The Culture of Law (5): Culture by Agreement

We’ve seen that culture is a matter of individual brain patterning. But how is culture transmitted from one brain to another, so that all brains in a culture have the same wiring?

It begins with a shared experience of cultural formation, which we’ve looked at. After that, culture is reinforced by agreement. Agreement about what? A state of mind.

The following is from an article by Philip G. Chase, former Senior Research Scientist and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, in a collection of scholarly articles entitled Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture.

“Because mental states cannot be transferred physically, they must be transferred by being re-created in the mind of the receiving individual.

“[W]hat is transmitted is some state of mind that produces behavior.

“[The transmitted state of mind includes] a myriad of… beliefs, values, desires, definitions, attitudes, and emotional states such as fear, regret, or pride.”

Law students entering law practice observe lawyers thinking and behaving in ways that characterize law culture — that make it recognizable as such to both members and non-members. Through observation and imitation, they become habituated into cultural norms of thinking and acting, forging implicit agreements about law culture which are reinforced through ongoing experience. In time, they become recognizable as lawyers even when they’re not lawyering. It’s a mindset:  “once a lawyer, always a lawyer.”

The same is true of other professional cultures. Think of accountants, engineers, physicians. Meet one, and you can just tell.

John R. Searle, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, has made a career of deconstructing  about these cultural agreements, beginning with his landmark book The Construction of Social Reality, where he framed his inquiry this way:

“This book is about a problem that has puzzled me for a long time:  there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking about things like money, property, governments, and marriage.

“If everybody thinks that this sort of thing is money, and they use it as money and treat it as money, then it is money. If nobody ever thinks this sort of thing is money, then it is not money. And what goes for money goes for elections, private property, wars, voting, promises, marriages, buying and selling, political offices, and so on.”

“How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?”

Professional culture is not monolithic. In every profession, the cats resist herding. Members of the culture practice some cultural agreements more than others, according to personal preference. We’re not all in the same place on the cultural bell curve. Yet there is undeniably an identifiable mindset that characterizes the culture, and a general consensus about what that mindset is, even if you believe yourself to be an exception. (I have asked workshop participants about this for years, and the list of what characterizes law culture is always the same. You can write it up for yourself, right now, if you like.)

The seeds of cultural change lie in the tension between the general consensus and individual self-perception. More on that coming up.

For a taste of what I mean by cultural norms that make law culture “recognizable as such to both members and non-members,” check out these recent blog posts on “admirable” and “distasteful” lawyer mindsets and behaviors.

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.