A week or two ago I picked up a copy of David Brooks’ latest, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, and while this is not a book review or anything like it (I confess that I’m just a few chapters into it so far), early on he offers a few observations on our current culture of individualism. None of this is unique to Brooks, and indeed he reels off a veritable bibliography of predecessors who devoted entire books to the concept (six of the nine he listed I’ve read, so perhaps that gives you more insight than you were bargaining for into your editor’s tastes in this area). Among the ones he credits are Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, Gail Sheehy’s Passages, Tom Wolfe’s Me Decade, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.
But this isn’t an essay about sociology, it’s about law firms.
We are all familiar with the powerful, continually relevant, and pioneering work done by Dr. Larry Richard in analyzing how lawyers’ personalities are so markedly different from the population norm, and all the constructive and destructive implications of that reality.
But I’ve always thought we’ve been missing another equally powerful aspect of how lawyers interact with the world. They are individualists to a fault.
If you wonder what I mean by that, indulge me while I borrow generously from Brooks’ introductory discussion of the concept (emphasis original, pp. 10-12):
The buffered self. The autonomous individual is the fundamental unit of society. A community is a collection of individuals who are making their own choices about how to live. The best social arrangement guarantees the widest possible freedom for individual choice. … The ideal society is one in which people live unencumbered but together each doing their own thing.
The God within. The goal of life is to climb Maslow’s hierarchy,… The ultimate source of authority is found inside, in listening to the authentic voice of [your] Hidden Oracle within, in staying true to [yourself] and not conforming to the standards of the corrupt society outside.
The dream of total freedom. In other cultures,people are formed by and flourish within institutions that precede individual choice–family, ethnic heritage, faith, nation. But these are precisely the sorts of institutions that the culture of individualism eats away at …Spiritual formation happens in freedom, not within obligation.
The centrality of accomplishment. In a hyper-individualistic society, people are not measured by how fully they conform to a shared moral code. They are not measured by how fully they have submerged themselves in thick relationships. They are measured by what they have individually achieved. Status [and] admiration follow personal achievement. Selfishness is accepted, because taking care of and promoting the self is the prime mission. … [P]rivate selfishness can be harnessed to produce public goods, such as economic growth.
We all understand, to a fare-thee-well, how this dynamic arose and the powerful centrifugal forces that sustain it. If I back off my 110% effort in the great cause of advancing me, but you don’t join me, who do you suppose is going to win? And swallowing one’s disagreement every once in awhile for the greater collective good is too great an act of self-abnegation for many of us. Tell me what I’m going to get after this year’s books close. There are lots of law firms in this city.
These individualistic traits are highly adaptive and superbly functional in the service of clients. But they are completely at odds with managing a firm as a collaborative enterprise and make a mockery of the enduring ideal of a true partnership. (We still like to worship at the altar of that golden calf, however.)
Yes, some firms remain true to that ideal. They tend to (a) have 85-90%+ of their partners in one city; (b) be single-tier; (c) have rituals and live them with meaning; and (d) are deeply embedded within their cities and communities. Did I mention everyone tends to get paid very very well at these firms?
What would it take for the rest of us to be less individualistic? Usually, I can’t imagine how that would come about; the economic obstacles to collective action seem depressingly insurmountable. And then again, every once in awhile I’m inspired to hope. Because the “you do you” philosophy is a shriveling, desiccating way to live one’s life.
Maybe a few of us will realize this, and maybe a few others will see the possibilities. Maybe.