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.
It went to press just before Brexit or our own “45”, and as one reviewer concluded:
This marvelous book appears at the worst possible time. It is erudite at a moment when erudition is ridiculed; nuanced at a moment when simplistic idiocies win elections; motivated by a devotion to human flourishing at a moment when “human flourishing” is calibrated in disposable income. But Levin deals in verities, and verities have a long shelf life.
In the spirit of enduring verities, then, a few paragraphs from the book’s concluding pages:
The liberty we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others but also from the tyranny of his unrestrained desires. This is hardly a novel insight of course: Socrates helped his students grasp it twenty-five centuries ago, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are rooted in it. But it is a truth our high self-esteem sometimes makes us forget.
This older idea of liberty requires not only that people be free to choose, but also that they be able to choose well. Such liberty arises when we want to do more or less what we ought to do, so that the moral law, the civil law, and our own will are largely in alignment, and choice and obligation point in the same direction To be capable of freedom, and capable of being liberal citizens, we need to be capable of that challenging combination. And to become capable of it, we need more than the liberation of the individual from coercion. We need a sort of moral formation.
To achieve that formation in a free society–where we do not want the state to direct or compel it–requires that we commit ourselves to more than our own will and whim. It requires a commitment precisely to the formative social and cultural institutions that we have seen pulled apart from above and below in our age of fracture. They are where human beings become free men and women ready to govern themselves.
The family is the first and most crucial institution of moral formation. […]
Work is another crucial means of shaping us for liberty…work also buttresses dignity, inculcates responsibility, encourages energy and industry, and rewards reliability. … To see only its material utility is to imagine that work, like family, could be replaced.
And on nearly the penultimate page of the book:
The most perceptive observers of our society have also long been worried about what Alexis de Tocqueville described as the tendency of democratic individualism to “place men beside one another without a common bond to hold them.” The danger inherent [here] is that of flattening down the layers of our social life so that only loose individuals and a national state would remain. Both Madison and Tocqueville, like many other keen students of American democracy, proposed empowering the middle layers of society [family, schools, work, civic organizations, and most importantly, churches] in an effort to combat these tendencies.
Being a partner–an associate, a business professional, a staff member, a receptionist or a messenger or a copy clerk–in a law firm embodies a social contract. And with it run bilateral responsibilities, privileges, and duties. No one of us is the captain of his ship, the master of his fate.
Happy New Year.