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The human 'why' of the legal business

The human 'why' of the legal business


In the rush to embrace new technology, lawyers can forget that what clients are really seeking is a supportive relationship, writes Dr Bob Murray

Why work in law? Why work at all? Why do any activity for that matter? It’s an age-old question. What motivates our behaviours? Philosophers have wrestled with this for millennia, psychologists for a bit less time but with equal, if not greater, fervour.

If we knew the answer, we might also understand the answers to another series of ‘why?’ questions. Why depression? Why stress? Why terrorism? Why theft? Why child abuse? Why divorce? Why alcoholism? Why drug dependence? Why inequality? And a whole string of other rather depressing ‘whys?’.

I am a clinical psychologist and also a behavioural neurogeneticist so I naturally use those disciplines to ponder those ‘why’ questions. And I think I have the one answer to all of them – and it’s really simple.

The answer is: because we are human and because we operate according to human design specs. The main element of our design – about 80 per cent of our DNA and our neurobiology is about this aspect of us in some way or other – is that we are relationship-dependent and relationship-seeking creatures. Law – like any other occupation – is about seeking out and strengthening supportive relationships.Within this supportive relationship-seeking context there are other elements of our behavioural design:

  • We seek certainty, especially certainty in the duration and depth of our relationships;

  • We seek to have an element of control over our lives, or autonomy;

  • We seek to establish trust; and

  • We seek status (often confused with money or wealth) because having status is generally equated with safety since humans – like baboons – tend to protect those of high status.

Collectively these are what we call the ‘CATS’ drivers and the need to satisfy them is embedded in our genes.

Within this framework all of our behaviours make sense. When we hire the services of a law firm we are not buying law, we’re seeking a relationship which will give us CATS. When clients get into a dispute it’s usually because one or more of the CATS was promised but not delivered. When a partner leaves a firm it’s because he or she is not getting one or more CATS (remember that money equals status at this level).

A supportive relationship is a mutual satisfaction of these needs. ‘Belonging’ simply means being in the company of those that give us CATS.

Major depression or anxiety, and a whole slew of other psychiatric and physical disorders, can be signs that the human system has been asked to exceed its design specs. For example, take being fired or laid off from your job (or even feeling the threat that this might happen). Humans are designed for inclusion, not exclusion. Exclusion from our ‘tribe’ (work or other) is extremely stressful for most of us and recent research has shown that being divorced (or being the child of a divorcing couple) or laid off more than once or twice can lead to heart attacks – sometimes even decades later – because of the damage that the stress hormone cortisol has done.

Many criminal acts, including murder and mass shootings, have been traced back to the perpetrator feeling he or she has been excluded by the victims in some way.

The answer to the ‘why?’ is always: ‘Because we’re human, because that’s how our design specs operate.’

This is the real danger posed by AI, electronic communication, and the rest of the goodies that technology is bringing us. By excluding ourselves from face-to-face communication, by denying ourselves the possibility of real supportive relationships, by making ourselves, our colleagues, and our children redundant, we are ratcheting up the stress on ourselves and the outcome will not be good.

The pity of it is that lawyers and law firms are being dragged into being less human and more automated: a desperate race to the extinction of the profession. You automate to make things cheaper and quicker for the client. In the end, the client asks, ‘Why should I pay at all?’

To remain relevant, lawyers will have to realise that they’re not really in the business of law. There’s nothing in the human genome mandating seeking legal services. They’re in the business of being trusted advisers in all fields of human activity. Like the tribal council of elders, they’re in the business of wisdom.

Humans are designed to sit down and talk to a human being who will give them CATS and who they perceive is wise – like many lawyers I know. As wise men and women, humans are programmed to need your services.

This is the human ‘why’ of the business you’re in.

Dr Bob Murray is co-founder of Fortinberry Murray and the co-author of Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership