The Anti-Motivation Strategy (Part 4):  Why You Should Never Hire a Motivated Lawyer

aw schools and law firms kill brain cells, impairing the highly-motivated high achievers who populate them from doing what they’re required to do, which is to think clearly and make sound judgments, and in the meantime banishing law students and lawyers to unhappiness and maybe an early grave.

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Why not? Because there’s a good chance that motivated lawyer is cognitively impaired.

In a series in Fall 2014, I looked in depth at the research of University of Denver law professor Debra S. Austin, J.D., Ph.D., and her seminal law review article Killing Them Softly:  Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress And How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance. Prof. Austin’s research findings line up with the Mayo Clinic’s analysis we looked at last time:

“Neuroscience shows that the aggregate educative effects of training to become a lawyer under chronically stressful conditions may undermine the efforts of legal educators by weakening the learning capacities of law students. Stress in legal education may also set the stage for abnormally high rates of anxiety and depression among lawyers.

“The stresses facing law students and lawyers result in a significant decline in their well-being, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Neuroscience now shows that this level of stress also diminishes cognitive capacity. The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition.

“When stress persists for a few hours or days, a law student may experience a bad mood. Longer-term stress can cause stress-related disorders such as panic attacks, anxiety, or depression; the physical effects include increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, irritability, chest pain, abdominal discomfort, sweating, chills, or increased muscle tension.

“Long-term elevated levels of glucocorticoids resulting from chronic stress have been associated with the following physical conditions:

  • Impaired immune response;
  • Increased appetite and food cravings;
  • Increased body fat;
  • Increased symptoms of PMS and menopause;
  • Decreased muscle mass;
  • Decreased bone density; and
  • Decreased libido.

“Chronic stress also produces the following emotional conditions:

  • Increased mood swings, irritability, and anger;
  • Increased anxiety; and
  • Increased depression.

“The impact of stress on law student cognition includes deterioration in memory, concentration, problem-solving, math performance, and language processing. Curiosity is dampened, and creativity is diminished.”

In other words, law schools and law firms kill brain cells, impairing the highly-motivated high achievers who populate them from doing what they’re required to do, which is to think clearly and make sound judgments, and in the meantime banishing law students and lawyers to unhappiness and maybe an early grave.

Law schools and law firms don’t have to disclose all that.
Maybe they should.

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Time For an Anti-Motivation Strategy

By now the flaw in the typical motivation strategy is evident:  motivation becomes its own loop, circles back on itself, becomes its own focus, its own end game. We’re no longer practicing motivation with a performance goal in mind, we’re practicing it for its own sake. Motivation becomes a short-term, stressful preoccupation that hampers sustainable long-term performance. In the meantime, we become tentative, uncertain, indecisive, and unfocused, which means our performance becomes tenuous, weak, and unreliable.

There’s got to be a better way. There is, and we’ll look at it, starting next time.

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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