Balancing the Bar

Happiness and the Practice of Law

“How We Decide” – reading and thinking about thinking!

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Some people think having a law license means that you are allowed to act like a bully or worse yet a spoiled child.  When you don’t get your way do you throw a temper tantrum?  This is not effective communication.  Thinking that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is automatically wrong and you are right does not advance your clients case or your reputation.

Our society looks at life through the lens of right vs. wrong.  It affects our politics, our friendships, our government and our profession.   I am finishing the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.  The early part of the book deals with the emotional brain which has its primary fuel dopamine.  The triggering of dopamine is behind many addictive behaviors we see including gambing, drugs, alcohol and even food.  People are in essence chasing that feeling of having too much dopamine released you know the good feeling you get when you win a big case or when you pull the lever on the slot machine and hit the jack pot.

This emotional part of our brain, however is balanced by the prefrontal cortex.  This is the part that rationalizes and reasons for us.  It is a checkmate to the rest of your emotional decision making.  Like an internal lawyer that advocates reason.  Too bad lawyers don’t know how to access their prefrontal cortex more.  Life would be easier for the rest of us.

As with most books on the topic for neuroscience, there is a lot of research discussed, but it is done in an engaging way about practical things from strawberry jam choices to poker.  All to tell you when and why different parts of the brain are engaged in the decision making process.  Many times you use only one part of your brain.  Of course, some of us only use one or the other and must pay for the consequences.

The one example of emotional brain vs. prefrontal cortex is political punditry.  Most pundits (and well, lawyers I know) have a position and don’t really listen to what the other party says.   There is no dialogue.   It is interesting that studies show that this is because we make up our mind about an issue and find ways to rationalize the decision.  This explains why there is so much polarization and so much pandering to extreme groups by politicians and the media in our country. Everyone is defending their position and no one is listening to the other side.

I just wonder how many attorneys out there ever really listen to what other people say and make a decision after deliberative thought and analysis.  So much of our communication is done via email, phone calls,  adversary pleadings and during the heat of a court hearing, are we really connecting with all the mechanisms in our brain? Is this why there is such incivility in the practice of law?  We make a decision and then try to work the facts of our case into the argument, instead of looking at the facts and nudging our client toward a resolution of the matter.  Perhaps this decision making process is at the root of the excess stress and aggravation we all feel.

Ultimately, How We Decide calls for a balanced approach and has some good advice on which part of your brain can be useful in certain situations.  Turns out you can actually be too analytical and buy the wrong car for instance or too emotional and become addict to slot machines.  Who knew you could control which part of the brain is making the decision?  I recommend reading the book to discover more about your own decision making process.   Thinking about thinking is good advice for us all.


Author: Tabitha M. Hochscheid

Attorney since 1995, interested in Attorney Health and Well Being and related issues for lawyers and the general population. Developer and Committee Chair of the Cincinnati Bar Association Health and Well Being Committee.

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