I am a lawyer because I think like a lawyer.
Human brains are divided into two hemispheres. These two hemispheres see the world very differently. The left hemisphere dissects and analyses; the right hemisphere looks at things holistically. The left hemisphere allows concentrated focus on particular aspects of a problem; the right hemisphere gives wide-angled vision and big picture thinking. The right hemisphere is creative and imaginative, and looks at other human beings as individuals. The left hemisphere enjoys abstract ideas, classifying things into groups, and is always trying to put things (and people) to use. Iain McGilchrist’s brilliant book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009), explores the neuroscience and how people and societies behave when either the left hemisphere or the right hemisphere dominates their view of the world.
It should take just a moment to recognise that the thinking of lawyers is dominated by our left hemispheres. Most of the law I learned at University was out of date by the time I came to practise (including the Companies Act 1989 which never came into force). What your law professors don’t tell you is that the real lessons are not in what the law is, but in how to look at the world like a lawyer. At University and Law School, and in the early years of practice, our brains are being re-wired.
This re-wiring comes with a price. McGilchrist identifies as a fundamental problem that “the left hemisphere is ultimately dependent on … the right, though it seems to have no awareness of this fact.” The left hemisphere view of the world can appear to be a complete view of the world: it is rational, logical, efficient, effective, practical. What could the right hemisphere approach possibly have to offer?
Benjamin Sells ran a successful practice as a psychotherapist in Chicago, specialising in the neuroses of lawyers. As a former lawyer himself, he understood the problem from the inside. In his book The Soul of the Law: Understanding Lawyers and the Law (1994, republished by the American Bar Association in 2014), Sells asks us to imagine that we encounter the Law. Not the laws, those pieces of legislation and case-law that we deal with everyday, but the Law writ large, the Law in person. What is the Law like? what age is the Law?, what gender is the Law?, what clothes does the Law wear?, what does the Law drink?, what are the Law’s eyes like? Through this little thought-experiment Sells reveals that each lawyer carries round in their own head a picture of what the Law is like and, unless we are aware of it, we are slowly turning ourselves into a copy of that picture.
The consequences for our relational and mental health as lawyers are devastating. Law students are almost four times more likely than the general population to suffer from depression and anxiety. Among those who practise law, the rate of addiction is three times that of the general population with more than one in five lawyers suffering from a drinking problem. Our personal relationships fail because we see them in contractual terms. By the time we have been in practice for more than 20 years, more than 80% are unhappy in our jobs.
The objectivity, rationality and abstraction which are the left hemisphere’s established modes of thinking lead lawyers into a quest for certainty, finality and knowledge. We have to be in control! Uncertainty, ambiguity and mystery are threatening, dangerous and out of control. Dissatisfied, failing or facing situations in which we are trapped, the left hemisphere which dominates our thinking can see no way out. We suppress our despair with alcohol, shutting out our emotions rather than addressing them.
Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:5 urges us to take every thought captive to Christ. For lawyers to do that, we must open up our heads as well as our hearts. The first step comes in recognising how the brain-training we have received as lawyers has narrowed our vision of God’s world, of others’ needs, and of our selves. We need to confess that we are a human being not a machine, that we have feelings, that we cannot address our failures without admitting them first to ourselves and then to others, and that we need to invest time and energy in building supportive interpersonal relationships.
The second is to thank God that “the full riches of complete understanding” are to be found in “the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3). There is a paradox here. Complete understanding is to be found by concentrating on the mystery of Jesus Christ. It is in the light of Jesus, whose nature as fully God and fully man and whose death and resurrection we cannot fathom, that we find true wisdom and knowledge. It is by recognising that our ways of thinking as lawyers do not get to the heart of things, that we see deeper into our own hearts.
The third is to cultivate counter-practices to legal thinking, to determinedly include in our lives activities require us to use our right hemispheres: to think imaginatively, to be creative, to enjoy playing for its own sake, and to get in touch with our emotions. Sells and McGilchrist agree that imagination, creativity, play and emotion are all essential not only to our personal lives but also to being healthy and satisfied in our professional lives. Sells urges us: “We must practice law as a musician practices music or an artist practices art.”