Of chimps and lawyers
Chimpanzees can teach solicitors a thing or two about collaboration and mutual support, as Dr Bob Murray explains
For the last few months I’ve been working with the New South Wales (NSW) Law Society helping it to develop an outreach to lawyers suffering from mental illness.
I have been interviewing lots of solicitors all over the huge Australian state. I have spoken to those working in private practices from the one-person outfits to the likes of Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) with hundreds of partners (not all in NSW); from bush lawyers in the outback barely making a living wage – to the several million dollars-a-year partners in Sydney.
I have conversed with harassed solicitors working for the government or in government agencies to equally harassed in-house lawyers high and low.
My interviewees were chosen at random and I spoke to each of them for over an hour. I am still writing my report and recommendations but there is one overwhelming conclusion I have drawn: lawyers, at least those in private practice, are perhaps the least collaborative of all professionals.
Why is that? As a clinical psychologist and a behavioral neurogeneticist I believe the reason is that many, maybe most, of those solicitors work in ways that are completely out of sync with our design specs as human beings.
Solicitors and chimps
Among the many myths that have gotten us humans into trouble over the centuries is that we are essentially selfish and individualistic, except perhaps in regard to our close kin.
You may recall Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ theory, now largely disproven. Yet the remuneration systems of most of the mid-size and large firms are based on this false way of looking at our kind.
The truth is we are genetically predisposed to collaborate and even to be mutually supportive – under the right conditions.
To understand ourselves better, let me introduce you to our closest relatives: the chimps. Officially, by the way, we have been classed as the same species since 2016.
With them we share the ability and the drive to collaborate with those with whom we have things in common, but not necessarily kinship.
But there are differences between us and our genetic cousins. We are designed to be even more interdependent and collaborative.
Unlike chimps, we more readily share with members of our band and are much more likely to look after sick or injured members of our group.
Whereas a troop of male chimps may hunt together, they are less likely to share the spoils – the winner gets all. Members of hunter-gatherer bands typically shared the results of a hunt or a gathering expedition.
Why should this be? We collaborate more than chimps because, unlike chimpanzees, we are defenseless alone. On the Savannah we cannot survive long without our tribe around us.
Though we are genetically driven to collaborate with people with whom we have a lot in common, there are few things outside our common biology that we naturally share. And even then, we only collaborate well with small numbers of other individuals.
According to Oxford professor Robin Dunbar, the maximum number of individuals that we can have even a mildly collaborative relationship with is 150. Our brains can’t take any more. That’s why most hunter-gatherer (H-G) bands were much smaller (between 10 and 50).
That should make small laws firms potentially more internally collaborative than big ones – and to a large extent that’s true; though in large outfits good collaboration often exists in smaller practice or client groups.
Our ancestors worked (ie hunted and gathered) in small sub-groups of three to seven like modern high-performing teams (HPTs). Lots of research has shown that working groups larger than seven do not function well and certainly are less collaborative.
In fact, H-G bands and HPTs are very similar – they are both intensely collaborative and, crucially, they come to share a lot in common.
Hunter-gatherer bands formed because of common danger or opportunity – they developed commonalities, some immediately, some over time. These commonalities included elements which become a shared ‘culture’ (language, behaviours, beliefs, assumptions, rules, roles and rituals).
We are genetically programmed so that the more of these we share the better we collaborate. The purpose of culture is collaboration and mutual support.
This is presumably why firms in trouble often try to change their culture. It rarely works. Culture evolves and cannot be imposed.
The mechanism of culture (that which drives and sustains it) is the reward neurochemical oxytocin – the bonding and trust drug (often called the ‘love’ chemical). It is one of the major neurochemicals that make up the reward system. The other major player is dopamine which governs pleasure and addiction. Our decisions to collaborate or not are largely based on how much neurochemical reward we will receive from doing so.
In other words, if we like the people we work with and enjoy their company, we will
collaborate well with them. If we don’t, we won’t, and no amount of management and HR pressure will make us do so.
Another thing we share with chimps – and most other mammals – is our curiosity. With humans, like other primates, curiosity is primarily about other individuals.
If we’re not curious about someone; if we don’t want to know about them (not just their work) we’re sending a message: I don’t like you and I don’t therefore have any interest in collaborating with you.
The best rainmakers are those that persuade their clients they want a collaborative, mutually supportive relationship with them. They do this through respectful curiosity, by the questions they ask about the client’s business, their family, their hobbies, their preferred eateries and so forth.
They mutually discover things they have in common. Lawyer and client become committed to each other: it’s a relationship of support and understanding.
Most lawyers, we have found, seem afraid of their own curiosity except when asking questions about ‘the matter’.
Assumptions get in the way of collaboration
Let me give you a truly compelling fact: about 70 per cent of all our assumptions are wrong, according to recent studies. Yet that’s not the worst of it. Another study concluded 90 per cent of all our assumptions about other people are wrong in some way.
We make assumptions about people (and situations) very quickly, often within a fraction of a second; and once made, those assumptions mostly remain unchallenged. It’s called self-verification bias: we hate to admit we’re wrong. Lucky chimps don’t have it.
So, our decision not to collaborate with someone is usually based upon false, often unconscious assumptions about them. We haven’t given them the gift of our curiosity. Go and watch a troop of chimps at Whipsnade Zoo.
Note their almost constant body language curiosity about each other. Chimps make assumptions just as we do, but unlike us they challenge them even on an unconscious level.
An MIT study of high-performing teams found that when they dialogued together the ratio of questions to statements was 7:5. Much of this questioning involved challenging each other’s assumptions. I have watched good lawyers challenge the assumptions of clients. I know few solicitors who regularly ask clients to challenge the solicitor’s assumptions.
Those that do are very successful. HPTs display a great deal of humour when working together, even when asking serious questions. They laugh a lot – as do H-G bands and chimps. We are designed to work together because we enjoy it – the oxytocin/ dopamine effect. When is the last time you heard a lot of laughter in a large law firm?
Dr Bob Murray is a behavioural psychologist with an interest in legal and professional services. Sign up for Dr Murray’s weekly newsletter Today’s Research at fortinberrymurray.com