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 (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.