The lawyer personality type scores notoriously high on “autonomy.” Certainly compared to average citizens, but even to average white-collar professionals, lawyers are driven to do their own thing their own way. You see it all day every day if you hang out around them, but perhaps one of the purest expressive distillations came in the course of our interviewing many of the partners at a high-end litigation boutique a few years ago.
The engagement had to do with a proposed redesign of the firm’s governance structure, which had been built for what was increasingly becoming clear was an earlier, relatively quaint, era in the firm’s evolution. (The reason I mention that will become clear momentarily.) As part of our background research preparatory to proposing a systematic redesign, we were canvassing partners one-on-one about their lived experience of the firm’s then-current governance model. One of the questions we found helpful was a simple definitional one: “Who do you report to?” And one partner replied:
Although I described the firm as a boutique, it had by the time we worked with them more than one office, impressive revenue (and revenue growth) and had long since transitioned beyond the first generation of leader-founders. It was not, in other words, a baby enterprise, nor by any torturing of the English language capable of self-executing management. Yet here we had this fellow (yes, of course it was a he) proclaiming his unbridled autonomy under the roof of the firm.
This week I finished reading Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s social contract in the age of individualism (Basic Books, New York: 2016), which tracks, in one of the most powerful exercises of intellectual creativity I’ve recently experienced, America’s trajectory from the 1950’s, and the culmination of industrial and cultural consolidation which had been going on since the late 19th Century, into the 1970’s and the “Age of Frenzy,” a degeneration into “a strident individualism[, where] rejection of authority had quickly become the reigning spirit of American culture.” Today this has reached some sort of dysfunctional apogee of “bifurcated concentration,” where wealth and poverty are more concentrated geographically and more separated, both giant and boutique companies flourish, but not the medium-sized factories or locally owned stores, and:
Society consists of individuals and a national state, while the mediating institutions — family, community, church, unions, and others — fade and falter.
But: Today I did not set out to write a book review, nor shall I. All I will say further about Fractured Republic is that it’s the most and original diagnosis of, and prescription for, the tribal polarization that seems to have seized the western world like some giant toxic spasm, that I have encountered.