The Culture of Law (5): Culture by Agreement

We’ve seen that culture is a matter of individual brain patterning. But how is culture transmitted from one brain to another, so that all brains in a culture have the same wiring?

It begins with a shared experience of cultural formation, which we’ve looked at. After that, culture is reinforced by agreement. Agreement about what? A state of mind.

The following is from an article by Philip G. Chase, former Senior Research Scientist and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, in a collection of scholarly articles entitled Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture.

“Because mental states cannot be transferred physically, they must be transferred by being re-created in the mind of the receiving individual.

“[W]hat is transmitted is some state of mind that produces behavior.

“[The transmitted state of mind includes] a myriad of… beliefs, values, desires, definitions, attitudes, and emotional states such as fear, regret, or pride.”

Law students entering law practice observe lawyers thinking and behaving in ways that characterize law culture — that make it recognizable as such to both members and non-members. Through observation and imitation, they become habituated into cultural norms of thinking and acting, forging implicit agreements about law culture which are reinforced through ongoing experience. In time, they become recognizable as lawyers even when they’re not lawyering. It’s a mindset:  “once a lawyer, always a lawyer.”

The same is true of other professional cultures. Think of accountants, engineers, physicians. Meet one, and you can just tell.

John R. Searle, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, has made a career of deconstructing  about these cultural agreements, beginning with his landmark book The Construction of Social Reality, where he framed his inquiry this way:

“This book is about a problem that has puzzled me for a long time:  there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking about things like money, property, governments, and marriage.

“If everybody thinks that this sort of thing is money, and they use it as money and treat it as money, then it is money. If nobody ever thinks this sort of thing is money, then it is not money. And what goes for money goes for elections, private property, wars, voting, promises, marriages, buying and selling, political offices, and so on.”

“How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?”

Professional culture is not monolithic. In every profession, the cats resist herding. Members of the culture practice some cultural agreements more than others, according to personal preference. We’re not all in the same place on the cultural bell curve. Yet there is undeniably an identifiable mindset that characterizes the culture, and a general consensus about what that mindset is, even if you believe yourself to be an exception. (I have asked workshop participants about this for years, and the list of what characterizes law culture is always the same. You can write it up for yourself, right now, if you like.)

The seeds of cultural change lie in the tension between the general consensus and individual self-perception. More on that coming up.

For a taste of what I mean by cultural norms that make law culture “recognizable as such to both members and non-members,” check out these recent blog posts on “admirable” and “distasteful” lawyer mindsets and behaviors.

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for over 30 years. Drawing on insights gathered from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, and psychology, and also from his personal experiences as a practicing lawyer and a “life athlete,” he’s on a mission to bring wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law.

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