, and human beings, even the human mind itself.”

And then, after all this, McGilchrist makes one last, entirely understated observation:

“This is what the world would look like [under left-brained dominance]. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that [this outcome] is within sight.”

Lawyer brains are trained to argue both sides of an issue, and to be dispassionate about it. We can regard McGilchrist’s analysis and predictions that way, but I have to say that, now that I know about brain-based culture as I’ve been describing it in this Culture of Law series, I personally find them chilling — mostly because I wrote a whole blog series on the Future of Law earlier this year which revealed them already playing out at a runaway pace.

McGilchrist published his predictions eight years ago, but spent twenty years researching them before he did so. I hadn’t read them before I wrote the Future of Law series. Now that I have, I see them reflected over and over in that series, in concepts such as the commoditization of the law, the new legal experts, law by algorithm, the focus on task- and systems-oriented expertise. the unmanageable (except by technology) proliferation of law “data,” the predominance of technology as a change agent, the acceptance of technical language as normative, the proliferation of bureaucracy and its endless rules and regulations… and so on and so on.

It seems lawyers, the legal profession, and most importantly the law itself stand to lose a significant “richness of meaning” if these trends are not accompanied with thoughtful reflection on what professionalism means in today’s New Economy. (I wanted to include a link to that term here, but I Googled “new economy” and ended up frozen by the extent of the results;  none rose above the others as fully representative. I therefore invite you to make your own search.)

The future is not a given. The best way to predict the future is still to create it. And the best way to create it is to deliberately, consciously create a newly responsive and sustainable law culture based on thoughtful, whole-brained, human guidance.

Creating the future of law by recreating its culture will require a daring new kind of leadership that will appear at first to be subversive in nature. It has to be that way, because in the absence of subversion, the brain (where culture originates) simply will not depart from its default evolutionary path or risk undermining the cultural vision it already holds as status quo.

We’ll look more at subversive change next time.

The Culture of Law (8): Bleak House and Epigenetics (Really!)

We looked last time at the slow pace and uncertain outcome of evolutionary cultural change. Just how slow is slow? How about no fundamental cultural change in the past 160 years? I’d say that’s pretty slow.

Law professor Benjamin H. Barton opens his recent book Glass Half Full:  The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession with these observations:

“Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House as a serial in the 1850s and published it as a single volume in 1853. It is a blistering assessment of the English Chancery system and remains one of the most trenchant critiques of the common law system.

“Given the bewildering series of technological and societal changes over the last 160 years, there is something remarkable about Dickens’s portrait of lawyers in Bleak House:  it is utterly familiar to a modern reader.

“Bleak House portrays a legal profession little changed from then to now. Dickens describes lawyers meeting in person with clients, or drafting papers, or investigating their cases. English lawyers in 1850 practiced an individualized and bespoke professional service that consisted of paying a lawyer for his time, sometimes in court, sometimes in consultation, sometimes in drafting documents or conducting research.”

If we want change faster than cultural evolution can give it to us, we might try analogizing to another scientific concept:  epigenetics. David Perlmutter, neurologist and author of bestsellers Brain Maker and Grain Brain, describes epigenetics this way:

“Even though genes encoded by DNA are essentially static (barring the occurrence of mutation), the expression of those genes can be highly dynamic in response to environmental influences. This field of study, called epigenetics, is now one of the hottest areas of research.

“There are likely many windows during one’s lifetime when we are sensitive to environmental impacts.

“Epigenetics, defined more technically, is the study of sections of your DNA (called “marks” or “markers”) that essentially tell your genes when and how strongly to express themselves.

“[O]ur day-to-day lifestyle choices have a big effect on our biology and even the activity of our genes.

“Now that we have evidence to suggest that food, stress, exercise, sleep… affect which of our genes are activated and which remain suppressed, we can take some degree of control in all of these realms.”

Epigenetics explains why your kids aren’t like you. They have your DNA, but the choices they make in their contemporary cultural context alternately activate or shut down certain aspects of their genetic coding. No paternity test needed; they’re your kids alright, they’ve just been practicing epigenetics.

By analogy, law students and lawyers who are “sensitive to environmental impacts” — either because their brains are still developing while they’re in law school or because they’re committed to cultural change — have the ability to turn off their Bleak House cultural coding and embrace something new.

And get this:  radical cultural shift doesn’t have to be driven only by technology, which was behind much of the change we looked at in the Future of Law series earlier this year. Instead, cultural change can be driven by “day-to-day lifestyle choices” involving things like “food, stress, exercise, sleep.” Think about that for a minute:  lawyers committed to self-care could turn the whole institution and enterprise of law into a place of brand new vibrancy, creativity, and wellbeing.

That’s not pie-in-the-sky, that’s epigenetics.

In the next couple installments, we’ll look at a topic where lawyers routinely choose historical cultural DNA over epigenetic change:  their paychecks.

Intrigued by epigenetics?  Here’s an entertaining video on the basics. And here’s an overview.

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?