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Unhappy Lawyers and the Cooperative Hard Wire

Why are We Unhappy?

Maybe it's Because We're Hard Wired to Cooperate

By and large, we're liberal arts majors, right? Theater, film, literature, and art history people. Political scientists, philosophers and sociologists. We like mental puzzles. Not the teasers that undid most of us in math class. No, we like problems that require us to be good at analogies and story telling. To sharpen our Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew detective skills. We're good at figuring out who killed Colonel Mustard in the drawing room. We're born litigators.

And the fighting part? Most of us complain. But it's part of the job so we roll up our sleeves and throw our natural competitive spirit at it. Still, all that good feeling about solving the complicated antitrust problem usually comes to a grinding halt just about the time the opposing brief comes in. I'll admit it if no one else will. I wince when I read these responsive briefs. I mean, I sit at my desk shaking my head and looking at the damn thing sideways as if it would be easier to take if I snuck up on it slowly. Then I pray that they've cited the wrong case, failed to shepardize their most compelling authority, been guilty of the shamelessly misleading ellipsis.

When friends ask me what it is I do during the day if I’m not giving closing arguments to a jury every week like William Shatner does on Boston Legal, I explain it this way: Every morning when I get up, someone else is also preparing for their day. And those people will be dedicating a large part of that day to making me look bad. To finding my mistakes and undermining my opinions. To suggesting that I am -- or directly accusing me of being -- a liar.

"Gee," they respond, "that sounds terrible," before I go on to assure them that I actually enjoy winning and, hey! if you want to win, you've got to suck up a fair amount of losing. At which point they understandably walk away figuring I deserve my lot.

We're Hardwired to Cooperate

So I don't know if it's good news I have to share with you or not. For those pursuing a more cooperative or collaborative legal process, I hope the news is good. Here it is. Neuropsychiatrists who have been taking MRI images of their students' brains during collaboration have discovered that the act of cooperating with another person makes the brain light up with joy. 

Sources:  Emory Brain Imaging Studies Reveal Biological Basis for Human Cooperation; Gintis, Bowles, Boyd & Fahr, Explaning Altruistic Behavior in Humans (2003) 24 Evolution and Human Behavior 153;  Stevens & Hauser,  Why Be Nice?  Psychological Constraints on the Evolution of Cooperation, Trends in Cognitive Sciences;  

Sex Drugs & Rock 'n Roll

The same brain pathways activated when we see photos of decadent deserts, pictures of pretty faces, stacks of money and, well, yes, drugs, also light up when two people are using a cooperative strategy while playing a normally competitive game. Analyzing cooperative brain images, researchers found that two broad areas are stimulated by collaborative behavior -- the first area is rich in the neurons that respond to dopamine -- the brain chemical famed for its role in addictive behaviors -- and the second is the patch of neurons governing reward processing and impulse control.

Why impulse control? Because every time we reciprocate generous behavior, or initiate it in the first instance, we must resist the urge to hoard what we've already got or grab what we'd like to have. If we control that impluse and choose the "right" Darwinian strategy, our dopamie-responsive neurons light up like a pinball machine, rewarding us for enhancing benefits to the tribe.

Anthropologists have puzzled out why we have the urge to cooperate in the first instance and are rewarded by the brain's feel-good circuitry afterward. Survival, of course. It took teamwork for our ancestors to hunt large game; build shelters against the cold; and, tend the fire through those terrifyingly long dark nights. We need each another. Badly.

So as rewarding as individual achievement might be, the singles tennis game is no competition for a soccer match.

What Does This Mean for Lawyers?

Look around your law firm. Are the transactional lawyers actually having more fun putting deals together than the litigators who are tearing them apart? We might learn a thing or two from them. Take a tax adviser or mergers & aquisitions lawyer to lunch this week. Ask her what it feels like to marry Yahoo to AT&T. Maybe the joint venture being documented down the hallway is making someone's else's day a lot more pleasurable than that devastating line of cross-examination will make our own.

What does this mean for hard working litigators? That a creative settlement providing the greatest benefit for the greatest number will not only be good for our clients, it will make all of us, attorney and client alike, lots lots happier. And happy clients are the clients we retain.

And as for all that competitive energy? It's still a necessary component of getting your adversary to cooperate. Tomorrow, we'll discuss why the childhood game and "tit for tat" remains the shortest distance between competition and cooperation.

If you're a lawyer suffering chronic unhappiness, you might also want to check out How Lawyers Lose Their Way: A Profession Fails its Creative Minds.

Comments (3)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
Michael Webster - November 29, 2006 7:26 PM


These studies, like most, fail to distinguish between cooridination and cooperation. In coordinating, I need only know that the other person and I have fixed some convention to sort out our problem, such as traffic signals, line-ups, or some other device. Thomas Schelling showed, in the mid 60's, that arguably some of these conventions were close to being hard wired.

Cooperation, on the other hand, requires us to make accurate guesses about each others preferences, and then act in a manner which may open us up to be taken advantage of. There is very little evidence that we are hard wired to make good interpersonal comparisons of utility - otherwise active listening would not be so hard.

Litigation is a method for resolving each peron's best alternative to negotiation. Sometimes after the costs of this method, there is no surplus value.

The tit for tat solution that you are about to cite must be used with great care - just changing the names of the strategies will often bring about the desired result.

Jacklyn - March 15, 2013 8:30 AM

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Expertise - June 17, 2013 5:43 PM

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